TOKYO - A trip by Japan's foreign minister to Washington to try to soothe strained ties was up in the air on Monday as doubts simmered over whether a feud about a military base will be resolved before a visit by President Barack Obama.
The row over the planned repositioning of the U.S. Futenma air base on Japan's southern island of Okinawa has ruffled relations between the two close security allies ahead of Obama's November 12-13 visit.
The Democrats have pledged to steer a more independent course from Washington, raising concerns about the alliance, long central to security arrangements in a region home to a rising China and an unpredictable North Korea.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano said nothing had been decided about a trip by Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada to meet U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Domestic media said the U.S. State Department had included a meeting with Okada in Clinton's schedule on November 6, but later deleted the item.
I can't allow overseas trips that disrupt parliament, Hirano told a news conference.
It's impossible, unless it's an emergency.
He said the scheduled meeting would have overlapped with debate in the upper house's budget committee, which all cabinet ministers should attend, and denied the difficulties in planning were a sign of discord between the two countries.
The United States has said the 2006 base relocation deal must go ahead as part of a broader realignment of U.S. troops, but Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama wants time to review the deal as promised by his Democratic Party ahead of its landslide election victory in August.
Hatoyama told a parliamentary committee the government was still looking into various options, and declined to say when a decision would be reached.
An anti-base rally in Okinawa planned for Sunday could make it harder for Hatoyama to decide his course on the relocation plan.
While considering various options from the perspective of the people, especially the people of Okinawa, I want to make the best decision as soon as possible, he said.
But we are not at a stage where I can say when a decision will be made, and I do not think that it must be made by the time President Obama comes.
Some analysts said the only choice may be for Japan to accept the original plan to move Futenma's functions to another part of Okinawa, perhaps with slight alterations, but that a decision to do so would require leadership on the part of Hatoyama.
As an opposition party, the Democrats made statements about moving the base off the island or out of the country without really thinking seriously about the options, said Mikitaka Masuyama, professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.
Once they took power, all they can do is make a practical decision ... If there had been another good option, the previous administration would have found it.
The row has cast doubt over the ability of the Democrats, in power for the first time, to govern.
Hatoyama's public support rate fell about 10 points to just over 60 percent -- still high by Japanese standards -- in a weekend poll by Kyodo news agency, on concerns over the government's economic policies and its ties with Washington.
The ousted Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the Democrats' long-dominant conservative rival, has criticized Hatoyama for putting the alliance with Washington at risk.
He must think a little bit more before he speaks and about how his words are making the people in Okinawa worried, and how they could have a big impact on Japan-U.S. ties, LDP lawmaker and former foreign minister Nobutaka Machimura told parliament.
A funding scandal related to the prime minister is another headache for his administration. A poll in October showed some 70 percent of voters unhappy with his explanation of the scandal, in which media said prosecutors are questioning people whose names were incorrectly listed as his political donors.
Media reports on Monday said Hatoyama had also failed to declare 72 million yen ($798,000) in income from selling stocks in 2008.
It was my mistake. I was completely careless, Hatoyama was quoted by Kyodo News Agency as telling reporters. The tax has already been paid, Kyodo quoted an aide as saying.
(Additional reporting by Linda Sieg and Yoko Kubota; Editing by Edwina Gibbs and Jerry Norton)