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The Honolulu Advertiser

By Richard Halloran

Posted on: Sunday, January 17, 2010

Japan hastens to repair rift over Okinawa

 • Base services facing cuts

The Japanese have a ritual called "hana-michi," which literally means "path of flowers" and in practice means to allow a defeated adversary to make a graceful exit.

The term comes from the kabuki theatre. A trounced opponent, whether in a sword fight or social conflict, is permitted to dash down a ramp called the "hana-michi" running through the audience, to stop to flourish his sword or hands in defiance, and to disappear out the door.

It appears that the government of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama in Tokyo, after having caused a serious rift in the Japan-U.S. alliance, has begun to move down a "hana-michi" to seek a graceful exit from the ensuing turbulence. In that "hana-michi," the Hatoyama regime is evidently being abetted by President Obama's administration.

The split between Tokyo and Washington was rooted in an agreement between previous administrations in the two capitals under which U.S. forces in Japan would be realigned. A contentious provision in the agreement would have a U.S. Marine Corps air station in the crowded town of Ginowan on the island of Okinawa moved to a less populated place on the island.

The Hatoyama government, in effect, reneged on the agreement even though the pact had taken 13 years to negotiate. Senior officials in the Obama administration, notably Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, were taken by surprise and visibly disturbed. Most important, muttering seeping out of Washington held that the Japanese had betrayed the trust of the Americans.

Things went from bad to worse from mid-September, when Hatoyama took office, until year-end. Then, from Japanese press reports, Hatoyama officials became aware that they had severely damaged Japan's relations with the U.S., especially in security. They began seeking repairs that would not make them lose face before their constituents.

That led Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada to make a hastily arranged trip to Honolulu last week to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was stopping in Hawai'i on her way to the South Pacific. They talked for 80 minutes, which meant little over half an hour with translation. Okada did affirm that his government was committed to resolving by May the issue of the Marine air station in Okinawa.

(Instead of going on to Australia, Clinton turned around and went back to Washington to help with relief efforts in Haiti.)

To embark on its "hana-michi," the Hatoyama government has asked the U.S. to engage in new, wide-ranging discussions about the U.S.-Japan alliance even before settling the Futenma problem. Somewhere in those talks, the Japanese evidently hope to escape from the impasse they have caused. Clinton has agreed.

Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Kurt Campbell suggested the rationale for the new discussions during a press briefing before Clinton left Washington. In recent weeks, he said, the message from Tokyo "has been that the government of Japan needs more time to work on these issues, and our response has been that we believe that this is the best approach."

At the same time, Clinton reiterated the Obama administration's position that the best way to resolve the Futenma issue would be for the Japanese government, despite political opposition at home, to abide by the agreement already reached.

In a subtle way, Clinton indicated that Japan had been demoted a notch in the eyes of Obama officials. Until now, Japan has been singled out by Republican and Democratic administrations as "the cornerstone" of U.S. security in Asia. In a policy address after meeting with Okada, Clinton said "the cornerstone" of U.S. involvement in Asia rested on "alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, Thailand and the Philippines."

Few people anywhere understand subtlety and indirection so well as the Japanese.