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.
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.
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.
Japan's many antinuclear activists admire Obama's championing of a nuclear-free world, a cause that helped him win the Nobel Peace Prize in last month. More Japanese are urging the president to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the cities hit by atomic bombs during World War II. He is not expected to travel to either place during this trip but has said he would like to visit them in the future.
Hit-and-run could overshadow president's visit
Despite Mr. Obama's popularity in Japan, however, a fatal hit-and-run incident involving a US soldier in Okinawa island on Saturday has reminded residents there of the costs of hosting US military bases.
More than 20,000 Okinawa residents gathered on Sunday to oppose a longtime plan to relocate the main base, US Marines Air Station Futenma. Since Tokyo and Washington agreed in 1996 to close the base and replace it with a new facility in a more sparsely populated part of the island's north, no action has been taken due to vehement opposition from residents and environmental groups.
Adding to the complications, the new government is reviewing a 2006 bilateral agreement to realign US troops, by moving thousands of Marines to Guam as well as relocating Futenma.
During his visit to Japan last month, however, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told Tokyo bluntly to implement the realignment plans immediately.
"The Futenma relocation facility is the linchpin of the realignment road map. Without the Futenma realignment, the Futenma facility, there will be no relocation to Guam. And without relocation to Guam, there will be no consolidation of forces and the return of land in Okinawa," said Mr. Gates. "This may not be the perfect alternative for anyone, but it is the best alternative for everyone, and it is time to move on."
His comments disappointed many Japanese, especially those in Okinawa and Iwakuni, which host US troops.
"The US and Japan agreed to the realignment plan without explaining it to residents [who live near US military facilities]," says Katsusuke Ihara, former mayor of Iwakuni. "The two countries had kept their ostensibly good relations, but they should establish a mature relationship now."
Residents in Iwakuni and Okinawa "won't accept the current plans. Once again, they would be carried out in the face of strong opposition. And, once again, that could really harm the bilateral ties," he says.
Despite the hostility the bases have provoked, however, many residents still have hope in the president, who addressed the issue Friday. "Let me first of all insist that the United States and Japan are equal partners.... [That] will be reflected in the resolution of the base realignment [Marine base].... Our goal remains the same, and that's to provide for the defense of Japan with minimal intrusion on the lives of the people who share the space."
Obama also invited some mayors and the governor of Okinawa and Obama City Mayor Koji Matsuzaki to his speech in Tokyo on Saturday.
Says Setsuko Nakamura, an antibase activist on Okinawa: "Obama-san shows an attitude of generosity and also exerts enormous confidence. That's what a leader needs.
"Okinawans still believe Obama-san will listen to us."