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A Sea Change in Japanese Politics

Author: Sheila A. Smith, Senior Fellow for Japan Studies
September 6, 2009
Honolulu Advertiser

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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 eager to move forward and a diplomatic agenda that requires an earlier rather than later articulation of his new government's foreign policy goals.

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.

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