Of all the cabinet positions that incoming prime minister Yukio Hatoyama has to get right, the post of Japan's foreign minister is arguably the most crucial. Diligence and reliability are obviously required traits, but so is the ability to walk a foreign-policy tightrope without offending either of Tokyo's two largest external influences - Beijing and Washington. The feeling in Japan is that if anyone can pull that off, it will be the deadly serious and painstakingly precise Katsuya Okada. Once Hatoyama's rival for the position of leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, Okada appears to be the perfect foil for the prime-minister-in-waiting's more laid-back approach to politics and life. Nevertheless, Hatoyama has caused alarm in certain circles in Washington for an attitude that could be described as hostile to the United States. In an opinion piece in The New York Times days before the election on August 30, he appeared to lay the blame for globalisation, capitalism and 'the destruction of human dignity' squarely at America's door. And there is little sign of him altering his aim of closer relations with China and the rest of Japan's Asian neighbours. Indeed, Hatoyama's first meeting with a foreign official took place on Wednesday and was, pointedly, with Wu Dawei , the vice-minister of foreign affairs and Beijing's top nuclear negotiator. It is the job of Okada, who is expected to be officially named foreign minister when the new cabinet is revealed on Wednesday, to pursue better relations with China while not offending the country that has provided Japan's security guarantees since the end of the second world war. Born in July 1953 in the town of Yokkaichi, in rural Mie prefecture, Okada is the second son of the founder of the giant Aeon supermarket chain, of which his older brother is chief executive. He studied law at the prestigious University of Tokyo before joining what was the ministry of international trade and industry. Okada also spent time at Harvard University's Weatherhead Centre for International Affairs before taking the plunge into politics ahead of the 1990 general election. Like so many new arrivals in the world of Japanese politics, including Hatoyama and Ichiro Ozawa, another former leader of the DPJ, Okada started out by joining the all-dominant Liberal Democratic Party. But within three years of being elected, he had become disillusioned with the party and followed fellow members of Noboru Takeshita's faction in defecting to the fledgling Japan Renewal Party. Japanese opposition parties have for decades formed, dissolved, reformed and amalgamated at breakneck pace in a search for a formula to defeat the LDP. While they sometimes appeared to have found sufficient backing to overthrow the LDP government, the electorate seemed to blink at the last moment and vote for what they have always known. After these defeats, the opposition saw parties come and go. In the five years after leaving the LDP, Okada aligned with Shinshinto, the Sun Party and Minseito, before that grouping merged with the DPJ in 1998. Elected president of the party on May 18, 2004, he led it to its first genuine political victory in the House of Councillors election in 2004. And while he was unable to unseat the LDP completely, Okada was genuinely regarded as a potential leader of the country. While the public liked his rival, prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, for his easy charm and eclectic tastes in everything from hairstyles to music, Okada earned respect for his commitment to the cause. His 2004 campaign slogan summed the man up: 'Upright and single-minded.' There were some who thought he took it all a bit far and nicknamed him 'Taliban' for his unbending principles. The key parts of his manifesto were urgent reforms to the childcare and pension systems, both of which are in dire financial straits as Japan's population ages and fewer people have children. He also promised 10 trillion yen (HK$842.63 billion) in cuts on wasteful public projects and to withdraw immediately Japanese troops from Iraq. And while he might have been winning the battle over policies, Okada's advisers were equally aware that his rival was well ahead in the personality stakes. That was when the party spin-doctors went to work and it was revealed that he abstains from drinking alcohol and once left a party early just so he could finish reading a policy paper. Another revelation, exposed in an effort to make him appear more of a man of the people, was his hobby: collecting frog figurines and knick-knacks, apparently because the Japanese word for frog, kaeru, sounds the same as the word for change. Okada insisted that change from the LDP's way of running the country was desperately needed and that only the DPJ could achieve that. It was not enough, however, and he lost the September 2005 election. He was not helped by the fact that Koizumi realised the precariousness of his own position, and finally the LDP promised to carry out meaningful reforms of how the country was run. And the country believed him. True to his vow before the vote, Okada stepped down and was replaced by Ozawa. And while the LDP failed to live up to its promises over the following four years, the DPJ kept chipping away on policies until it took a decisive lead in the opinion polls. Ozawa could not keep his position as leader after becoming embroiled in a political funding scandal earlier this year, and once again Okada had a shot at leading the party into an election. In May, the rank-and-file members instead chose Hatoyama, despite Okada being the firm favourite among the public. They liked his 'clean' image - he has never been implicated in any wrongdoing - and his calls for a ban on corporate political donations. He is also deeply committed to fighting global warming and is a firm proponent of the party's promise to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020, despite growing opposition from business circles. But it is his aptitude in foreign policy that is now to be put to the test. Before the election, the DPJ stated that it wished to re-examine the pact with Washington that permits thousands of US forces to be stationed in Japan, and the details of the transfer of 8,000 US marines from the southern prefecture of Okinawa to Guam. The party has been vocal in its complaint that the US$6 billion the LDP promised to provide to help fund the move was far too large a burden for the Japanese taxpayer. That agreement, with the transfer scheduled to be completed by 2014, is almost certain to be delayed. At the same time, Okada has sought to reassure Washington that little would change when the DPJ takes power, saying in the run-up to polling day: 'First, we should create a relationship of trust between the leaders of the two countries, then set bilateral priorities, including on global issues such as global warming and poverty, and discuss in what order to try to resolve them.' At the same time, there has been a clear olive branch extended to China and South Korea, with Okada indicating it is high time that Japan came to terms with its history of colonial conquest in the early decades of the last century. 'First, Japan itself must properly assess the fact that it embarked on that wretched, foolish war,' he said. 'In that sense, our position is quite different from that of successive LDP governments.' How he manages to balance Japan's relations to its east and west remains to be seen, but it is clear the tightrope is strung quite high.