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U.S., Japan Hone Alliance As Obama Starts Tour

President Obama attends a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama following their meeting at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo.
Issei Kato
President Obama attends a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama following their meeting at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo.

President Obama crossed an ocean to meet with his Japanese counterpart Friday, the start of an Asian tour that includes stops in Singapore, China and South Korea.

After their meeting, Obama and Japan's Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said they covered a lot of ground. They agreed to work together on climate change, clean energy, and nuclear disarmament.

But it is not all smooth sailing with America's longtime Asian ally.

Obama is just getting to know the Japanese premier, who took office less than three months ago. The two leaders already seem to have a good deal in common, though. By the end of their 90-minute meeting, the president and prime minister were on a first-name basis.

"Both Yukio and I were elected on the promise of change," Obama said. "But there should be no doubt as we move our nations in a new direction, our alliance will endure, and our efforts will be focused on revitalizing that friendship so it's even stronger and more successful in meeting the challenges of the 21st century."

As with any new partnership, this one is taking some getting used to. After almost 50 years in which Japan was run by just one political party, the Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, Hatoyama represents a new ruling party, and a new direction. His Democratic Party of Japan, the DPJ, insists on a more equal partnership with the U.S.

Some observers welcome the change. But it means a period of adjustment.

"The relationship with Japan, long the cornerstone and still the cornerstone of the U.S. security presence in East Asia, is not one we can take for granted," said Jeffrey Bader, who oversees East Asian affairs for Obama's National Security Council. "The world has changed, America has changed and Japan has changed."

An Issue Over U.S. Forces On Okinawa

Longstanding complaints in Japan about the large U.S. military presence on the Japanese island of Okinawa are getting a more sympathetic hearing from Japan's new government. The U.S. has agreed to put the issue to a high-level working group. Hatoyama wants the group to work quickly.

"It will be a very difficult issue for sure. But as time goes by, I think it will become even more difficult to resolve the issue," he said, through a translator.

The Obama administration downplayed the differences over Okinawa, stressing instead areas where the U.S. and Japan are already working together, such as Afghanistan.

Earlier this week, Japan pledged $5 billion in civilian aid to Afghanistan. The country has also agreed to accelerate joint research projects with the U.S. into clean energy, in an effort to reduce greenhouse gases. And Japan is a key ally in the effort to keep Iran and North Korea from developing more nuclear weapons.

"Now obviously Japan has unique perspective on the issue of nuclear weapons as a consequence of Hiroshima and Nagasaki," Obama said. "And that, I'm sure, helps to motivate the prime minister's deep interest in this issue."

Obama sidestepped a reporter's question about whether the United States was justified in using nuclear weapons against Japan during World War II. He did say he would like to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the future.

Japan is the first stop on what will be an eight-day, four-nation tour of Asia for the president. He said America's security and prosperity are inextricably tied to the fast-growing region.

'United States Is A Pacific Nation'

"Throughout my trip and throughout my presidency, I intend to make clear that the United States is a Pacific nation," Obama said. "And we will be deepening our engagement in this part of the world."

Obama spent relatively little time in Japan talking about the global economy. But that is likely to be one of his biggest topics at his next stop, with leaders from throughout the Pacific region in Singapore.

The president delivers a policy address Saturday in Tokyo and then has lunch with the Emperor and Empress of Japan before flying to Singapore for the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. On Sunday, he travels to China.

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Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.