Is U.S.-Japan Alliance in Danger?

“I think the most popular topic for Washington political reporters is the upcoming mid-term elections. I don’t know how many are interested in who the leader of the Democratic Party of Japan will be after September 14th. But they should be, because the leader will automatically become prime minister and that could mean the most serious damage to our relations with your country in fifty years.”

That’s what a friend and fellow political reporter in Tokyo emailed me recently. With days to go before the ruling Democratic Party of Japan selects its leader, he was referring to the contest between present Prime Minister Naoto Kan and former DPJ Secretary-General (chairman) Ichiro Ozawa, easily his country’s most controversial and unpredictable politician.

Highly unpopular for a campaign finance scandal in which he is still under investigation, Ozawa could nonetheless depose Kan from the party helm in a contest to be decided by a small conclave of party bosses. Under those circumstances, the relations between Japan and the U.S. could undergo a major sea change—one definitely for the worse, as far as this country is concerned.

In public statements and during a recent televised debate with arch-rival Kan, Ozawa—whose nickname is “the Destroyer”—said he would revisit the issue of relocating the U.S. Marine Corps base at Futenma from scenic Henoko Bay to nearly Nago.

This was something agreed to by U.S. and Japanese officials in 2005 and endorsed by local leaders in Nago, despite intense local opposition and vocal demonstrations. Revisiting this by a “Prime Minister Ozawa” would surely play to local sentiments in Nago and cause fresh tension with the Obama Administration, which (like Mr. Kan) considers the base issue settled.

In recent statements, Ozawa has indicated that the U.S. 7th Fleet is enough for the defense of Japan and also said that the U.S. Marines in Okinawa are not needed. A few years ago, he raised eyebrows in the U.S. by opposing continuation of the “floating gas station” with which his country refuels ships from nations supporting the war on terror on their way to Afghanistan. Earlier this year, Ozawa led a delegation of fellow members of the Diet (parliament) to Beijing and signaled a warmer relationship between his country and Communist China.

It’s poignant that on the last day of primaries in the U.S., in which tens of thousands of voters will directly nominate candidates for office, Japan’s leader will be selected by a group of insiders—members of the Diet and local and regional leaders of the party. There are 1,224 “voting points” involved in the contest, with 613 needed to elect a leader, who will become prime minister. Signs are strong that Ozawa has more votes than Kan.

Noting Kan’s reputation as a cautious politician and Ozawa’s nickname (which comes from leaving other parties he had joined in an uproar and thus destroying them), my friend wrote that this is a race “between someone who never does anything bad because he is sleeping and another who is awakened just to destroy everything.”

He is right on another point. This is all “inside baseball” and even to the enthusiast for Japanese politics, it is becoming a blur. Kan is the sixth prime minister in five years, with each having an average term of office of less than twelve months. As Brazilian President da Silva remarked after failing to recall the name of Kan’s predecessor, “You say ‘good morning’ to one prime minister and ‘good afternoon’ to a different one.”

But rest assured: if Ozawa wins on September 14, da Silva will know his name, as will most world leaders. And there will be considerable discussion at the White House about “where we go from here.”