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Obama meets Japan's Hatoyama, stressing equal partnership

Obama, in first stop of his Asia trip, addressed the thorny issue of a US military base in Okinawa. Despite recent tensions, Obamamania is still strong in Japan.

By Takehiko KambayashiCorrespondent / November 13, 2009

President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama walk in together before the start of their joint news conference at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo on Friday.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP



President Barack Obama's first trip to Asia as head of state began with a warm welcome Friday in the highly guarded Japanese capital, where excitement over the president persists despite recent tensions over the two nations' security alliance – in particular the presence of United States military bases in the Japan.

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The visit comes against the backdrop of a newly assertive Japanese government, led by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which in August ended a half-century of nearly unbroken rule by the Liberal Democratic Party.

On Friday, the two leaders exchanged views on issues including Afghanistan, nuclear nonproliferation, the economy, and the main US military base in Okinawa.

Mr. Hatoyama has said that, although the US-Japan alliance remains solid, he wants to put it on a more "equal footing." He has previously called for moving the US military base out of Okinawa – where many of the nearly US 45,000 troops in Japan are stationed. But for now, he has shelved plans to do so.

Smoothing out ties with the new DPJ-led government – and recognizing Japan's stated desire for a more equal partnership with the US – is likely to top Obama's agenda during this trip.

In Tokyo, Obama said that his Asia trip began in Japan because the two allies' relationship is "a foundation for security and prosperity, not just for our two countries but for the Asia-Pacific region....

"Both Yukio and I were elected on a promise of change," Obama also noted. "But there should be no doubt as we move our nations in a new direction, our alliance will endure.... It's essential for the United States, it's essential for Japan, and it's essential for the Asia-Pacific region."

Obama-mania alive and well in Japan

As in many parts of the world, Japan celebrated Obama's rise to power. In a country where US presidential elections are often taken more seriously than the election of Japan's own prime minister, Mr. Obama's emergence as the first African-American president had particular resonance.

"Mr. Obama is still more popular in Japan than in the US," says Kazuhisa Kawakami, a political scientist and vice president of Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo. "Japanese people, who seem to have an inferiority complex about white people, were also impressed with the fact that a minority candidate was elected in the US."

Many people are also fascinated by his skills of political oratory, says Mr. Kawakami. "Our students got drawn to his speech on YouTube. We don't have such an attractive politician in Japan, who makes a persuasive speech like his."

"With last year's presidential election attracting wide press coverage, many people seem to be still attached to the minority president," says Yukiko Kobuchi, a journalism doctoral student at Doshisha University in Kyoto. "He is seen as a hero who emerged from the socially vulnerable."

Despite the longtime slump in the publishing industry, four books that compile Obama's speeches (and comes with CD) have sold a total of 750,000 copies in the past year, according to Yuzo Yamamoto at Asahi Press, the book's publisher.