Connect to share and comment

Obama in Japan: Reassuring an old friend

America's first "pacific president" extends a hand. But it's not all smiles.

U.S. President Barack Obama is greeted by Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko upon arrival at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo Nov. 14, 2009. (Jim Young/Reuters)

TOKYO, Japan — It was a speech that managed to lift the gloom on a wet, windswept morning.

Speaking to a packed concert hall in Tokyo on Saturday, the U.S. president, Barack Obama, assured his hosts that the estrangement of the Bush era was over. Japan and the U.S., he declared, are “equal partners.”

Calling himself “America’s first pacific president,” Obama ended the first leg of his nine-day visit to Asia with a foreign policy address that went some way towards calming fears in Japan that its importance is diminishing in the eyes of a White House administration eager to improve ties with China.

In a speech that took in North Korea’s nuclear program, Burma’s human rights record and climate change, Obama reaffirmed Japan’s centrality to U.S. engagement in Asia, as both countries seek a cohesive response to China’s growing economic and military strength.

"Our efforts in the Asia Pacific will be rooted, in no small measure, through an enduring and revitalized alliance between the United States and Japan," Obama said.

He added: "I want every American to know that we have a stake in the future of this region, because what happens here has a direct effect on our lives at home. The fortunes of America and the Asia-Pacific have become more closely linked than ever before.”

It is an upbeat message he will repeat later this week in Singapore, China and South Korea. But in Tokyo, optimism is tempered by a simmering dispute over the future of the U.S. military footprint on the southern island of Okinawa, home to just over half of the 47,000 American troops based in Japan.

As GlobalPost reported in August, the election of a center-left government in Tokyo led by Yukio Hatoyama has cast doubt on a 2006 agreement to close the sprawling Futenma Marine Corps base in Ginowan, central Okinawa, and build a replacement in Nago, a town in a less densely populated part of the island.

The transfer of 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam by 2014 – a $10 billion plan, two-thirds of which would be paid for by Japan – will only happen if a replacement is found for Futenma.

Hatoyama, who, like his American counterpart was elected on a promise of radical change, is committed to reviewing the plan as part of his blueprint for a new foreign policy less beholden to the wishes of the U.S.

A potentially embarrassing confrontation over Futenma was avoided after Obama agreed to set up a high-level working group to discuss the base’s future. Hatoyama, meanwhile, softened the blow of his decision to withdraw Japanese naval ships from a refuelling mission in the Indian Ocean with a pledge of $5 billion dollars in aid for Afghanistan.