Japan has a new prime minister, Naoto Kan, but he comes from the same party—the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ)—as Yukio Hatoyama, who resigned last Wednesday. He will almost surely want to continue Hatoyama's policies of strengthening Japan’s political democracy and forging an independent foreign policy that is allied with the United States, but not subordinate to it. If Kan follows that course, he will undoubtedly displease much of Japan’s establishment, which still identifies with the defeated Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that Hatoyama's party trounced in last year's election.
When President Obama arrives in Tokyo on Friday, he will confront a country that seeks to be an ally of the United States. For Japan has never been an American ally. It was first a rival, then an enemy, and finally, after it lost the war it foolishly started with the U.S., it became a protectorate, not an ally. The distinction matters. An alliance is an institution negotiated between two sovereign governments in which each agrees to a series of reciprocal obligations that have the force of law.