By Elizabeth Finan Staff Editor November 23, 2009

Is the sun setting on America’s alliance with the Land of the Rising Sun?

Is the sun setting on America’s alliance with the Land of the Rising Sun?

The newly elected Japanese government has been unusually assertive in dealing with the United States, a trend that has worried some American officials.

The main issue of contention is a 2006 base realignment agreement. As part of the deal, 8,000 Marines currently stationed in Okinawa would be relocated to Guam, while the Futenma Marine base located in the southern part of the prefecture would move to a less-populated area in the north. New Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, however, campaigned on reducing the U.S. presence in Okinawa, which is home to 75 percent of U.S. bases in Japan; he would like to see Futenma relocated out of the prefecture or even out of Japan entirely. As a result, his government has refused to sign off on the agreement.

American officials have been taken aback by this Japanese obstinacy. In a visit to Tokyo last month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates pressured the Japanese to approve the agreement, saying that changing the terms would be “immensely complicated and counterproductive.” And in a move that many observers viewed as a snub, Secretary Gates declined to attend a reception at the Defense Ministry and to meet with ministry officials.

But despite the recent tensions between the Americans and the Japanese, the U.S.-Japan alliance is in no danger of breaking down. The backbone shown by the Japanese in standing up to the United States does not indicate a lack of commitment to the partnership, but, rather, it is a result of domestic politics on the archipelago.

Until this fall, Japan was essentially a one-party system. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) enjoyed over 50 years of nearly uninterrupted rule, entrenching itself in the bureaucracy of the nation and facing no real opposition. Japanese citizens accepted this governance during the boom years, but after more recent corruption scandals and a stagnant economy, they became disenchanted with what they deemed an out-of-touch LDP.

Enter Hatoyama and his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Promising to shake up the government, the DPJ pledged to make Tokyo more accountable to the people by reducing politicians’ reliance on the bureaucracy to make policy. Voters responded by rewarding the DPJ with a landslide victory. Whether Hatoyama will follow through with his promises remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain: an era of competitive politics has begun.

Now that Japan has two strong political parties, each will have to work hard to earn the voters’ trust. As the LDP’s loss demonstrated, the Japanese will no longer tolerate an unresponsive government. So when 20,000 people protest the U.S. bases in Okinawa, as occurred earlier this month, the DPJ—if it wishes to remain in power—has to show its attentiveness to public opinion. Unfortunately for the United States, this means that cutting deals with the Japanese is going to be more difficult.

The Hatoyama government also wants to maintain Japan’s relevance on the global stage. Not only did Japan just experience its worst recession on record, but a looming demographic crisis, as well as China’s rapid rise, threatens to dethrone Japan as the world’s number two economy. These facts do not sit well with most Japanese, who have long prided themselves as being Asia’s superpower.

So, when Hatoyama speaks of forming an East Asian trading bloc, when Japanese diplomats publicly contradict U.S. officials, or when DPJ officials declare their desire to have a more equal partnership, the government is not trying to upset the United States. It is simply trying to show its constituents that Japan can play hardball with the big boys.

Given Japan’s pacifist constitution and the North Korean threat, Hatoyama and his ministers understand the importance of the security alliance with the United States. When President Obama visited Tokyo last week, Hatoyama called the alliance the “foundation of everything in regards to Japan’s diplomacy.” The leaders pledged to work together to bolster the partnership and address issues such as climate change and nuclear disarmament.

As one of Asia’s strongest democracies, Japan will always have more similarities with the United States than differences. America should not overreact to the grandstanding across the Pacific by shunning the Japanese completely or by kowtowing to their every demand. Rather, the United States should quietly engage Japan, making enough concessions so that the Japanese government can save face with its citizens, but not giving up so much that the U.S. strategy suffers.

The United States has been lucky to have an ally that for a half century rarely challenged its decisions or questioned its logic. But with competitive political parties that need to cater to a domestic audience in Japan, Washington should expect a more assertive partner. It is not a sign of a weakening alliance, but rather a stronger one in which both sides are on equal footing.