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.

The beach-lined shores of Oura Bay. Click image to expand.
The beach-lined shores of Oura Bay

In March, I found myself standing on the white sand of the beach-lined shores of Oura Bay in northern Okinawa, Japan, looking out on a postcard view of green islets set in azure waters. It could have been the site of a Club Med resort. Instead, behind me were the beige stucco barracks of Camp Schwab, home to the 4th U.S. Marine Regiment.

This quiet spot is ground zero for a political storm that this week brought stunning change to the government of Japan. Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, along with Democratic Party of Japan leader Ichiro Ozawa, resigned Wednesday due to a dispute over plans to relocate the U.S. Marine Air Station at Futenma, in the southern part of Okinawa, to this base. Resistance to plans to fill the sparkling bay with a massive landfill covered with concrete runways, aprons, and sheds for Marine transport aircraft and helicopters proved to be their undoing.

This marks the first time a Japanese government has fallen over U.S.-Japan security issues since Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi was forced to step down in the wake of massive demonstrations against the conservative government's decision to ram through the passage of a revised security treaty in 1960. Currently, the Japanese public blames Hatoyama and the DPJ for mismanaging the alliance. It is a narrative that the Japanese mass media has been pounding away at for months, and there is some truth to it. But eventually, if not immediately, the Japanese public is likely to notice that the nation's principal ally, the United States, was intimately involved in, if not directly responsible for, the downfall of the Japanese prime minister.

For reasons of history and geography, Okinawa bears a preponderate share of the U.S. military presence in Japan. Almost three-quarters of the land area of American bases is on Okinawa, taking up 20 percent of the island itself. The DPJ pledged to reduce that burden, a stance that helped the party and its coalition partners sweep all the parliament seats in Okinawa in the September 2009 election.

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So when the DPJ took office, following a stunning electoral victory that ended a half-century of nearly uninterrupted conservative rule in Japan, the new government sought to re-examine the Futenma relocation plan to reduce the base footprint on the island. But the Pentagon refused to reopen the issue, a message Secretary of Defense Robert Gates delivered in rather blunt fashion during an October visit to Japan.

In the months that followed, Hatoyama and his government veered, with increasing desperation, between trying to satisfy the electorate and finding a solution that Washington might accept. They floated a series of options, some serious, some less than half-baked, including failed efforts to persuade reluctant communities in the rest of Japan to take on some of Okinawa's burden. The Pentagon insisted that only the Schwab plan was viable, because the local administration, thanks to Japanese government largess and the promise of construction contracts on the landfill job, had signed off on the plan. But despite that backing, not a single shovel of sand had been moved, and a small army of environmentalists and other protesters stood ready to block Schwab's gate the first time a dump truck headed that way.

By December of last year, efforts to find a viable alternative were floundering, and the government, worried about the growing public spat with the Americans, appeared ready to accept the original plan, with some measures to ameliorate local concerns about noise and the environment. But Hatoyama and party boss Ozawa balked when the small but politically important left-wing Social Democratic Party threatened to bolt the coalition government over the issue. They worried that if the DPJ lost its thin majority in the Upper House, the opposition could block passage of the budget in parliament and potentially trigger a new general election.

Obama administration officials grew increasingly exasperated with what they saw as Hatoyama's indecisive, even erratic, leadership. In calculated press leaks and private conversations, they fed growing fears in Japan that the prime minister was dangerously undermining the alliance, and they quietly encouraged talk of replacing him.

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