Amid Tensions, Japan Already Won America's Respect

Since Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama took office two months ago, anxious Washingtonians have worried that Japan's new administration will wreck one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world. Things got messier after Hatoyama, who was already misunderstood as an anti-American, pursued his campaign pledge to renegotiate the relocation of a controversial Marine airfield in Okinawa. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was so miffed that he refused to be wined and dined by his counterparts during his visit to Tokyo last month. Shortly after, The Wall Street Journal warned of a "widening gap in the U.S.-Japan security alliance" and criticized Hatoyama for "putting on a kabuki show on defense." Washington seemed unwilling to put up with Tokyo's new attitude. Or so it seemed.

But in the run-up to President Barack Obama's arrival in Tokyo Friday—the first leg of his first trip to Asia—things changed. The rhetoric vanished, bonhomie prevailed, and Obama—who is expected to refer obliquely to Okinawa during his meeting with Hatoyama—will punt on the problem for the purpose of cooperation on climate change, nuclear nonproliferation, and Afghanistan. (Tokyo pledged this week it will dole out $5 billion in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan over the next five years.) These countries may someday strike a deal on Okinawa, but what's more important for Hatoyama is that he already got what he wanted most: respect. (Article continued below...)

Japan now realizes that Washington needs Tokyo as much as Tokyo needs Washington. Also, Hatoyama is fulfilling his promise to cultivate an "equal" relationship with the United States. That's not to say the allies will become equal powers in strength or responsibility, of course. It just means that the Japanese get to "candidly express their views," in the words of Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada, and have the Americans hear them out. And when the Japanese feel they've gotten that, they can restore the relationship to its former coziness.

That may sound like pablum to American ears, but it's a big deal for docile Japan. When it came to diplomatic and security issues, it used to be that Washington did the talking and Tokyo did the listening—and Japan saw itself as the obedient little brother who catered to American demands. Subservience felt inevitable because of Tokyo's dependence on the U.S. for security (it has a pacifist constitution) and its longstanding paranoia about whether the Americans really cared about Japan. (During the 1990s, Tokyo was petrified that Washington's "Japan bashing" morphed into "Japan passing," when President Bill Clinton didn't stop by Tokyo on his nine-day visit to China in 1998. The British expressed a similar fear this year.) That's why, in 2003, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was quick to support the Iraq war; Tokyo worried it wouldn't get American help on North Korea if it didn't stand by its principal ally.

But the new premier is having none of that. When Gates went to Tokyo, he berated the Japanese for their indecision and insisted they reach a verdict on Okinawa before Obama's arrival. (He even threatened that Tokyo's insistence on the matter would unravel an agreed plan to move some 8,000 Marines and their families from Okinawa to Guam, among other things.) Hatoyama refused to budge, saying he'd defer a decision until next year, and declared a "comprehensive review of the alliance"—without prior consultations with Washington.

And at what price? None. Washington stopped acting exasperated and decided to accommodate (or at least put up with) Japan's new attitude, at least for now. Last week, Jeffrey Bader, the director for East Asia at the National Security Council, told an audience in Washington that Hatoyama's review of the alliance is "welcome." Bader also scoffed at a quote by an anonymous senior State Department official in The Washington Post that stated that Japan was a greater challenge than China, calling the quote "asinine." Earlier this week, Bader even announced that the United States is "prepared" to build "a more equal partnership" with Tokyo.

This is a classic case of good cop/bad cop (the White House and the State Department are the good cops, and the Pentagon is the bad cop). But whatever outcome the two sides extract, what's clear now is that Tokyo no longer wants to be a servant of the U.S., and that Washington is willing to listen and be patient with Tokyo's newfound swagger. And that while Tokyo still views the U.S. as its most important partner, it will no longer see the alliance as a zero-sum matter and sacrifice its other agendas in Asia. (That explains why Hatoyama, in defiance of diplomatic protocol, will leave Obama behind in Tokyo so he can arrive on time for the opening reception of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation's leaders meeting in Singapore on Saturday. Obama will catch up with the meeting the next day.) Most of all, the lesson for both countries is that they can get what they want—meaning Hatoyama will already have fulfilled a part of his campaign pledge—with almost no cost: the United States will almost certainly get its base in some satisfactory form, and Tokyo will remain a reliable ally, and all that symbolic squabbling will soon be forgotten.