U.S. and Japan Disagree Over Okinawa

Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama swept into power in August promising voters a "more equal" relationship with the U.S., raising concerns in Washington that its erstwhile Pacific ally would drift away. Now it looks as if the Obama administration is doing what it can to push Japan away. Hato­yama's campaign promised to reduce the footprint of the 47,000 U.S. troops on Okinawa--a message intended for the home audience that hardly represented an imminent threat to U.S. strategic interests in Asia. Yet last week U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates bluntly demanded that Tokyo live up to an agreement to relocate forces to a new U.S. air base on the island. Gates's "openly hostile" message, says Asia Society associate fellow Ayako Doi, was that "you better deliver something when the time comes."

So what happened to the Obama team's vaunted willingness to listen to allies? Gates's pique reflected Pentagon frustration with delays on the Okinawa issue, a desire to resolve the matter before Obama visits Japan in November, and internal Washington wrangling over overseas bases. It also reflected the kind of gaiatsu--external pressure--that Washington has exerted on Japan for decades, without recognizing times have changed. Ha-toyama's party came into power after 54 years of nearly unbroken LDP rule, and he staked his name on establishing a more independent Japan. So even if this issue is resolved, he may need to send a signal at home: the U.S. can't kick Japan around anymore.