WASHINGTON – A recently released U.S. congressional report embraced President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Hiroshima as a manifestation of a robust relationship between the United States and Japan.
The report, by the Congressional Research Service, Congress’ nonpartisan research arm, also focused on the upcoming Upper House election in Japan, as well as possible detrimental impacts on the planned relocation of a key U.S. military base in Okinawa from a criminal incident involving a former U.S. Marine.
“The strength of the bilateral relationship was on display during President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima in May 2016,” it said, in reference to the May 27 pilgrimage to the world’s first atom-bombed city in western Japan.
Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima when he traveled to Japan to attend the annual summit of the Group of Seven industrialized nations in Mie Prefecture on May 26 and 27.
“Obama’s visit appears to have been widely welcomed by the Japanese public, who expressed in multiple opinion polls that they did not expect an apology,” the report said.
As for the stateside reaction to the visit, the report noted that criticism “appeared muted,” despite some anticipation that it might trigger a political backlash.
The United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, and a second one on Nagasaki three days later. Around 210,000 people are estimated to have died as a result of the attacks by the end of 1945. Japan surrendered on Aug. 15 of the same year, bringing an end to World War II.
The report also said the July 10 House of Councilors election in Japan will be a litmus test not only for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition ally Komeito, but also for opposition parties.
“The election will also give an indication of whether Japan’s struggling opposition parties can mount a credible challenge to the LDP coalition,” it said.
While noting that the Upper House is less powerful than the House of Representatives, the report drew attention to whether the ruling coalition will be able to grab a two-thirds majority in the upper chamber — a threshold that would clear the way for amending the nation’s Constitution.
“If the elections give the LDP coalition a ‘super-majority’ of two-thirds or more of the Upper House’s seats, Abe will cross the numerical threshold that is necessary to more easily control the chamber, including for votes on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement,” it said.
“Also importantly, a two-thirds majority theoretically would give Abe’s coalition the votes to pass amendments to Japan’s Constitution, including the war-renouncing Article 9 that Abe has said he would like to change,” it said.
The coalition would need a two-thirds majority in both the 475-seat Lower House and the 242-seat Upper House to put forward a proposal for rewriting the supreme law that would then be put before the people in a referendum.
The ruling parties have such a majority in the Lower House and hope to also clear, with the cooperation of some small parties, the two-thirds mark in the Upper House.
Turning to the U.S.-Japan plan to transfer the U.S. Marine Corps’ Air Station Futenma within Okinawa, the report cast doubt over whether progress will be made soon after the murder and rape of a 20-year-old woman in Okinawa, allegedly at the hands of a civilian U.S. base worker who was formerly a Marine.
“Concerns remain about the implementation of an agreement to relocate the controversial Futenma base on Okinawa due to opposition from the local population, particularly after the May 2016 murder of an Okinawan woman,” allegedly by a former Marine, it said.
The report pointed out that a recent resumption of talks between the central and Okinawa Prefectural governments on the base issue may have made Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga more confident that the cause of his anti-base campaign will eventually prevail. A deal to restart the talks included suspending landfill work at the base relocation destination.
“The Abe administration may see this agreement as a way to strengthen its hand in enforcing Okinawa’s compliance with the base relocation in the future,” it said.
“On the other hand, Onaga was able to buy more time before the main phase of construction begins, and he may believe that he can convince either Tokyo or Washington to abandon the current Futenma base relocation plan during this period of renewed negotiations,” it said.
The central government seeks to relocate the Futenma base from a residential area of Ginowan to the less populated Henoko district of Nago within Okinawa as a key part of a broader bilateral agreement to realign U.S. military forces in Japan.
The report also touched on a row between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and a recent incident in which a Chinese naval vessel for the first time sailed in a contiguous zone just outside Japanese territorial waters near the uninhabited islets.
“The territorial dispute between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea continues to roil relations between the two nations,” it said. “Developments in the first half of 2016 indicate that the fragile equilibrium of the past three years could be disrupted,” it said.
“Although the Chinese vessel did not violate international law, some Japanese officials nevertheless interpreted the act as a unilateral escalation intended to pressure Japan,” the report said.
China and Taiwan both claim the Senkaku Islands, calling them Diaoyu and Tiaoyutai, respectively. China stepped up its claim after Japan purchased a major part of the islands from a Japanese individual and put them under state control in 2012.
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