Did Washington bring down the Japanese prime minister?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
June 3 2010 4:23 PM

Did Washington Bring Down the Japanese Prime Minister?

It'll be even harder for the next leader to meet U.S. demands.

(Continued from Page 1)

Americans harbored growing concerns about the new government's desire to strike a more independent pose, along with Hatoyama's gauzy vision of a new East Asia Community, modeled on the European Union. "The basic issue is that Hatoyama was determined to establish more strategic independence for Japan but did not understand that without Japan developing any alternative strategy for its own defense, this was a dead end," a senior official told me this week. American officials lectured Japan about the strategic importance of the Marines in countering China's rise without any sense of irony that the Obama administration is engaged in its own, largely unrequited, courtship of Beijing.

While Americans squeezed Hatoyama's government, the pressures on the home front also increased. In January, voters in the area around Schwab elected a mayor who ran on a platform opposing the new base. Even the conservative governor of Okinawa moved to oppose the base plan, which he had previously backed.

Hatoyama's poll numbers plummeted as the Japanese public saw him unable to resolve conflicting demands and held him responsible for a growing crisis in the U.S.-Japan alliance. State Department officials, led by the U.S. ambassador in Tokyo, softened, though didn't fundamentally change, the base plan. Last week, Hatoyama gave in, offering a plaintive apology for finally accepting the construction of the new base, though leaving crucial details to be negotiated later this summer. Echoing U.S. officials, Hatoyama pointed to the North Korean sinking of a South Korean naval vessel and growing concerns about Chinese military activity to argue that he now understood the need for the Marines and their helicopters to stay on Okinawa.

Privately, though, Japanese officials tell a different tale. "I do not consider that the Korean situation as well as the exchanges with the Chinese had much impact on Hatoyama's decision on Futenma," a close adviser to the prime minister told me. "The Futenma decision comes very much out of the domestic situation—there was nowhere to relocate Futenma. The tense situation surrounding Korea may help to explain the decision to the general public, but it has nothing to do with the decision itself."

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Unfortunately for Hatoyama and the DPJ, it was way too late to convince the Japanese public of anything. As Japanese officials warned last winter, their coalition partners in the Social Democratic Party left the government in protest and threatened to back a no-confidence resolution in the Upper House of parliament. Weekend polls showed that even though two-thirds of Japanese citizens oppose the American solution, they still blamed Hatoyama for mishandling the affair. With his own party now worried that he would drag them down to defeat in Upper House elections in July, Hatoyama, along with Ozawa, left the stage.

The clipped White House statement left little doubt that Hatoyama's departure was welcome in Washington. But is this a pyrrhic victory? The next government is likely to be even less able to negotiate, much less to force Okinawa to accept the new base. A weakened DPJ will probably have to forge a new coalition after the July Upper House election. Come November, Okinawa voters may elect a new governor who is an even more radical foe of all U.S. bases on the island. And the persistence of the Okinawa squabble will demonstrate to many Japanese people that Washington bears as much responsibility for this crisis as the departed prime minister.

Eventually, after their anger and disappointment with Hatoyama fades, the Japanese people will turn their eyes toward Washington and wonder whether this is how allies should treat each other. It is a good question.

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