TOKYO Japan's main opposition party, which until recently touted plans to stand up to the United States and form closer ties in Asia, is taking a more pragmatic line toward Tokyo's top ally ahead of a likely election victory.
That should help ease concerns about any possible upset in the relationship, under which Japan has for decades kept in lockstep with the United States on security policy in return for the shelter of its "nuclear umbrella."
Analysts say the change in emphasis by the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) is both a bid to avoid alienating voters ahead of the August 30 poll and a sign of a new realism as it confronts a growing probability of taking power.
"The stage is completely different now," said Yukio Okamoto, a former diplomat now of think tank Okamoto Associates.
"They have to really, realistically think about what they are going to do," he added. "The line they have been insisting on so far is untenable, unsustainable in the face of the stark realities of the world security situation."
The long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has made the U.S.-Japan alliance the core of its diplomatic and security policies since the end of World War Two, and has stretched the limits of its pacifist constitution, often at U.S. urging.
In an effort to erode the rival Democrats' lead in opinion polls, the LDP has repeatedly accused opposition leaders of lacking the experience to handle growing regional threats.
North Korea conducted a nuclear test in May, following what Pyongyang said was the launch of a rocket, which passed over a nervous Japan. China's rapidly rising military might is another constant concern for Japan, whose defense budget has been sliding for seven years.
"In the midst of that, your security policy is 'let's distance ourselves from our ally of the past 50 years and embark on a new security policy'? It's a no-brainer that you back away from that," said Brad Glosserman of Hawaii-based think tank Pacific Forum CSIS.
"Essentially, what the DPJ wants to do at this point is eliminate every reason that voters have for not voting for them."
Democratic Party leaders have long stressed that they will keep the U.S. alliance at the center of Japan's security policy, but their plans to challenge the current consensus on a range of issues could cause friction.
Former party leader Ichiro Ozawa sparked criticism in February, for example, when he said that most of the 47,000 U.S. troops based in Japan were not needed.
The DPJ has also attacked an agreement to move 8,000 U.S. Marines from the southern island of Okinawa to the U.S. territory of Guam, because of the high costs involved for Japan.
Under Ozawa's successor, Yukio Hatoyama, the party is now distancing itself from promises to call an immediate halt to a refueling mission in support of U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan.
The DPJ has in the past delayed legislation enabling the mission, saying it was a breach of Japan's pacifist constitution. Ozawa publicly snubbed a personal request from then-U.S. ambassador Thomas Schieffer in 2007 to back it.
References to "radical" reform of the Status of Forces Agreement that dictates the treatment of U.S. forces in Japan and to "constant monitoring" of costs of American bases that are footed by Japan have been removed from the DPJ's manifesto, the Mainichi newspaper said earlier this month.
The official party platform has yet to be unveiled.
Many analysts are optimistic about Japan's relations with Asian neighbors if the DPJ takes power, since the party is unlikely to spark the kind of feuds over wartime history that have periodically marred ties with South Korea and China.
The DPJ could also prove a better fit than the ruling party with U.S. President Barack Obama's administration.
"There'll be times when the Japanese disagree with us. Most of the time they'll agree with us," Daniel Sneider, Associate director for research at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, Stanford University, said at a panel discussion in Washington this week. "That's a healthy relationship."
But others are still concerned about whether the DPJ can tone down security policies introduced in opposition once it takes over. The timing is especially critical since key five-year defense plans are scheduled to be completed by the end of 2009.
"The DPJ may be able to make some mistakes on individual security decisions, which it can make good later," Okamoto said. "But this exercise of deciding the five-year plan cannot be made good if they blunder," he added. "Once it's done, that's it.
"They had better come to a very quick realization about what Japan needs to do."
(Additional reporting by Paul Eckert in Washington; Editing by Nick Macfie)