TOKYO - Japan's new leader and Washington's envoy bonded over a football helmet on Thursday as they sought to allay concerns about their alliance after an election win by Yukio Hatoyama's party, which has pledged a more independent diplomatic course.
The prospect of a Democratic Party administration in Japan, ruled for most of the past half-century by conservatives who put the U.S. partnership at the core of their security stance, has raised worries in Washington about a tilt away from the alliance.
Most analysts say no huge shift is in store after Hatoyama takes up the premiership on September 16, but investors are also concerned about a possible rocky road ahead.
Eager to soothe concerns, Japan's next leader and the U.S. envoy to Tokyo stressed shared interests on Thursday -- including memories of college days.
We talked about the very deep relationship between the United States and Japan, U.S. ambassador John Roos said after a meeting that began with a chat about their common alma mater, Stanford University, and American football while Hatoyama displayed a red and white helmet inscribed with an S.
We spent a lot of time talking about how to enhance and further deepen that relationship across a broad range of issues, not only strategic issues, but scientific issues, cultural matters ... because the two countries have shared values and shared interests, Roos told reporters.
We have lot of work to do but we are going to do it together, added Roos, a lawyer and major donor to President Barack Obama's campaign, who assumed the post last month.
The meeting followed an early morning phone conversation in which Hatoyama sought to reassure Obama that the relationship would stay central to Tokyo's diplomacy.
I told him we think the U.S.-Japan alliance is the foundation (of Japanese diplomacy) and I would like to build U.S.-Japan relations with eyes on the future, Hatoyama said.
The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) pledged in their campaign platform to create a more equal partnership with Washington while forging warmer ties with Asian neighbors such as China.
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The U.S.-educated Hatoyama also raised eyebrows in Washington with a recent essay, published in English, in which he attacked the unrestrained market fundamentalism of U.S.-led globalization. He has since sought to play down those comments.
U.S. officials including Roos himself, however, have raised eyebrows in Tokyo by forcefully reiterating Washington's position that deals on U.S. forces in Japan were not up for renegotiation.
Obama needs to send a message to the whole administration to bite their tongues or they will provoke a fight, said Columbia University professor Gerry Curtis.
The internal politics of the DPJ and its coalition don't allow them to just walk away from his platform a few days after the election. But give them a few months and there will be ways to deal with these issues.
The Democrats, themselves a mix of former members of the Liberal Democratic Party that ruled for decades, ex-socialists and younger conservatives, are trying to form a coalition with two tiny parties, including the leftist Social Democrats, whose support is needed in parliament's upper house.
The new ruling party has said it wants to re-examine an agreement governing U.S. military forces in Japan and a deal on rejigging U.S. troops under which about 8,000 Marines would leave for the U.S. territory of Guam and a Marine air base be shifted to a less populated part of the southern island of Okinawa.
Asked whether the party still wants to move the Marine base at Futenma away from Okinawa, instead of to the north of the Okinawa island as Tokyo and Washington have agreed, Hatoyama said: This issue can work out only after wishes of the Japanese and U.S. governments and people of Okinawa come together.
I understand this won't be solved quickly, but we are not changing our thinking, he said, adding that building a trusting relationship with Obama was important when seeking a review on the future of U.S. military bases in Japan.
Few analysts expect a Democratic Party government to make big changes in the alliance, given Japan's reliance on the U.S. nuclear umbrella to protect it from such regional threats as unpredictable neighbor North Korea.
But Washington would do well to avoid a strident tone in talks with Japan's government-in-waiting, some analysts said.
Japan is so heavily reliant on the United States that radical change is not going to happen, said Koichi Nakano, a professor at Tokyo's Sophia University.
But American senior officials taking such a haughty stance after the Japanese people have spoken in favor of a change of government is not diplomatically very sound.
They have to be careful. They don't want a backlash.
(Additional reporting by Yoko Nishikawa and Yoko Kubota; Editing by bill Tarrant)