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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 2, 2010

Japan, U.S. relations unraveling

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By Richard Halloran

The Japanese just don't get it. No, that's not quite right. Rather, it should be said that Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and his inexperienced partners in a hapless coalition just don't understand that they have severely damaged the trust between their government and the U.S. administration of President Obama. In so doing, they have blithely ignored the serious harm they have done to the security of their own country.

A telling clue: When Hatoyama was in Washington for the nuclear summit in April, he was limited to a 10-minute talk with Obama and that during a state dinner. This was evidently the first time a Japanese prime minister visiting the United States did not have a full meeting with the American president since President Harry Truman and Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida signed the peace treaty in San Francisco in 1951 to end World War II.

Hatoyama has caused this breakdown by singlehandedly tearing up a 2006 agreement worked out by Japanese and American negotiators over 13 years of tedious exchanges. It was intended to ease frictions generated by the U.S. military presence in Okinawa. American troops have been on the island since they captured it during World War II.

Specifically, a U.S. Marine air station at Futenma in the middle of a crowded Okinawan city was to be moved to a less populated area and 17,000 Marines, civilian staff and dependents were to be shipped to Guam, the U.S. territory in the central Pacific. Land in Okinawa used by the U.S. now was to be returned to its Okinawan owners as bases were consolidated.

Hatoyama's reneging on that carefully wrought agreement has violated a long-standing international practice in which agreements made by a particular government are considered binding on successive governments. In this case, Hatoyama has called into question his intention to honor diplomatic agreements, not only with the U.S. but with other nations.

Hatoyama and his ministers have been flailing about as they have sought a revised base plan that would be acceptable to the U.S., the Okinawans and various political factions in Tokyo. For weeks, Japan's newspapers have floated one idea after another, each from a different politician and none seeming to point to a solution.

Moreover, Hatoyama has appeared incapable of political leadership. Last weekend, 90,000 to 100,000 Okinawans demonstrated to demand that the Marine air station be moved elsewhere, preferably off their island. Hatoyama and his cronies stood by wringing their hands, neither supporting the demonstrators nor telling them they were wrong.

At the bottom of this dispute are two contradictory elements: American military forces on Japanese soil and the dependence of Japan on the U.S. for its national security.

No nation has long welcomed foreign troops on its sovereign territory, no matter the reason. In this instance, that is compounded by the disparity between Japanese and American cultures and the difficulty of communicating when the Japanese and American English languages are so different.

At the same time, the Japanese live in a hostile neighborhood. Chinese leaders see Japan as a dangerous competitor. Koreans, South and North alike, make little effort to hide their dislike of the Japanese. Russia has been a foe for at least 150 years. Only Taiwan in East Asia would be friends with Japan but the Taiwanese must tread carefully lest rival China become belligerent.

Only the U.S. offers Japan a defense against both conventional and nuclear attack, a conclusion supported by most of a small cadre of Japanese strategic thinkers. In recent years, their refrain has been that Japan should show more independence in foreign policy but within the context of the alliance with the U.S.

Those U.S. forces in Okinawa provide the bona fides of that American commitment.