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Japan next PM stresses US ties

TOKYO, Sept 3 – Japan’s incoming premier Yukio Hatoyama said on Thursday relations with Washington would remain at the centre of the nation’s foreign policy after his first talks with US President Barack Obama.

"We think the Japan-US relation is the foundation," Hatoyama told reporters after their 12-minute phone call around midnight Tokyo time. "I told him that we want to build constructive, future-oriented Japan-US relations."

Hatoyama, whose centre-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) ended 54 years of almost unbroken conservative rule in Sunday’s elections, has in the past criticised "US-led globalism" and called for "more equal" ties with Washington.

His DPJ has also questioned Japanese support for some US military operations – a view held most strongly by left-leaning party members and likely coalition partners who stress the importance of Japan’s pacifist constitution.

But Hatoyama has also echoed Obama’s election slogan of "change" and pointed at similarities between their goals, signalling that much of his past criticism was aimed mainly at the former US administration of George W. Bush.

"Change required a lot of courage, but it was American people and their president across the ocean who gave Japanese people the courage," Hatoyama said, hours before he was due to meet new US ambassador John Roos.

Hatoyama – who is set to take over as prime minister on September 16 from the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) Taro Aso – also praised Obama for his stance on nuclear arms reduction, climate change and other global issues.

The premier-in-waiting said he wanted to meet Obama as early as possible.

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He is set to travel to the United States for a UN General Assembly meeting and G20 economic talks in late September. Local media said the two leaders may meet around September 23. Obama is also due to visit Japan later this year.

Hatoyama told reporters later Thursday that Obama gave him "a warm impression that convinced me that we will be able to develop close relations."

Earlier, following the telephone talk, the United States said it welcomed an "independent" role for Japan, but it also stood firm that it would not back off from earlier agreements with Japan on security.

The DPJ has long suggested reviewing the status of the 47,000 US troops based in Japan, mostly on southern Okinawa island, where the large American presence has often caused frictions with local residents.

The party, while in opposition, criticised moves by the more hawkish LDP governments in supporting "American wars," and has said it would end next year a naval refuelling mission supporting US-led operations in Afghanistan.

The DPJ, meanwhile, pushed on with talks to shape its coalition government with two smaller parties whose support it needs in the upper house – the Social Democrats and a tiny group of LDP defectors, the People’s New Party.

A sticking point has been foreign and security policies, including sensitive questions about the nature of the US alliance and whether Japanese troops, who have seen no combat since World War II, should be deployed abroad.

Masayuki Naoshima, who chairs the DPJ’s policy research committee, showed a draft of policy coordination to his junior party counterparts late Wednesday.

It included a pledge to seek a "close and equal relationship" between Japan and the United States, the Yomiuri Shimbun daily reported Thursday.

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The outgoing LDP ruling camp, meanwhile, has been in disarray after the disastrous election defeat, which left the DPJ with 308 seats against the LDP’s 119 in the powerful lower house.

Akihiro Ota, who heads the New Komeito party – the LDP’s coalition partner in the last government – announced his resignation Thursday after his party saw its number of seats fall to 21 from 31, according to a party spokesman.

Aso is to resign as party head, with a successor to be picked on September 28.

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