TOKYO — Japan's main opposition party said Monday that if it comes to power in this month's elections it will confront the United States on key military and diplomatic issues, but still regard it as the Asian nation's most important ally.
The Democratic Party of Japan is widely tipped to win the Aug. 30 vote and topple the Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled Japan for virtually all of the last 54 years.
Japan, the world's second-largest economy, largely sets its own course in financial matters but over the decades has followed Washington's lead in broad areas of military and foreign policy. It relies on the U.S. for nuclear deterrence and hosts tens of thousands of American troops, as well as fighter jets and warships.
Katsuya Okada, the secretary general of the Democratic Party of Japan, says it is time for Japan to become more independent and assertive.
Okada, who would likely have a key role in the new government if the opposition party takes power, criticized what he described as Japan's obedience to Washington. Tokyo has largely followed the lead of the U.S. over the last five decades despite sharp policy changes under the 11 different U.S. presidents who have served during that time.
"It's like Japan hasn't had its own diplomacy, or its own opinions," he said at a briefing Monday for a small group of foreign journalists.
He noted how Tokyo stayed aligned with the U.S. after President Barack Obama took power, despite the shift from the previous administration under George W. Bush.
"There were large changes in U.S. policy positions, but it was as if Japan was saying 'either way is fine,'" Okada said.
While repeatedly stressing that a more independent Japan would not undermine the alliance with the U.S. – which he described as Japan's "most important" ally – Okada said he had discussed with visiting U.S. Defense Undersecretary Michele Flournoy last month about changing some long-standing assumptions in the Japan-U.S. military agreement.
Okada on Monday described the American bases on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa as a holdover from the U.S. occupation of that island at the end of World War II. He said the bases should be reconsidered in the context of the countries' relationship over the next 30 to 50 years. He did not provide specifics on how the arrangement could change.
More than 50,000 U.S. troops are stationed throughout Japan, which pays billions of dollars each year to support them. Okinawa is the U.S. military's key Pacific outpost, but many locals want the troops off the island.
In another sign of what the Democrats' more independent posture could mean, last week, party chief Yukio Hatoyama said that a refueling mission in support of U.S.-led military operations in the Indian Ocean – which partially supports U.S. forces in Afghanistan – would not be extended if his party takes power.
The mission, which began in 2001, has in the past been briefly suspended due to political opposition, but legislation was approved last year to continue it through January 2010.
Okada, whose Democrats have promised to cut Japan's carbon emissions by 25 percent from 1990 levels by 2020, also said the party will expect concrete commitments from the U.S. ahead of climate meetings in Denmark at the end of the year to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto Protocol.
Without similar assurances from Washington, Japanese participation would be "difficult," he said.