To paraphrase a line from the season premiere of hit ABC series, Ugly Betty, last Friday night — Change last year, with Obama and all that, was so cool. Change, this year though, sucks big time.

This might have some resonance with the new Japanese DPJ government as they publicly clashed with visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates as the latter visited Tokyo ahead of President Obama’s visit next month. The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal (log-in required for both articles) both carried stories detailing the spat surrounding the relocation of American military bases on Okinawa.

From The Washington Post:

“Playing hardball with its closest ally in Asia, the Obama administration warned Japan on Wednesday of serious consequences if it backs out of a commitment to allow the relocation of a U.S. airbase on Okinawa.

“Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said that if Japan stops the base relocation, the United States would halt the withdrawal of 8,000 Marines from Okinawa and would not, as planned, return several parcels of land.

“Gates’s words, during a two-day visit here, were a blunt challenge to efforts by Japan’s month-old government to carve out a more “equal” relationship with Washington.”

This is perhaps the first signs of tensions emanating from a change in Japan’s foreign policy strategy, which a Foreign Policy magazine article has christened Japan’s “New Asianism” — a foreign policy approach that aims to present Japan not as a subservient American ally, but an equal in any bilateral relationship.

Although there’s a 2006 agreement between the U.S. and Japan to shift the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station to a less densely populated area, Secretary Gates and his colleagues in the Obama administration should respect the new Japanese government’s need to consolidate its political mandate domestically, given the historic nature of its election victory. This shouldn’t be framed as a test of new Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s leadership ability or a testament to America’s waning influence in the region.

Both Japan and the U.S. need each other for their own strategic goal of countering China’s influence and would be better served if Hatoyama is given time to sort out this Okinawa issue. After all, the main gist of the agreement was in line with an intended reduction of American troop numbers in Okinawa. There’s no need to play hardball with their Japanese counterparts on this matter. The Obama administration – given their numerous partisan Congressional battles – should understand the difficulties of keeping their own house in order.