Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama decided to honor an agreement to relocate a U.S. military base within Okinawa, saying threats from countries such as North Korea trump local sentiment to shift it elsewhere.
Hatoyama has “no choice” but to relocate the Futenma Marine Air Base on the island, he told Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima yesterday. Apologizing for abandoning a campaign pledge, he said the decision was made “given security concerns in East Asia such as the situation on the Korean Peninsula.”
The move resolves an eight-month dispute with the Obama administration that has contributed to a plunge in Hatoyama’s popularity. Reneging on his promise may imperil his Democratic Party of Japan’s chances in elections for the upper house of parliament slated for July.
“Hatoyama wasted six months and made everyone his enemy,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, author of “Japan’s New Security Strategy” and director of policy research at the Tokyo Foundation. “It’s entirely possible the DPJ loses these elections.”
Hatoyama visited Okinawa two days after meeting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to discuss how to respond to North Korea’s deadly attack on a South Korean naval ship.
‘State of Alert’
“The North Korean attack is good news for Hatoyama in that he can say we’re in a heightened state of alert,” said Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Japanese Studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus. “At least he can go into the election without this over his head, but I don’t know how much it will help him.”
Hatoyama told Nakaima at a meeting at the governor’s office in Naha that Japan will move the base to the coastal area of Henoko, as envisioned in the original agreement. Thousands of residents have demonstrated against keeping the facility in Okinawa, citing noise, pollution and crime, and have voted in local politicians who oppose the base. Protesters waved banners saying “Don’t Betray Us” outside yesterday’s meeting.
Nakaima told Hatoyama the decision was “extremely regrettable and very tough to accept.” Speaking to reporters later, the governor said “There’s a strong feeling of betrayal,” given Hatoyama’s campaign pledge.
The U.S. has pushed Japan to uphold the 2006 agreement to move Futenma within Okinawa, as part of a $10.3 billion plan that would also transfer 8,000 Marines to Guam. Clinton met with Hatoyama and Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada in Tokyo on May 21, saying both countries sought “an operationally viable” solution.
Clinton and Okada met to discuss a coordinated response to a report finding that North Korea fired a torpedo that sank a South Korean naval vessel in March, killing 46 sailors. A U.S. official traveling with Clinton said on condition of anonymity three days ago that the incident helped remind Japan of the need for an American military presence.
The two sides will release a joint agreement on relocating Futenma on May 28, Japanese media including the Yomiuri newspaper said last week. Under the original agreement, helicopter units at Futenma would be moved to new facilities at Henoko near the existing Camp Schwab, and a runway would be built on reclaimed land.
Hatoyama’s popularity has plummeted since the DPJ won a landslide victory in the Diet’s lower house in August, ousting the Democratic Party of Japan from half a century of almost unbroken rule. He suggested in April that he may step down should he fail to reach a deal on Futenma before the end of the month, and the Social Democratic Party has threatened to quit his coalition ahead of July’s elections for the less-powerful upper chamber, should he keep the base on Okinawa.
“The South Korean ship incident raised the public’s awareness of Japan’s security situation, but it won’t help Hatoyama convince Okinawans or help his approval ratings,” said Atsuo Ito, a Tokyo-based independent political analyst.
Okinawa, 950 miles (1,530 kilometers) south of Tokyo, hosts 75 percent of the U.S. bases and more than half of the 50,000 American military personnel stationed in the country.
Hatoyama’s approval rating fell to 21 percent, down 4 percentage points from last month, while his disapproval rating rose 3 points to 64 percent, the Asahi newspaper said on May 17. Sixty-one percent of respondents said Hatoyama would be breaking his commitment if the Marine units stay in Okinawa, the Asahi reported.
The paper obtained 2,077 valid responses in the May 15-16 poll, and didn’t provide a margin of error.