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     Mar 12, 2011

Scandals strain US-Japan relations
By Kosuke Takahashi

TOKYO - A new division is developing in the Japan-United States relationship after Kevin Maher, policy chief on Japan affairs at the US State Department, said it would be bad for the US if Japan's war-renouncing peaceful constitution was changed because Japan would not need the American military.

Anti-US sentiments are particularly flaring up again in Okinawa, Japan's southernmost island, after Maher, director of the Office of Japan Affairs at the State Department and former consul general in Okinawa, described Okinawan people as "masters of manipulation and extortion" in their dealings with the long-standing, thorny issue of the relocation of the US Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station on Okinawa.

Maher gave a lecture to American University students in Washington on December 3, 2010. He was sacked from his

position by the State Department on March 10, four days after Kyodo News first reported Maher's statement.

"Maher's remarks on the constitution surely cast a shadow on Japan's long-term national security," Ukeru Magosaki, the former chief of the Japanese Foreign Ministry's international intelligence bureau, told Asia Times Online on Friday. "His comments hurt the Okinawa people's feeling severely. This would make it further difficult to put the US base relocation plan into practice."

Japan, meanwhile, has its own problems. It took a stop-gap measure by promoting Takeaki Matsumoto on Wednesday as foreign minister from his deputy position at the ministry to succeed Seiji Maehara, who abruptly resigned on March 6 over a scandal involving a political donation from a South Korean resident of Kyoto.

The scandals from both sides of the US and Japan surfaced at a time when the significance of closer ties between two nations cannot be overemphasized to cope with the rapid rise of the Chinese military, the warmongering from North Korea against South Korea and Russia's movement towards the south by strengthening its military presence on four disputed islands, known as the Southern Kuril islands in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan.

Tense incidents
Most recently, two Chinese military planes - a Y-8 surveillance aircraft and a Y-8 anti-submarine aircraft - on March 2 flew to about 55 kilometers (34 miles) from the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. This prompted the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) to scramble F-15J fighters.

In addition, a Chinese State Oceanic Administration helicopter on Monday flew to just within 70 meters of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) destroyer Samidare. Military experts said China tested Japan's reflexes amid Tokyo's weakening diplomatic power caused by its domestic political turmoil.

According to the Japanese Defense Ministry's Joint Staff, it was the first time Chinese military planes had approached so close to the Senkaku islands. Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa on Tuesday slammed the Chinese helicopter's buzzing of a Japanese destroyer, saying, "It was an extremely dangerous act."

China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu, meanwhile, said that China's right to claim the islands is "indisputable" and that its actions were in accordance with international law.

The number of scrambles the JASDF conducted against Chinese airplanes reached 48 from April to December of the 2010 fiscal year, which ends on March 31. This is already the highest in the past five fiscal years, and it does not yet include the January to March figures.

The US was forced into damage-control mode by swiftly sacking Maher. US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, Maher's superior, offered an apology during a meeting with new Japanese Foreign Minister Matsumoto in Tokyo on Thursday. The US ambassador to Japan, John V Roos, also flew to Okinawa and apologized in person to Okinawan governor Hirokazu Nakaima, who is calling for relocating US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma out of Okinawa.

Okinawa alone hosts about half of the 50,000 American military personnel in Japan.

"I don't think Article Nine of the Japanese constitution should change," Maher said. "If the Japanese constitution was changed the United States would not be able to use Japanese land to advance US interests. The high host nation support the Japanese government currently pays is beneficial to the US. We've got a very good deal in Japan."

The two nations last December agreed that Tokyo will maintain the annual costs of hosting US bases at the current level of 188.1 billion yen (US$2.3 billion) for a five-year period from fiscal 2011 starting April.

He also said, "Okinawans are too lazy to grow goya." Goya is the bitter cucumber vegetable and a local specialty of Okinawa.

Japan and the US last May agreed that the Futenma base would be moved from a densely populated district in Ginowan to a coastal area in the Henoko district of Nago, but local people are fiercely opposed to the plan and want the base to be moved outside of Okinawa.

Reconciling the local demand to move the base with US strategic interests appears impossible, especially after Maher's controversial remarks.

"I was shocked that a diplomat could say such hurtful things about our allies," Tori Miyagi, a 20-year-old American University student who attended the meeting and who also helped compile the memo, told Asia Times Online. "Our alliance with Japan is the foundation of American foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific, so I was amazed Mr Maher would use such strong language to describe our friends. That type of thinking is not productive to the Japan-US partnership."

Miyagi, a fourth-generation Japanese-American whose family came from Okinawa, also said, "It's unfortunate that Mr Maher has to be removed."

"He did not have to be removed, but the State Department should try to remove that type of thinking," he said. "I think the alliance managers do not realize or do not care about the growing frustration in Japan and they are the ones to blame and they are the ones who are preventing a stronger US-Japan alliance. As Campbell is saying the US and Japan are partners, so it's time the US starts treating Japan like a partner and a friend."

Speaking of the memo, Miyagi said, "We did not have a recorder with us, so the memo is not a transcript, but it is accurate. Other students have now come forward and have confirmed what has been reported."

Kan's days may be numbered
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan on Wednesday promoted Matsumoto, State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, to succeed Maehara, who stepped down on the news he had accepted donations from a South Korean resident in Kyoto in violation of Japan's campaign-fund laws.

Japanese media increasingly have pointed out Kan's days in office might be numbered, especially after the Asahi Shimbun reported on Friday that Kan also accepted donations of 1.04 million yen (US$12,600 ) from a South Korean resident in Yokohama City in violation of Japan's campaign-fund laws. Opposition parties have demanded that Kan resign.

A major earthquake, which hit Japan on Friday, may benefit Kan's administration as opposition parties are forced to stop political battles amid the governmentís emergency measures.

Matsumoto, 51, is a member of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and is close to former DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa, Kan's political rival. Matsumoto supported Ozawa, not Kan, in the party leadership election in September 2010.

Matsumoto served as a secretary of his father Juro Matsumoto, who served as Defense Agency chief from 1989 to 1990. He is a cousin of Japanese ambassador to the US Ichiro Fujisaki. He is known as well-versed in issues ranging from financial affairs to foreign and security policies.

"My policy is to further promote the deepening of the Japan-US alliance," Matsumoto said at an inaugural press conference on Wednesday. "I intend to make efforts toward the deepening of the Japan-US alliance in a way that is appropriate in the 21st century."

One of his immediate tasks is to make preparations for Kan's visit to the US scheduled for the first half of this year.

Matsumoto is due to attend a two-day meeting of foreign ministers from the Group of Eight nations from March 14 in Paris and host two days of trilateral foreign ministerial talks with China and South Korea from March 19 in Kyoto.

Kosuke Takahashi is a Tokyo-based journalist. Besides Asia Times Online, he also works for Jane's Defence Weekly as Tokyo correspondent. He can be contacted at letters@kosuke.net

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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