Thursday, September 3, 2009

Hatoyama Reassures U.S. on Ties

TOKYO -- Incoming Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama moved to assure the U.S. that the relationship between the two nations remains a strong one, an apparent attempt to calm nervousness among some foreign policy experts in Washington over a possible policy shift. Mr. Hatoyama and U.S. President Barack Obama spoke via phone on Wednesday U.S. time, agreeing to build an "even more effective relationship," the White House said in a statement. US ambassador to Japan John Roos, left, and Democratic Party of Japan leader Yukio Hatoyama hold a meeting at the DPJ headquarters in Tokyo. On Thursday, he met with John Roos, the new U.S. ambassador to Japan, for the first time since his Democratic Party of Japan swept into office in a landslide election Sunday. In both conversations, he stressed the importance of the U.S.-Japanese alliance. "The Japan-U.S. alliance is the axis of Japan's foreign policies," Mr. Hatoyama told Mr. Roos during the meeting, according to a statement from the Japanese leader's office. "We would like to further enhance the Japan-U.S. relationship." Many observers of U.S.-Japan relations don't expect major changes but see the potential for subtle shifts. "We've got an unparalleled opportunity here for the US and Japan to sit down and freshen up their alliance within the framework of the old," said Walter Mondale, the former U.S. vice president and Democratic presidential candidate, who was an ambassador to Japan during the Clinton administration. He added, "This would be a good time to look at the relationship with fresh eyes." As Mr. Hatoyama prepares to take office on Sep. 16, Washington faces the challenge of cultivating fresh ties with the untested DPJ after over five decades of dealing with the Liberal Democratic Party, a staunch ally with conservative policies. The DPJ has kept U.S. policy experts on alert with its proposals to renegotiate the terms of the U.S. military presence in Japan and to discontinue Japan's refueling of U.S. warships in the Indian Ocean to support the war in Afghanistan. In its campaign policy pledge, the party said it would seek a "close and equal" relationship with the U.S., a statement largely interpreted as its desire to reduce Japan's reliance on their bilateral national security alliance. Speaking to reporters after his call with Mr. Obama, Mr. Hatoyama said he assured the president the U.S.-Japan alliance is the "foundation" of Japan's foreign policy. The White House said the two leaders also agreed to work together on various areas including strengthen global economic recovery, combat climate change, ensure the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and defeat al Qaeda. Mr. Mondale said the dialogue between the two new administrations could make progress in resolving some lingering issues between the two. For example, it could lead to a resolution to a 1995 agreement between the two to move a U.S. military base on Okinawa to another part of the island. The move has been delayed for years, some Japanese residents there want the base moved altogether. "It's now 14 years later and I believe it's time for the sides to sit down and resolve this issue," said Mr. Mondale, who was involved in the original negotiations. Mr. Hatoyama made a rocky debut in the eyes of some foreign policy experts in the U.S. Some pointed to an essay he wrote that appeared in a Japanese journal last month, in which he described Japan at one point as a victim of U.S.-led market fundamentalism. The essay was later translated and printed in U.S. publications. "That was a huge mistake to publish that piece," said Gerald Curtis, professor of Japanese politics at Columbia University. "I hope he will learn his lesson and that we'll see a much more sensible position." Mr. Hatoyama's camp has said excerpts were taken out of context, and a DPJ spokeswoman said Thursday that the matter hadn't hurt relations and had been blown out of proportion. Mr. Mondale said the dialogue between the two new administrations may lead to changes that strengthen their relationship. "The tone of the relationship needs to be carefully tended to," he said. "I think sometimes when there are tensions in the world, we're not too careful about how abrupt we are in this alliance. It would be good at this time to refresh the relationship and make it clear that the Japanese will get the elbow room they desire."—Daisuke Wakabayashi and Miho Inada contributed to this article. Write to Alison Tudor at and Yuka Hayashi at

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