By Sheila A. Smith

HONOLULU (Sept. 6, 2009)—Last Sunday’s historic electoral victory for the Democratic Party of Japan not only energized Japanese politics, but also renewed debate over the future of the U.S.-Japan relationship. Although the primary focus of the DPJ leadership has been on domestic challenges rather than foreign policy throughout its 11-year effort to build a viable second party for Japan - one that could challenge the half-century rule of the Liberal Democrats - the question of what the DPJ’s foreign policy stance will be, including its views on defense issues, now tops the list of concerns in the U.S. and elsewhere.

DPJ President Yukio Hatoyama has little time to waste. As he prepares his new government, Japan’s prime minister-to-be is confronted with a Washington anxious to move forward and a diplomatic agenda that requires an earlier rather than later articulation of his new government’s foreign policy goals. Some of the key issues include:

Familiar Themes in the U.S.-Japan Alliance

From outside Japan, it is unclear whether or not the DPJ will usher in a new era for the U.S.-Japan partnership. Clearly, Japan’s own domestic transformation will impact the United States, and as a DPJ-led government seeks to transform governance practices, the management of our alliance must also undergo some adjustments.

Most obvious is the critique of past practices regarding the U.S. military presence in Japan. Issues such as the Status of Forces Agreement that governs the U.S. military’s presence in Japan, as well as “Host Nation Support“ - the funding offered by the government of Japan to U.S. forces - have been raised as possible targets of DPJ reform.  The DPJ has also pointedly indicated its differences with the troop realignment plan currently under discussion, specifically the handling of the relocation of Marine Air Station Futenma in Ginowan City, Okinawa.  Like many Okinawans, the DPJ has suggested that this base should be moved away from Okinawa rather than to a less populated area on the island’s northern coast, as is suggested in the current plan.

Likewise, the DPJ’s critique of Japan’s participation in refueling ships involved in U.S. antiterrorism efforts in the Indian Ocean nearly derailed this operation in 2008. However, a major thrust of the DPJ’s criticism was the Japanese government’s lack of transparency rather than the value of the mission itself. Thus, many of these issues focus on procedural questions of legislative oversight and transparency in public policy, rather than a fundamental challenge to common U.S.-Japanese goals and interests.

New Japanese Priorities

Nonetheless, there are signs that the DPJ is interested in shifting Japan’s diplomatic priorities, and this has raised some eyebrows in Washington. Of particular note was an op-ed that ran in the International Herald Tribune on August 26, four days prior to Japan’s election.  Entitled A New Path for Japan, and penned by Mr. Hatoyama, it critiqued American-style “market fundamentalism” and argued that Japan’s “sphere of being” was Northeast Asia.

This new vision for Japan proposed not Asian regionalism -- the enhancement of networks and institutions for multilateral dialog -- but rather Asian regionalism à la Europe, complete with a regional security mechanism and a shared currency. 


One essay does not make a foreign policy, however, and Mr. Hatoyama’s immediate efforts to reach out to the United States have reassured many that, for now, Washington should take a deep breath and wait to see how relations develop before jumping to any hasty conclusions about the future of the alliance.

A full global diplomatic calendar will also push the new Japanese government towards greater clarity. As prime minister, Mr. Hatoyama is expected to attend the UN General Assembly and the G-20 summit in September.  Undoubtedly, in the midst of this flurry of global gatherings Japan’s new prime minister will meet with President Obama to reinforce the trust-building optics for the bilateral U.S.-Japan relationship.

These early days of the new Japanese government will be crucial, not only for establishing the first real effort at political transition in postwar Japan, but also for building the global partnerships that will sustain Japan’s future.

More is at stake here than our bilateral relationship. Japan and the United States play critical roles in global governance institutions that face a monumental agenda, including the global recession, the threat of pandemic disease and the immediate need for concerted action on climate change.  Early nerves aside, Mr. Hatoyama and Mr. Obama must lead their governments beyond past irritants and toward a vision for a better future for our two societies in these very trying times.

Sheila A. Smith is Senior Fellow for Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and an Adjunct Fellow at the East-West Center. She can be reached at [email protected]  This commentary originally appeared in The Honolulu Advertiser on Sept. 6, 2009.


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