- The Washington Times - Friday, November 13, 2009

TOKYO | President Obama’s arrival here Friday will mark the latest in a series of diplomatic overtures intended to improve relations with a country his administration considers a critical U.S. ally for both economic and military reasons.

But Mr. Obama’s already delicate job became that much harder when speculation surfaced this week that an American was at fault in a recent hit-and-run accident that killed a 66-year-old Okinawa man. Thousands participated in recent protests against the American military bases on the island, and more are expected to rally during the president’s two-day visit, the first stop on Mr. Obama’s first Asian tour as president.

“We all know the United States is a country where human rights are respected. But on this tiny island, Americans trample on our human rights,” said Koichi Makishi, a local architect and longtime anti-base activist in Okinawa. “President Obama has been very popular in Japan, so we have very big expectations of him. Unlike his predecessor, former President George W. Bush, we believe President Obama will listen to us.”

While personally popular in Japan, the president’s arrival comes as tensions have once again flared over the United States’ military presence on Okinawa. And despite Mr. Makishi’s expectations, the American president is not likely to say anything that will allay his, or his country’s, concerns.

The American military has increasingly come to value the prime island real estate, even as the presence of 50,000 service personnel throughout the country has proven a persistent thorn for many Japanese. What started as an irritant to Okinawa locals — noise from jets and helicopters, unruly behavior by Americans wandering off base — grew into a full-fledged crisis in 1995 when three servicemen brutally raped a 12-year-old Okinawan girl.

The episode forced a lengthy renegotiation of the American presence on the island and, eventually, led to a 2006 agreement to relocate a Marine helicopter base to an offshore facility and the relocation of some 8,000 Marines to Guam. The Japanese in turn agreed to pay more than $6 billion of the $10 billion moving costs.

But new Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and his Democratic Party of Japan campaigned on a promise to alleviate the burden created by the U.S. installations, and have expressed a desire to renegotiate the 2006 agreement in order to force the Americans to move the Marine air base.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates delivered the initial U.S. reaction to Mr. Hatoyama’s position, and it did not go over well in Japan.

“This may not be the perfect alternative for anyone, but it is the best alternative for everyone, and it is time to move on,” Mr. Gates said.

Katsusuke Ihara, a former mayor of nearby Iwakuni, called the comment “impolite.”

“The U.S. and Japan agreed with the realignment plan without explaining it to residents,” he said. “The will of voters should be respected.”

American officials have since tried a different approach: stall.

“It is very much bound up in domestic politics in Japan now,” said Michael Swaine, Chinese security and foreign policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The president, he said, has decided to give Mr. Hatoyama and his aides “time to get their ducks in line.”

In the meantime, Mr. Obama will use his visit to try and build a rapport with Mr. Hatoyama, who ran a Western-style campaign that adopted many of Mr. Obama’s own themes.

The decision to have the president deliver his first major speech on Asia policy at a concert hall in Tokyo is just the latest gesture meant to show Mr. Obama’s interest in rekindling relations with Japan. Taro Aso, Mr. Hatoyama’s predecessor as prime minister, was the first foreign leader welcomed to the Obama White House, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made Japan her first foreign destination.

Mr. Obama has plenty of personal capital to work with here. When the Pew Research Center conducted a survey of global attitudes toward the U.S. over the summer, an overwhelming 85 percent of Japanese citizens said they were “optimistic” about Mr. Obama’s leadership.

Rust Deming, who holds the Japan chair at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, said Mr. Obama is wise to be trying to capitalize on both his own popularity and the first significant change of party control in Japan in 50 years. Mr. Obama has “a lot of points in commonality” and an “ideological convergence” with the new prime minister,he said.

But Michael Green, a former top adviser on Asia policy in the George W. Bush administration and now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, warned that the base issue will prove too prickly to ignore.

“This one will only get worse with time,” Mr. Green said.

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