TOKYO (Reuters) - A serious policy maven with a bit of a stubborn streak, Japan’s next foreign minister faces a challenge managing ties with Washington given the incoming government wants a more equal relationship with its closest ally.
Katsuya Okada, 56, has already had a taste of diplomacy when he sought to reassure Washington as the Democratic Party of Japan’s No. 2 executive that there would be no major shift in bilateral ties if the party took power.
The Democrats trounced the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which had put the U.S.-Japan alliance at the core of its security policies during its more than half-century of rule.
“First, we should create a relationship of trust between the leaders of the two countries, then set bilateral priorities, including on global issues such as global warming and poverty, and discuss in what order to try to resolve them,” Okada told Reuters in the run-up to the Aug. 30 election.
The new ruling party has said it wants to reexamine a pact governing U.S. military forces in Japan and a deal on redeploying U.S. troops under which about 8,000 Marines would leave for the U.S. territory of Guam and a Marine air base would be shifted to a less populated part of the southern island of Okinawa.
Incoming premier Yukio Hatoyama has also said he plans to end a naval mission in support of U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan when a legal mandate expires in January, although Okada had earlier appeared to leave the door open to a possible extension.
Okada’s appointment to the top diplomatic post is likely to be welcomed by China and South Korea, given his position that Tokyo should come to grips with its wartime history.
“First, Japan itself must properly assess the fact that it embarked on that wretched, foolish war,” Okada told Reuters in the interview before the election.
“In that sense, our position is quite different from that of successive LDP governments.”
Okada has taken the lead on the Democrats’ climate change policies, pushing for an ambitious mid-term target to cut Japan’s greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020 from 1990 levels, far tougher than the outgoing government’s plan.
Okada, who began his political career in the LDP but bolted along with other reformers in 1993, took over as Democratic Party leader in 2004.
He parlayed his image as an earnest man of principle into a robust showing for the party in an upper house election. But he resigned in 2005 after popular premier Junichiro Koizumi led the LDP to a huge election victory with fiery pledges of reform.
After beating Okada in a Democratic Party leadership race in May, Hatoyama asked his rival to be party secretary-general, but last week said veteran lawmaker Ichiro Ozawa would take that job.
The square-jawed Okada was more popular than Hatoyama among ordinary voters ahead of the party leadership race, but has been criticised for sticking to principles at the cost of flexibility.
“It is important to be flexible ... but there are some things on which a politician can’t compromise,” Okada said at the time.
Okada is the son of a supermarket magnate and a former trade official. He studied at Harvard University in the mid-1980s.
He is also an avid collector of frog knicknacks, perhaps because the Japanese word for ‘frog’ sounds the same as the word for ‘change’ -- which is what he has long insisted was needed in Japan’s LDP-dominated political sphere.