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Does Japan still need the US?

Expect big changes in the world's "most important bilateral relationship." Will it matter?

School children wave flags during a visit by Japan's Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko to Kapiolani Park in Honolulu, Hawaii, July 14, 2009. (Hugh Gentry/Reuters)

TOKYO — If the polls are correct and Japanese voters put an opposition party in power on Aug. 30, the consequences will be felt well beyond the country’s political nerve center in Tokyo’s Nagatacho district.

The expected election of a new administration led by the Democratic Party of Japan [DPJ] could herald a major reconfiguration of the Japan-U.S. alliance, described by the former U.S. ambassador to Japan, Mike Mansfield, as “the most important bilateral relationship in the world.”

The DPJ has promised a radical overhaul of Japan’s defense ties with Washington. The time has come, it says, to craft a more independent diplomatic identity — and that means no longer acquiescing to the wishes of its powerful ally.

The bilateral alliance — buttressed by the U.S. nuclear umbrella — has been the defining feature of Japan’s postwar foreign policy.

Now, though, a disgruntled electorate is on the verge of voting in a party that has vowed to end Japanese subservience to the U.S., even as the world warms to the new inclusiveness of the Obama White House.

“There are various issues of concern between Japan and the U.S.,” the DPJ’s second in command, Katsuya Okada, said recently. “If Japan just follows what the U.S. says, then I think as a sovereign nation that is pathetic.”

Japan’s role in Afghanistan and the U.S. troop presence on Okinawa are expected to act as litmus tests of the direction the alliance could take under a DPJ administration. While its leader, Yukio Hatoyama, has retreated from a promise to immediately end a Japanese refueling operation in the Indian Ocean, he is not expected to extend the mission after it expires in January.

Early indications are that Washington will offer little resistance to a Japanese withdrawal from the war effort in Afghanistan, provided it replaces logistical support with greater humanitarian and economic assistance.

Instead, the real potential for friction centers on the fate of thousands of U.S. Marines based on Okinawa.

Well over a decade of delicate negotiations to reduce the American military footprint on the island culminated in a compromise that will see 8,000 Marines transferred to Guam by 2014 and the Marines’ Futenma airbase, in the overcrowded city of Ginowan, relocated to Okinawa’s west coast.

Again, the luxury of opposition has allowed the DPJ to skirt questions about the strength of its commitment to the biggest realignment of U.S. troops in Japan for decades.