Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s coalition partner rejected a government decision to keep a U.S. military base within Okinawa, threatening a split ahead of July’s upper house election.
“The idea was to lessen the burden of the people of Okinawa and building a new base doesn’t do that,” Social Democratic Party leader Mizuho Fukushima told reporters today after a meeting at the prime minister’s office in Tokyo. “It violates” an election pledge made by Hatoyama last year, she said.
Fukushima, a member of Hatoyama’s Cabinet, threatened in December to leave the government unless the Futenma Marine Air Base was shifted off Okinawa. Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan, which has a majority in the lower house of parliament, needs help from the SDP’s 5 seats in the less powerful upper house to ensure passage of legislation.
The administration “will politely explain the need for the coalition to understand the prime minister’s thinking,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano told reporters today in Tokyo. Hatoyama yesterday said he has “no choice” but to relocate Futenma on the island.
The relocation decision resolved a dispute with the Obama administration that has contributed to a plunge in Hatoyama’s popularity since he came into office in September. Reneging on his promise to Okinawa may imperil the DPJ’s chances in July’s upper-house elections.
‘Wasted Six Months’
“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 yesterday met with Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima and apologized, saying the decision was made “given security concerns in East Asia such as the situation on the Korean Peninsula.” Nakaima told Hatoyama the decision was “extremely regrettable and very tough to accept.”
Okinawan SDP lawmaker Kantoku Teruya wrote on his blog yesterday that “naturally, the SDP and I are opposed to the cabinet approving this. Leader Fukushima will refuse to sign.”
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.
The U.S. 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, who met with Hatoyama on May 21, today called his decision “difficult but correct.”
“I thank him for his courage and determination to fulfill his commitments,” Clinton said in Beijing. She said the U.S. is working with Japan to lighten the impact on Okinawa.
The two sides will release a joint agreement on relocating Futenma on May 28, 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 Liberal Democratic Party from half a century of almost unbroken rule.
“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.