Don't Stress about Japan's New Prime Minister

For half a century, the United States and Japan have been pals across the Pacific. Whenever officials from both countries meet, they almost always hail the U.S.-Japan alliance as "the cornerstone" of America's foreign policy in Asia and boast how it is "one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world." But the ouster this week of the party that has governed Japan since 1955—and the arrival of a group that occasionally badmouths America's role in the region—has frightened people that the happy days have come to an end. They should relax. (Story continued below...)

By all appearances, the signs are bad. The incoming Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has pledged to take an independent line with Washington—and has consequently petrified observers that it will undermine the military alliance between the two largest economies of the world. During the election campaign, the DPJ said it would stop a program in which Japanese vessels refuel U.S. warships in the Indian Ocean for the war on terror, and that they would renegotiate the relocation of a controversial Marine airfield in Okinawa. Another worry is that, by forming a coalition with leftist parties, the DPJ's foreign policy will be hampered by them. But what especially ruffled feathers in Washington are the excerpts of an essay by Yukio Hatoyama, the presumptive prime minister-elect, which appeared in the op-ed pages of The New York Times late last month. At first glance, it reads like an anti-American rant by an antiglobalization activist; it elicited an editorial in The Washington Post earlier this week warning that Tokyo shouldn't "seek a rupture with Washington."

The paranoia is understandable, given that a complete change of administrations is virtually unprecedented in Japan; it just happens to be wrong. Washington and Tokyo will surely have their difficulties—the Indian Ocean refueling program chief among them—but the fact is that Hatoyama isn't at all the radical he appears to be. For one thing, his essay was excerpted largely out of context from a longer Japanese manuscript. The gist of the entire essay was that Hatoyama wants to address the darker effects of globalization rather than reject it altogether. In fact, he admits in the Japanese version of his essay that "in today's age we cannot avoid economic globalization."

For another, Hatoyama is hardly anti-American. In his younger days, he was an aspiring academic—what lured him into politics was the exuberance of American patriotism he witnessed at the 1976 Independence Day parade while he was a student at Stanford. In 1998, he told a seminar promoting Asian cooperation that he is "a big fan of America." Hatoyama is also one of the first Japanese politicians to embrace Barack Obama. He borrowed the president's mantra of change during his own campaign, and just minutes after his party's victory was secured last Sunday, Hatoyama said he wants to follow Obama's lead on global "dialogue and cooperation."

The main source of hand-wringing across the Pacific is simply that the DPJ still hasn't outlined its foreign policy (it could take months), and its cabinet members won't be announced for another two weeks. As journalists and pundits scour for clues on the their foreign policy, the fine print in the DPJ's manifesto has been overlooked in favor of more inflammatory campaign promises, such as the Indian Ocean program and a possible reduction of the American footprint in Okinawa. But critics fail to note that the DPJ foresaw this problem and specifically swore to "determine its role with the United States and actively fulfill Japan's global responsibility."

The same could be said on its economic policy. For sure, the DPJ would pursue a more welfare-centric policy, but it hasn't rejected free trade and globalization outright. For all of Hatoyama's blunt criticism of the inequalities globalization has wrought, the DPJ has also pledged to "promote liberalization of trade and investment" and pursue free-trade agreements with the U.S. and Asian nations.

Another cause of the misunderstanding is the DPJ's vague language—namely its wish to create "a more equal" relationship with Washington. Officials and experts in both countries are confused with what, exactly, "equal" means. Katsuya Okada, the DPJ's secretary-general (and a possible candidate for foreign minister), offers some explanation. "Trade and economic negotiations with the U.S. have long been on an equal footing where both sides candidly express their views," he says, "but the same can't be said about security talks." Meaning, the DPJ would still put great emphasis on the alliance, but at the same time they no longer want Tokyo to be seen as Washington's lapdog. (The DPJ has criticized previous administrations for blindly supporting the war in Iraq, as well as signing off on an agreement with Washington in which Japanese taxpayers would pay $6 billion to relocate some 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam.)

In the end, as happens in every democracy, the big ideas of the campaign will soon meet the realities of governance, and the DPJ's rhetoric will cool down as it adopts more pragmatic and flexible policies. The harsh talk may have been therapeutic to many Japanese voters frustrated with its government's subservient posture toward Washington. But the fact, as most Japanese realize, is that the nation is next door to two communist regimes, China and North Korea. Both are nuclear powers with opaque intentions. With neighbors like those, Japan can ill-afford to alienate its primary ally (and the one that provides its nuclear umbrella). It's also obvious that the foreign-ministry elites wouldn't give the DPJ a free hand to make radical changes—Tokyo's diplomatic corps has a long record of supporting the alliance at all costs. Already, the DPJ is considering a plan to dispatch humanitarian-assistance personnel from the government and the private sector to Afghanistan in exchange for withdrawing the Japanese refueling ships. Which suggests that the DPJ's campaign promises were driven more by populism than by strategic thinking.

For the time being, Washington would do well to be patient and to bear in mind mistakes the U.S. government made in South Korea. In the early days of Kim Dae Jung's and Roh Moo Hyun's presidencies, American officials and experts stirred suspicion and resentment in Seoul by overreacting to the transitions of a new administration. "The negative reaction from the Americans is counterproductive," says Hideshi Takesada, executive director of the National Institute for Defense Studies, the research arm of the Defense Ministry. "It just plays into the hands of the liberals in Tokyo, who would then have an excuse to say, 'Why would we want to play nice with people who don't even trust us?' If the Americans really think the relationship is important, they should have a little more faith." If Washington can't show that trust, it would mean the alliance was merely a clubby friendship between Washington and members of the ousted Liberal Democratic Party—and that the U.S.-Japan relationship wasn't as strong as advertised after all.