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Japan's new leader brings questions for U.S.

Yukio Hatoyama, who led Japan's opposition party to a stunning election victory, is coming to power amid questions about how he will pursue his desire for a more independent relationship with the United States.
Image: Yukio Hatoyama
Yukio Hatoyama, leader of Japan's main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, speaks with red rosettes attached on victorious candidates' names in the background during the ballot counting for the parliamentary elections at the party's election center in Tokyo on Sunday.Itsuo Inouye / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Yukio Hatoyama, the Stanford Ph.D and political blue blood who led Japan's opposition party to a stunning election victory, is coming to power amid questions about how he will pursue his desire for a more independent relationship with the United States.

Hatoyama is widely expected to form Japan's next government and become prime minister after his Democratic Party of Japan routed the incumbent conservative and pro-Washington Liberal Democratic Party in historic parliamentary elections Sunday.

Official results were still being tallied Monday, but it was clear that Hatoyama's party captured more than 300 seats of the 480 up for grabs. The Liberal Democrats have run Japan for most of the past 54 years.

Hatoyama knows the U.S. well, having obtained three postgraduate degrees from Stanford, including a doctorate in what is now known as management science and engineering, a blend of engineering, business and policy.

Vocal critic of the U.S.
Despite those close personal ties, however, Hatoyama has been vocal in criticizing the U.S. over the global financial crisis and has urged closer ties to Asia, a stance that has led to speculation of possible friction with Washington.

Just days before the election, Hatoyama drew attention with an op-ed piece in The New York Times that was critical of U.S. economic policy. He said Japan was "continually buffeted by the winds of market fundamentalism in a U.S.-led movement that is more usually called globalization" and traced the origins of the global economic crisis to "American-style free market economics."

He also called for the creation of an "East Asian community" but quickly added that "the Japan-U.S. security pact will continue to be the cornerstone of Japanese diplomatic policy."

Hatoyama has also said he will end a refueling mission in the Indian Ocean in support of U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan and wants to review the role of the 50,000 U.S. troops stationed across Japan under a post-World War II mutual security treaty.

Still, analysts said Hatoyama is unlikely to pursue radical changes in foreign policy.

His publicly stated ideas are at least partially a result of the need for his party to clearly differentiate itself from the LDP in the eyes of voters, said Michael Auslin, director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

"Obviously, there is a difference between philosophy and politics and ideals and governing," Auslin said.

‘Extremely ambitious domestic agendas’
Rather, he said, Hatoyama is likely to reach out to President Barack Obama as opposed to stoking tensions, given that they both have big promises to keep at home. "Both of these administrations have extremely ambitious domestic agendas," Auslin said.

Indeed, Hatoyama made a point of praising Obama at a postelection news conference early Monday, saying he "is steering America greatly toward dialogue and harmony."

The White House quickly welcomed the victory by Hatoyama's party — which has more than a few former members of the LDP, including Hatoyama himself — saying in a statement Sunday that the strong alliance between the two countries "will continue to flourish."

Hatoyama — whose surname consists of two Chinese characters that mean "dove" and "mountain" — is the scion of a storied Japanese political family.

Grandfather was key figure
His grandfather, Ichiro Hatoyama, was a key figure in the creation of the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which the younger Hatoyama trounced in Sunday's vote, and Hatoyama's father served a foreign minister.

Ichiro Hatoyama was nominated in 1946 to become prime minister, but was forced out of public service by U.S. occupation authorities before he could run. He eventually became Japan's leader in the 1950s after Japan regained its sovereignty, a tenure that was marked by efforts to improve relations with Asian countries in the aftermath of World War II. He also took steps to improve ties with the Soviet Union.

That legacy may resonate with Yukio Hatoyama in his desire for fostering closer relations with Asia. He also expressed a desire after Sunday's vote to resolve a knotty territorial row with Russia over a group of Japanese islands the Soviets occupied at the end of the war.

‘A new era’ in relations
In a brief foray into diplomacy Monday, Hatoyama held talks with the president of neighboring South Korea, with which Japan has often had tense ties under LDP rule.

In a 20-minute phone conversation with Hatoyama, President Lee Myung-bak said he believed Seoul and Tokyo "can open a new era" in relations, Lee's office said. Hatoyama, who met Lee during a visit to South Korea in June, replied that the two countries should cooperate "more closely."

The two nations are close trading partners but have periodically fought verbal battles over issues related to Tokyo's colonization of the Korean peninsula during the early 20th century. They also have a simmering territorial dispute over a pair of rocky islets, though share the common security goal of ridding North Korea of nuclear weapons.

Hiroshi Kawahara, a political science professor at Tokyo's Waseda University, said Hatoyama's ideas are not just campaign rhetoric, "but as a prime minister, it is unlikely that Hatoyama will implement major changes in Japan's foreign policies, including its alliance with the United States."

He said that Japanese business — for which good relations with the world's largest economy are important — "will surely ask Hatoyama not to cause friction with Washington."

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