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The rising sun also sets

How do the election results change US-Japan relations?

Japan's Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama (L) and his wife Miyuki (2nd R) pose with President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama as they arrive at the Phipps Conservatory for an opening reception and working dinner for delegation leaders at the Pittsburgh G20 Summit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Sept. 24, 2009. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

NEW YORK — As if Barack Obama doesn’t have enough foreign policy headaches, the United States now faces the prospect of trouble in Asia from a surprising quarter: Japan.

For decades, since the post-war U.S. occupation of Japan ended in 1955, successive governments in Tokyo have had three things in common: a willingness to host American troops on their soil, a dependable streak when it comes to supporting U.S. foreign policy positions on the international stage, and the fact that they were run by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Well, that party’s over, folks. The general election on Aug. 30 ousted the LDP and, in the month since, it’s clear that some of their more radical foreign policy platforms were more than just campaign bluster. For the first time since Douglas MacArthur returned sovereignty to Japan, the government in Tokyo thinks Japan’s tendency to say "Yes" to 99 percent of Washington’s requests should be revisited.

Foundations in Asia

The new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, has insisted Japan will continue to rank America as its most important ally. But he wants to hedge Japan’s bets, proposing a regional security pact with China and other Asian powers.

"Current developments show clearly that China will become one of the world’s leading economic nations while also continuing to expand its military power," he wrote in the International Herald Tribune just before his victory. “How should Japan maintain its political and economic independence and protect its national interest when caught between the United States, which is fighting to retain its position as the world’s dominant power, and China, which is seeking ways to become dominant?” Some of the answers taking shape in his first month in office suggest a major readjustment of ties with Washington.

He has opened an inquiry into the status of American forces in Japan, on the alleged existence of secret military “pacts” with Washington regarding nuclear weapons, and has said the day may soon come when Japan — like China, the Gulf Arabs and other American creditors — may tire of writing blank checks to underwrite the U.S. national debt.

These reviews go far beyond questions that have surfaced in the past — for instance, whether a U.S. sailor who rapes a Japanese girl should be tried by our military or Japan’s courts. In U.S. military terms, these are existential questions about the future of bases on Okinawa and the Japanese main islands which form the basis of all American strategic thinking in Asia.