TOKYO — Japan's parliament named Yukio Hatoyama prime minister Wednesday, as his party took power for the first time ever with promises to revive the slumping economy and make Tokyo a more equal partner in its alliance with the United States.
The Stanford-educated Hatoyama said he plans to review the American military presence in Japan, where 50,000 U.S. troops are stationed. But he said he will not stress that potentially contentious issue in a first meeting with President Barack Obama that could come later this month.
The outgoing Liberal Democrats, who had ruled the country for most of the postwar era, are staunchly pro-American. Some have worried that the incoming Democratic Party of Japan would make changes to the U.S. relationship, but both Hatoyama and Washington have been careful to dispel the notion that any big shift is afoot.
While in the opposition, some in the Democratic party said they wanted to overhaul the security alliance, and others balked at Tokyo's share of the cost of moving 8,000 Marines from the southern island of Okinawa to the U.S. territory of Guam.
The Democrats have also said that by January they plan to end a Japanese mission in the Indian Ocean that refuels American ships supporting troops fighting in Afghanistan.
But Hatoyama, 62, has been careful to reassure Japanese and Americans alike that the U.S. will remain the "cornerstone" of his government's foreign policy, though the new leader did say Wednesday he hoped to build a new kind of relationship with Obama by exchanging ideas "frankly."
"Japan has been largely passive in our relationship, but I would like to be a more active partner," Hatoyama told a news conference after he was elected prime minister, winning 327 of the 480 votes in the more powerful lower house of parliament.
U.S. Adm. Timothy Keating, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, said Tuesday strong military ties would continue with the new government.
"They are a strategic lynchpin for us in the Western Pacific, and I'm not concerned about any significant changes," said Keating, who was in Washington.
Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, agreed.
Hatoyama's proposal "would mean a slight change to a more mature relationship, but I don't think there is a major shift in the U.S.-Japan alliance," said Nakano.
Because it has never held power in its 10-year existence, the Democratic party has a limited pool of seasoned veterans to choose from. In announcing his Cabinet on Wednesday, Hatoyama picked two men with no ministerial experience for key jobs in dealing with the U.S. on security matters: Katsuya Okada, a former bureaucrat at the trade ministry, will serve as foreign minister, and Toshimi Kitazawa as defense minister.
At home, the Democrats face pressure to revive the weak economy and come up with ways to deal with Japan's aging, shrinking population, which will burden the younger generation.
To help families and encourage women to have more children, the Democrats have pledged to give parents $275 a month for each child until junior high. They also aim to raise the minimum wage and cut tolls on highways.
"I want the people to feel that their pocketbook situation is improving, even a little, as soon as possible," Hatoyama said.
But critics say such spending programs will push Japan even further into debt – and fall short of concrete plans to chart a road to economic growth. The Democrats' emphasis on families and pursuing a gentler form of capitalism suggests that corporate interests may take a back seat.
"Under the LDP, corporations were the policy target. With the DPJ, households are regarded as sacred," said Kyohei Morita chief Japan economist at Barclays in Tokyo.
Free-market advocates also worry that the Democrats will seek to slow or reverse deregulation begun under the LDP. That could hurt Japan's global competitiveness, they say.
But some voters blame moves to loosen regulations for widening income gaps and rising joblessness and homelessness.
Signaling the priority he places on the economy, Hatoyama named veteran politician Hirohisa Fujii finance minister. Fujii held that job under the brief coalition government in 1993-94, the only time in the past 55 years that the LDP had not ruled.
The Democrats, facing a recession-weary public, may only have a small window within which to get results.
"The country has never experienced a leadership change as clear as this," Nakano, of Sophia University. "With upper house election coming up within a year, they have to produce results, or they will lose voter support."
Associated Press writers Eric Talmadge, Mari Yamaguchi and Shino Yuasa in Tokyo and Foster Klug in Washington contributed to this report.