America's top diplomat on Asia gave rare public expression on Friday to U.S. frustration with Japan's revolving-door politics, saying frequent changes of top officials in Tokyo undermined trust and confidence between the allies.
The criticism comes as the United States seeks to help Japan smooth ties with China, frayed by a territorial dispute, and as Japan, which shuffled its cabinet last month, gears up for an election expected within months that could well bring its seventh prime minister since 2006.
"If you only have one meeting and you're off to a new minister in a couple of months, it's hard to develop that sense of confidence, that sense of intimacy that frankly ... is an intrinsic component of effective diplomacy," said Kurt Campbell, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
Campbell made the remarks at a symposium in Tokyo on U.S. policy in Asia.
"Senior officials change jobs quickly in Japan. They always have, but the intensity of the changeover is such that sometimes it is difficult to explain to American interlocutors why these meetings are necessary," he said, referring to the regular need to get to know new Japanese officials.
Japan has had six prime ministers since the charismatic Junichiro Koizumi finished a rare five-year term in 2006.
The latest leader, Yoshihiko Noda, has promised the opposition an early election in return for backing a plan to increase the sales tax. He has not set a date for the vote, which must be held by August 2013, but it is widely expected late this year or early next year.
The political uncertainty coincides with a deep chill in Japan's ties with its Asian neighbors.
Japan is at odds with China and South Korea over rival claims to two separate island chains near potentially rich oil and gas deposits, and its economy is rapidly losing traction in the face of global headwinds.
Japan's ties with the United States have also been tested by long-standing opposition by residents of Okinawa island to a U.S. Marine base. Resentment there has been fanned by the arrest this month of two U.S. servicemen on suspicion of raping a Japanese woman.
Campbell reiterated U.S. commitment to its alliance with its strategic partner in the Asia-Pacific while adding that developing ties was made more difficult by the frequent changes.
"No one wants to create problems or embarrass Japanese friends on this matter, but it does impact and in some respects places an anchor on the actual forward momentum of the relationship," he said.
Campbell is visiting Asia in a bid to help repair relations between Japan and China, the world's second largest economy. After Japan, he is due to travel to South Korea.
(Editing by Linda Sieg and Robert Birsel)