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Clinton visits Japan as US disaster relief warms ties

by Staff Writers
Tokyo (AFP) April 17, 2011
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits Japan Sunday, reconfirming a key alliance that has been strained by a lingering military base dispute but boosted by a strong American disaster relief effort.

Since Japan's massive quake and tsunami struck on March 11, sparking an ongoing nuclear crisis, US forces have launched a muscular search, rescue and relief effort with 20,000 troops and scores of ships and aircraft.

Helicopters have flown aid missions from a US aircraft carrier, marines helped clear the tsunami-ravaged Sendai airport which reopened last week, and thousands joined a three-day search of the battered coastline for bodies.

US nuclear experts have offered advice on stabilising the tsunami-hit Fukushima atomic power plant, where the US military has flown in coolants and deployed two freshwater barges and fire engines to help douse hot reactors.

The Yomiuri Shimbun daily in an editorial last week reflected a view voiced by many survivors of the tsunami disaster, which devastated a vast swathe of Japan's Pacific coast and left over 13,000 people dead and 14,000 missing.

"We have nothing but the highest praise for the assistance provided by US personnel, which also will be an important contribution toward strengthening the bilateral alliance," said the mass-circulation newspaper.

Pointing out that security ally the US is not treaty-bound to help Japan in natural disasters, it said "the massive relief efforts by the United States reflect the mutual trust both countries have forged over many years."

The large-scale aid effort, dubbed "Operation Tomodachi" (Friend), has helped warm attitudes toward the nearly 50,000 US forces stationed in Japan on bases that are a legacy of the post-World War II American occupation era.

Military bases on the southern island of Okinawa especially have long been a flashpoint and sent relations into a nosedive when the current centre-left government took power in 2009 and vowed to move one of them off the island.

Its first premier, Yukio Hatoyama, sought to appease local anger over aircraft noise, the risk of accidents and crime associated with bases, but dithered for months and finally backed off, a flip-flop that cost him his job.

His successor, current Prime Minister Naoto Kan, has vowed to stick with the original pact to relocate the marine airbase within Okinawa, but faces strong local opposition that spells a continued political and diplomatic headache.

Just before the megaquake struck, Japan voiced its anger at a senior US diplomat who had reportedly called Okinawans lazy and manipulative in an off-the-record speech, and who was later demoted and is now retiring.

Given the recent strains, the US aid effort has been "a good opportunity for the United States and its military to prove that they are ready to support Japan as they have promised," said politics professor Koji Nakakita.

"This may improve the Japanese people's image of the US military," said Nakakita of Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo.

"It does not resolve their pending issues, notably Okinawa, but it will have a positive impact on once-soured relations between the two countries."

Some observers point out that not all has been rosy and that, beneath the renewed vows of friendship at a time of crisis, some distrust lingers, as domestic criticism has grown of Kan's handling of the nuclear disaster.

Amid the high-stakes battle to stabilise Fukushima, some US officials have reportedly voiced dissatisfaction with the information shared by Japan and the plant's embattled operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO).

Tetsuro Kato, professor of politics at Waseda University, said ahead of Clinton's arrival that "the purpose of her visit to Japan is clearly to see whether the Kan government is really capable of handling this crisis, and I think the conclusion will be that it is not."

"First of all, Tokyo has not sufficiently shared information with Washington. The United States had offered more extensive help, which Japan has declined. It's been said for some time that the United States has been dubious about the information given by the government and TEPCO.

"The Tomodachi operation is OK, helping Japan cope with the earthquake and the tsunami. But the Kan government has been slow in taking actions to control the Fukushima nuclear crisis."


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