Noda pro-U.S. but past remarks may haunt Asia ties

by and

Staff Writers

While Japan-U.S. relations will remain the cornerstone of the nation’s diplomacy under the leadership of Yoshihiko Noda, the Democratic Party of Japan’s newly elected president and the nation’s next prime minister, his past comments on war criminals could strain ties in Asia, analysts said Monday.

Noda, the son of a Ground Self-Defense Force member and a self-proclaimed political conservative, stirred controversy recently when he reiterated his views that Class-A war criminals were not, in fact, war criminals. His remarks drew harsh criticism from South Korea.

Noda submitted a written question to the government in 2005, when the DPJ was still in opposition, in which he wrote that the honor of the Class-A criminals has been recovered in a legal sense, and that they are, in fact, not war criminals.

He restated his stance during an Aug. 15 news conference, adding that there is also no merit in asking a prime minister not to visit Yasukuni Shrine, the Shinto facility that honors the war dead as well as several Class-A war criminals.

Noda did not clarify whether he will officially visit the shrine in his capacity as prime minister. Past visits to the shrine by conservative Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers have caused outcries from China and South Korea.

“Noda will need to be careful when commenting on topics such as the Yasukuni issue, Japan’s war crimes and the right to collective self-defense,” said Yoshimitsu Nishikawa, a professor of international relations at Toyo University.

Nishikawa said that since Noda is the son of a GSDF member, he is likely to take a firm stance on territorial issues, such as the Senkaku Islands, and that China and South Korea will be closely watching.

The islets in the East China Sea are administered by Japan but claimed by both China and Taiwan.

A fierce territorial row erupted last September when a Chinese trawler had a run-in with Japan Coast Guard vessels trying to shoo it away from the Senkakus.

But Noda, who was finance minister at the time, took a mild tack, calling for calm on both sides and saying worsening relations would be bad for the economies of both nations, which are important trade partners. It remains to be seen how he deals with such issues when he becomes prime minister.

Koichi Nakano, political science professor at Sophia University, said Noda must be careful in projecting Japan’s position when engaging its neighbors, although he said that in light of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, the nuclear crisis and the struggling economy, creating a stable government would be his priority.

Regarding relations with the United States, Noda is expected to be warmly received by Washington. He is generally perceived in Washington as a pro-U.S. alliance member of the DPJ, and a favorite of conservative, hawkish U.S. policymakers and media outlets who favor a tough approach toward China.

His support earlier this year of Japan’s continued purchases of U.S. Treasury notes also won him praise in Washington and New York financial circles.

Noda’s support of a 2006 agreement between Japan and the U.S. to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma farther north on Okinawa Island is likely to be greeted warmly in Washington.

“Noda will form a firm Japan-U.S. alliance and follow the LDP’s policies regarding the Okinawa base issues,” Nishikawa of Toyo University said.

But Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, in a statement released Monday afternoon after Noda’s victory, reiterated his opposition to the plan.

“I want Noda to present a detailed, effective plan for reducing the burden of U.S. bases in Okinawa. As for Futenma, we want to seek its relocation outside Okinawa Prefecture,” Nakaima said.

At the same time, however, Noda’s past comments indicate he might resist any additional U.S. pressure to increase Japan’s financial commitments on the issue.

“I don’t oppose moving the marines to Guam. But why do we have to pay for it, especially when we face a recession? The moving cost is ridiculous,” Noda wrote on his website in May 2006.

In an agreement with the U.S. to move 8,000 marines from Futenma to Guam by 2014, Tokyo in 2006 agreed to shoulder about $6.1 billion of the $10.2 billion relocation cost.

But over the past year, the U.S. Congress, seeking defense cuts and concerned about the lack of progress over the move, has slashed funding for the plan, throwing its prognosis for completion into doubt.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates that the cost of carrying out the relocation could top $15 billion, raising fears in Tokyo that cash-strapped Washington will call upon Japan to increase its financial support at a time when the nation faces massive rebuilding costs from the March 11 disasters and the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant crisis.