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Japan pledges to be more independent from Washington

By Kyung Lah, CNN
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Obama heads to Japan
  • Japan will be the first stop for U.S. President Barack Obama in Asia
  • Issues on the agenda will include the future of U.S. bases in Japan
  • Japan's role in helping to rebuild Afghanistan also likely to be discussed
  • N. Korea expected to be a major topic between Obama, PM Yukio Hatoyama
  • Japan
  • Barack Obama
  • North Korea

Tokyo, Japan (CNN) -- U.S. President Barack Obama chose to make Japan the first stop in his first presidential visit to Asia -- a decision that Japan's new prime minister says signifies the importance Washington attaches to its alliance with Tokyo.

"I believe the meeting will be a good one in the sense that he seems to have felt strongly that he must pick Japan as the first country of his visit to Asia," Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said in advance of Obama's arrival. "I'm looking forward to it."

Both Hatoyama and Obama have said they will affirm a strengthening of the bilateral alliance. But Obama will be greeted by a Japanese leadership that has pledged more independence from Washington.

Hatoyama's Democratic Party of Japan swept to power earlier this year, ending nearly 50 years of continuous rule by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The LDP had aligned itself closely to U.S. policy.

Japan's new government has already flexed its muscles, saying it is reviewing a bilateral deal to relocate a U.S. Marine Crops base within Okinawa. The plan, which includes a 2006 agreement to construct a new U.S. military airfield with two runways, has been met with fierce local opposition.

Last weekend, thousands of protesters gathered in Okinawa, waving banners with slogans such as "Obama take the bases back with you."

Ginowan City Mayor, Yoichi Iha, told the crowd, "I want Prime Minister Hatoyama to tell President Obama the important choice the Japanese people made in the (Japan's) election. And that the Okinawan people, who have been burdened by the U.S. bases for 64 years, do not need any more new bases."

As the world's second largest economy, economic ties between the two nations are expected to be high on the agenda. Japan's economy has seen sluggish growth, as the export-driven economy relies heavily on consumption in the recession-hit United States.

Hatoyama's government has made moves towards strengthening ties with China, whose economy Japan expects to rely on in the near future. China's GDP could overtake Japan's within a few years.

Japan's role in helping to rebuild Afghanistan is expected to be on the agenda, too. Tokyo says it will extend up to $5 billion in civilian aid to Afghanistan over five years in an effort to combat terrorism, but the financial aid comes as Hatoyama's government Japan prepares to end its naval refueling mission in support of U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan next January.

The refueling mission had raised questions within Japan on whether it violated the nation's pacifist constitution.

Fact Box

*Meeting Japan's new government, which pledged more independence from Washington

*Tokyo is reviewing moving a U.S. Marine Corps base, ruffling feathers in Washington.

*Aid to Afghanistan: Japan's government is extending US$5 billion in aid.

*Economic recovery: The world's second largest economy has major companies like Toyota operating in the U.S.

*Rising China: Japan is strengthening ties with this emerging economic superpower.

*North Korea: Resuming six-party talks.

On another matter, Hatoyama is expected to show his support for Obama's vision for a nuclear-free world. On this issue, President Obama is being greeted with widespread public support in Japan -- where the U.S. dropped nuclear bombs on the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima during World War II.

In Nagasaki Prefecture, in an area called Obama Onsen, victims of the bombing have heralded the U.S. President as a hero after his speech in Prague pledging to work towards a nuclear-free world. All over Obama Onsen, the U.S. president's caricature is prominently displayed, along with "I love Obama" signs.

Takashi Miyata was four years old when the bomb fell on Nagasaki.

"Now that we see the concrete action towards denuclearization, the prospect is brightening," said Miyata, who wore an Obama T-shirt under his kimono. "Barack Obama, President of the United States, the world leader, has officially promised to the international community to realize the world without any nuclear weapons, which is exactly what the people in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, especially us survivors, have longed for over 60 years. It gives us big hope."

North Korea is also expected to be a major topic between Obama and Hatoyama. Japan wants comprehensive solutions on key issues, including North Korea's missile tests and the abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970's. Japan and the U.S. are also expected to agree on the need to resume the six-party talks on dismantling the North's nuclear program. The North abandoned the talks earlier this year.