It’d be wise to think about Japan

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HONG KONG — U.S. President Barack Obama has so many things on his plate — including a spreading oil spill that threatens America’s fisheries and wildlife, Democratic Party prospects in the midterm elections, the jobless recovery, repercussions of the financial crisis, relentless war in Afghanistan, fresh strife in the Middle East and how to deal with the emerging mega-power China — that he probably does not want to be bothered with the petty domestic squabbles of a fading economic power in East Asia.

But it is high time that the U.S. president give serious attention to Japan, which so far he has failed to do. If he is wise, in the next few weeks Obama will take the initiative and announce that his administration, in cooperation with the government and people of Japan, will re-examine its overall military force deployment in Japan in the context of the vital U.S.-Japan security agreement.

He shouldn’t make specific promises until negotiations, but he at least can recognize Okinawa’s burden of hosting half the 48,000 U.S. troops based in Japan.

Obama probably muttered good riddance when Yukio Hatoyama suddenly quit last week as Japan’s prime minister after only eight months on the job. An unnamed White House official had described Hatoyama as “loopy,” and many Japanese would agree.

Hatoyama fought back tears in announcing his resignation, but few people will shed tears for him. He brought on his own downfall. He failed to show leadership, or even basic political sense, not only over the decision on the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Okinawa, but also on a range of issues. The Japanese people recognized this, giving him only a 17 percent approval rating by the end of May — down from 74 percent after the sweeping election victory of the Democratic Party of Japan last August.

Indeed, his resignation speech was Hatoyama’s finest hour. He managed to ensnare “Shadow Shogun” Ichiro Ozawa in his resignation embrace, with Ozawa promising to step down as DPJ secretary general along with his backroom henchmen. If Ozawa relinquishes the party post as well as the role of kingmaker, it could be a huge advance that loosens the reins on the new prime minister.

Hatoyama gave Ozawa more than a shove toward the exit when he said, “I told him, ‘I’ll resign and I want you to resign, too. This will enable the party to create a new DPJ and a clean DPJ.’

“He agreed, saying ‘I understand.’ Our politics must break with money. We must become completely clean in order to revitalize our party.”

Ozawa, however, chose most of the DPJ Diet members for last year’s election, so he may be reluctant to surrender real power.

Hatoyama’s other parting shot was his hope that “Someday, the time will come when Japan’s peace will have to be ensured by the Japanese people themselves.” This reflects the dangerous mix of dream and illusion that tempts Japanese politicians to act on their view that Japan’s independence is threatened by its reliance on the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

The supreme irony is that after Hatoyama broke his promise about moving the Futenma base outside Okinawa Prefecture and signed the deal with Washington, which left the 2006 agreement on Futenma intact, he resigned, leaving his successor to deal with the details and repercussions of implementing the deal.

The White House, U.S. State Department and Pentagon officials have shown a shallow understanding of the stakes by repeating that the Futenma deal is between the two governments — not between particular politicians — and by parroting the line that the U.S.-Japan security agreement is the keystone of the two countries’ relationship.

Some commentators, both Japanese and Americans, believe that even the revised deal that Hatoyama reaffirmed over the relocation of Futenma cannot be implemented, not least because opposition within Okinawa is too strong. It is no longer a question of a handful of opponents who will be directly affected; it has become something of a crusade among tens of thousands of Okinawans that the islands have suffered enough from war and that they don’t want American troops around any longer.

Japanese realists acknowledge that in the modern world few countries can rely entirely on their own defenses. Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew pointed out recently that Japan is just too small to be a counterweight on its own to the burgeoning political, economic and military might of giant neighbor China.

China has recently flexed its muscles for Japan even as economic links between the two countries are growing rapidly. When Chinese naval vessels were on training maneuvers in international waters near Japanese territory in April, Japanese vessels went to check and were buzzed by a Chinese military helicopter. China’s ambassador in Tokyo blamed Japan for unneighborly conduct in checking on the Chinese fleet.

Economic ties with China are becoming so strong that it is inconceivable that any DPJ government will change course. There is too much Japanese trade and investment in China at stake and potentially too much Chinese tourist income for Japan.

If Obama insists — as his aides have — that Japan must implement the Futenma deal in the face of rising opposition and demonstrations in Okinawa, Tokyo may back away and the whole U.S.-Japan partnership could be at risk. It would be better for Obama to show statesmanship in advance by offering some consolidation of U.S. bases hosting air force, navy and marine forces, and demonstrating respect for Okinawa’s burden.

Who knows, if Washington tried, it might work out a better deal both for itself and Japan instead of having another volcano blow up in its face.

Kevin Rafferty is author of “Inside Japan’s Powerhouses,” a study of Japan Inc. and internationalization.