News / Asia

Japanese PM's Reversal on US Base May Have Political Cost

Political analysts in Japan say Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's reversal on a key campaign pledge is likely to cost him in coming elections.  Mr. Hatoyama told residents of Okinawa this week it will probably be impossible to completely move a U.S. marine base off the island.

Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama went to Okinawa this week to deliver a message that left many islanders disappointed.

He says given the current U.S.-Japan relationship and from the perspective that they need to keep deterrence power, it has become difficult to move all the functions of Futenma air station.  He says he brings his "deepest apologies."

The U.S. Marine Corps Futenma air station on Okinawa has long been a target of protesters.  A large city has grown around it over the past 50 years, and residents complain the base's aircraft are noisy and dangerous.

Okinawa hosts about half of the 49,000 U.S. troops in Japan, on several bases, as part of an alliance forged after World War II.  

In 2006, after years of negotiations, the U.S. and Japan agreed to move Futenma to a coastal area in northern Okinawa, and to move about 8,000 other Marines to the U.S. island of Guam.

But Mr. Hatoyama's Democratic Party won a landslide victory last August, boosted partly by pledges to move Futenma entirely off Okinawa. He had promised a new plan for the base this month.

Tomohiko Taniguchi, adjunct political science professor at Japan's Keio University, says Mr. Hatoyama repeated the pledge "dozens of times," and has embarrassed himself by backtracking.

"It is none other than himself who dropped a huge stone on his own feet … he's made an absolute about face," said Taniguchi.

Taniguchi points out that the town where Futenma is to be moved this year elected a mayor who staunchly opposes the 2006 deal, presenting a challenge for Mr. Hatoyama.

"So no one believes that this plan is going to fly, especially by the end of May, which is a self-imposed deadline for Mr. Hatoyama," said Taniguchi.

Jeff Kingston, an Asian studies scholar at the Tokyo branch of Temple University in the United States, describes Mr. Hatoyama as being "between a rock and a hard place" (trapped between two difficult choices).

"This puts Hatoyama in an extremely difficult position," he said. "He's saying to everybody, 'I'm going to have to back down and go back to square one.'  This is going to really hurt him and hurt his party."

Kingston says there are mixed feelings about the U.S. - Japan alliance among many Japanese voters.

"Even though there is a resentment about the high-handed manner in which Washington treats Tokyo, there's also a recognition that Japan lives in a dangerous neighborhood, and that it benefits from U.S. security cooperation and protection," he said.

Elections for Japan's upper house of parliament are scheduled for July.  Polls show Mr. Hatoyama's approval rating has plunged this year, and political analysts say his shift on Futenma could further damage his party's chances in the election.


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