News / Asia

Failed Promise Pushes Japanese PM to Resign

Last year, he pledged to move a controversial U.S. military base off the southern island of Okinawa, a pledge he could not keep.

Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's resignation is in large part the result of promising too much. Last year, he pledged to move a controversial U.S. military base off the southern island of Okinawa, a pledge he could not keep.

Until Wednesday, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama had vowed to stay on as head of the government and the Democratic Party of Japan.

Mr. Hatoyama promised on Tuesday to face this "national crisis" head on, and do what is best for the country.

But Wednesday morning, he abruptly announced his resignation. Although he and the DPJ won a historic election last year with 70 percent of the country behind them, he suffered from party funding scandals and a perception of inconsistency. The latest polls show just 17 percent of the Japanese supported him.

The catalyst for his resignation is his announcement last month that Japan would stick with an agreement to keep a controversial U.S Marine base on the island of Okinawa. After months of discussions with the United States, Mr. Hatoyama concluded it was not feasible to move the base now. That decision was influenced in part by fears that North Korea would become more belligerent and threaten security in North Asia.

During last year's election campaign, Mr. Hatoyama promised to move Marine Corps Air Station Futenma off the island entirely.

There are several U.S. bases on Okinawa but Futenma is the most contentious because the city of Ginowan surrounds it. Residents complain about the aircraft noise and worry about the risk of crashes.

Mr. Hatoyama's apology to Okinawans for not keeping his promise did little to quiet criticism. The Social Democrats pulled out of his three-party coalition government after Mr. Hatoyama dismissed its leader for refusing to sign on to the Futenma decision.

Political analyst Minoru Morita says the fallout from the Futenma crisis is just beginning.

He says Mr. Hatoyama has lost the trust of the Japanese public. The prime minister has been labeled "a liar" and will now become a disgraced leader.

Morita calls Mr. Hatoyama's campaign promise to move Futenma "ill advised." He says the prime minister spoke too soon without consulting the United States and without a proper plan in place.

Morita expects the DPJ will suffer a serious defeat in the Upper House election next month, where 43 party members are up for re-election.

He says the last election showed the Japanese are fed up with politics as usual. If this becomes an election about which party stands for trust, then the DPJ is in deep trouble.

Professor Masaaki Gabe disagrees. He teaches international relations at the University of the Ryukyus on Okinawa. He says Okinawans may be outraged over Mr. Hatoyama's broken promise but Futenma remains a largely local issue.

He says voters in other prefectures will not be thinking about Futenma when they vote. But the DPJ will have a tough time gaining support in Okinawa again.

About half the 47,000 U.S. troops in Japan are on Okinawa, the main island of Japan's smallest prefecture. Okinawans have grown frustrated with the bases, which take up large amounts of land, and with problems such as crime caused by troops.

After years of negotiations, Tokyo and Washington in 2006 agreed to close Futenma and move its operations to an isolated part of northern Okinawa. In addition, about 8,000 Marines are to move to the U.S. Pacific island of Guam over the next few years. Okinawa residents, however, were not satisfied with the deal.

The United States is Japan's closest diplomatic and military ally. While Washington acknowledges the burden on Okinawa, it rejected the idea of moving Futenma off the island entirely, saying that would hamper its ability to train and transport the Marines remaining there. And the U.S. argued that changing the Futenma plan would mean it would be several more years before any Marines could be moved to Guam.

Mr. Hatoyama's sudden resignation puts the future of Futenma in question again. He is the fourth Japanese prime minister in four years to quit.

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