Japan's new foreign minister promised Wednesday to deepen Japan's alliance with the U.S. and expand free-trade deals as he assumed the post after his former boss suddenly quit over a political donations scandal.
While Japan's alliance with the U.S. is one of the most enduring in Asia, it has come under stress recently as governments in Tokyo promised to seek a more equal relationship with Washington. The previous prime minister had pledged to move an American base off Okinawa, where residents have complained about overcrowding and the behavior of U.S. troops.
Takeaki Matsumoto's appointment comes as Japan faces escalating territorial claims from its Asian neighbors, and he told reporters Wednesday that a solid relationship with the U.S. was critical to Japan's security.
Tokyo has had diplomatic spats in recent months with both China and Russia over disputed islands in the region, and faces an ongoing threat from nearby North Korea.
"In order to ensure safety and prosperity of the Japanese people, the most important task for the government is to deepen Japan-U.S. alliance and push for economic diplomacy," Matsumoto said after he was formally sworn in at a palace ceremony.
Still, Matsumoto said he wants to review and improve the decades-old alliance so that it "suits the 21st century." He did not elaborate.
The 51-year-old veteran lawmaker in the ruling Democratic Party of Japan was a second-ranking official at the ministry. He is seen as pro-U.S. and is unlikely to change the general direction of Japan's foreign policy.
P.J. Crowley, the U.S. State Department spokesman, said Wednesday on Twitter that Washington was looking forward to working with Matsumoto.
Supporting Prime Minister Naoto Kan's push to achieve his goal of "opening the country," Matsumoto said he will also work to expand free-trade deals, including possibly joining a U.S.-backed free-trade zone.
"A large economic partnership in the Asia-Pacific region has a big potential. We should actively discuss if that serves the interest of our country and make a decision," he said.
He is replacing Seiji Maehara, who was Japan's top diplomat for just six months. Maehara's resignation Sunday over illegal donations was a blow to Kan, who had promised to root out "money politics" after a veteran power broker in his party was caught up in a separate funding scandal. Matsumoto said he has been strict about his political funds and he is clean.
Kan's government faces public approval ratings below 20 percent as it struggles to pass a budget through a gridlocked parliament.
Kan is already the country's fifth leader in four years, and as his popularity erodes, the Democrats may choose to replace him to stay in power.
Maehara, who had been seen as a top candidate to replace Kan, acknowledged receiving a total of 250,000 yen ($3,000) in donations over the past several years from a 72-year-old Korean woman who has lived most of her life in Japan. He said they had been friends since his childhood.
Japan's political funding law prohibits lawmakers from accepting donations from any foreigners, even those born in Japan.
Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Koreans, many descended from laborers brought here forcibly before and during World War II, live in Japan legally but without citizenship.
Associated Press writers Malcolm Foster and Jay Alabaster contributed to this report.