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SIIA Chairman Simon Tay in "Suddenly, a new global eye on Japan"

Updated On: Sep 05, 2009

WASHINGTON — Japan's incoming government has its work cut out but may have already succeeded at one goal that often eluded its predecessors -- getting the rest of the world to take notice.

Many Japanese watched wistfully in recent years as global attention shifts to its growing neighbor China. Japan may be renowned for sushi, cartoons and cutting-edge technology, but when it comes to geopolitics, it has been the unquestioned US ally.

But Sunday's crushing defeat of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, which ruled almost without interruption since 1955, has suddenly thrust a new element into Japan's global role -- unpredictability.

Front-page articles in the United States and Asia asked whether the incoming center-left premier, Yukio Hatoyama, would make good on promises to build a more "equal" relationship with Washington and review the 47,000-strong US troop presence in officially pacifist Japan.

Some experts said that, ironically, Japan may be boosting its own clout in the United States by seeking more distance, forcing President Barack Obama to invest more diplomatic energy in the key Asian relationship.

"If you don't have points of tensions with another country, particularly the United States, you're not taken seriously" in Washington, said Steven Clemons, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

Clemons, publisher of The Washington Note blog, said that Japan had "a lot less visibility than it should" considering it remains the world's largest economy other than the United States.

"That's why I'm very excited about this 'Democracy 2.0' moment," he said. "I think we're going to see Japan rise in relevance and significance in the eyes of Congress, which I think is under-tending this relationship and under-aware of it."

Hatoyama, who has railed against what he sees as the excess of US-style capitalism, has tried to reassure the Obama administration that he believes in the alliance with the United States.

But a greater distance from Washington, even if only in tone, could also help Japan build influence in south and southeast Asia, which Tokyo views as a key sphere of influence.

"Sometimes when Japan says things, other Asians just think, 'Well, that's probably what America wants,' although that's often unfair to the Japanese," said Simon Tay, a visiting scholar from Singapore at the New York-based Asia Society.

He said Asians also were often befuddled by Japanese politics, where the chronically weak Liberal Democrats went through one prime minister a year since 2006.

"It's just been a consistent story of disappointment to the point where all of us are almost looking past the world's second largest -- and, technology wise, Asia's most capable -- economy," Tay said.

"If you think of Asia's radar scope, now suddenly there is a red blip and I think people will have to at least look at Japan anew," he said.

Even under the Liberal Democrats, Japan had disagreements with the United States and other Western nations, including over Tokyo's annual slaughter of whales.

But gone are the bitter trade wars at the height of Japan's bubble economy in the 1980s, with China and India now focal points for Western criticism. Some Japanese who once complained of "Japan-bashing" now bemoan "Japan-passing."

In one sore point, some Japanese diplomats were privately perplexed at the lack of attention to outgoing prime minister Taro Aso's pledge at the first Group of 20 economic summit to provide 100 billion dollars to the International Monetary Fund to provide financial lifelines to emerging economies.

Kevin Maher, who heads the Japan desk at the State Department, said the United States has repeatedly tried to reassure Japan that it is of top importance in US eyes.

"I often describe it as telling your wife, 'I love you.' At some point you'd think she would just believe you," Maher said.

Source: AFP

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