Even as Japan’s new leaders have promised to transform the way the nation is governed, they have left one thing unchanged: The prime minister, like many before him, is backed by a shadowy leader who is widely seen as really running the country.
Now, at a time of turmoil in Washington’s ties with Tokyo, US officials are reaching out directly to that power behind the throne.
According to Japanese and US officials, diplomats have been quietly negotiating a visit to Washington as early as next month by Ichiro Ozawa, the secretary general of Japan’s governing Democratic Party and its widely acknowledged power broker. The possible visit, which could include a meeting with US President Barack Obama, was first suggested to Ozawa in February by US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell during a visit to Tokyo, said the officials, who asked not to be identified because the plan was still tentative.
The officials said the informal invitation was a move by Washington to improve communications with a new Japanese leadership that has proclaimed it wants more independence from the US.
One US official close to effort called it part of a broader push to bring more lawmakers from Japan’s new governing party to Washington to meet their US counterparts, visits that members of the Liberal Democratic Party made before losing power last summer.
However, the offer has also drawn some criticism because it could be seen as circumventing Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama in favor of a scandal-tainted figure who holds no formal Cabinet position. That the Obama administration would propose such a move, and the government of Hatoyama might accept it, appears to underscore a shared feeling that current difficulties (like a disagreement over a US military base in Okinawa) are caused at least partly by an underlying problem: a breakdown in communications, political experts said.
They said last summer’s historic change in the Japanese government destroyed the two nations’ decades-old channels for talking to each other.
“Gestures like inviting Ozawa show a disruption in communications,” said Jun Iio, a professor of government at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. “The old structures for talking have been tossed away, but it will take time for the United States and Japan to build new structures.”
Before Hatoyama’s Democratic Party came to power, the bilateral relationship had been managed for decades by a handful of Japan experts in Washington and their contacts among the Liberal Democrats and in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Iio and others. The Democrats not only swept aside the Liberal Democrats, but they have also tried to fulfill campaign pledges to pry policy making from the hands of bureaucrats and give it to political officials.
The problem, analysts say, is that few new communication links have emerged to take the place of the old ones. The resulting lack of information fed excessive alarm in Washington last fall when Tokyo began to call for changing a 2006 agreement to relocate the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa.
Comments by ministers have often been contradictory and confusing, reflecting a lack of consensus in an inexperienced government, analysts say. While Hatoyama has said he wants to maintain the two nations’ security alliance, his voice has often been drowned out by the din. One result was that US officials misread Tokyo as seeking a much larger push away from the US than was actually the case, analysts said.