US base in Okinawa looms in Japan elections

Prime Minister Hatoyama’s vow to reexamine agreed-upon plans to move the Marines from Futenma, their US base in Okinawa, nears a May 31 deadline. What many see as his mishandling of the issue may cost him in parliament.

By , Correspondent

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    Local residents raise their fists as they shout slogans during a rally to protest against the plan to relocate the US military base there from Okinawa, in Kagoshima, southern Japan May 8.
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Yukio Hatoyama must regret his campaign pledge of last summer to guide Japan away from its subservience to US foreign policy.

While that message resonated among some voters, it has backed Japan’s prime minister into a corner from which he will be lucky to escape when the country votes in upper-house elections in July.

Since his election last August, the question of how security ties will develop in the long term has been supplanted by the fate of a single Marine Corps base on the southern island of Okinawa, home to more than half the 47,000 US troops in Japan.

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Futenma base, located in the middle of the heavily populated city of Ginowan, has become a focal point for the local antibase movement, which poured 90,000 demonstrators onto the streets three weeks ago. It is also a test of the US’s willingness to reduce its military footprint in Japan.

Local resentment

The daily Asahi newspaper published a survey on Friday showing that 43 percent of Okinawans would like US forces to leave the island, while 42 percent just want the US military presence reduced.

Mindful of local resentment toward the Marine Corps, Mr. Hatoyama said he would do all he could to move the base off the island altogether. He now has just weeks to meet a self-imposed deadline of May 31 to devise a plan for Futenma’s future that is acceptable to the United States, Okinawans, and an electorate that, in recent polls, has shown it is far from impressed with his handling of the issue.

He must decide whether to honor a 2006 agreement with the US that would see Futenma moved to an offshore location in a less populated part of the island, and 8,000 marines and their dependents moved, by 2014, to Guam. The White House has given Hatoyama time to weigh options, while making it clear it wants to stick to the original deal.

Recent events have offered little hope of a breakthrough, with Hatoyama conceding that moving Futenma’s functions off the island will be “impossible,” given its key role in deterrence. Days after that, he attempted to recast his election pledge as a “challenge,” but the damage was done. Support for his Democratic Party of Japan is weakening, and in one recent poll 60 percent of voters said he should resign if he does not meet the May deadline.

Few options left for Hatoyama

He is quickly running out of options. Any attempt to honor even a tweaked version of the existing deal will be seen as a betrayal, not least by the left-wing Social Democratic Party, a minor partner in Hatoyama’s coalition whose support he needs to retain a majority in the upper house.

Jun Okumura, a senior adviser to the New York-based Eurasia Group, a political risk analysis firm, believes a deal may be possible that satisfies domestic opinion, but adds that it will require months of negotiations, and come with few guarantees.

“If the US agrees to a new idea for the Futenma relocation, but then Hatoyama doesn’t produce the goods, he will be seen as a partner who can’t fulfill his end of the bargain,” he says.

If Hatoyama’s handling of the issue doesn’t improve, he could be punished in the July poll. “This is a competence issue,” says Mr. Okumura. “The voters will take the view that Futenma has undermined their trust in him and his ability to manage their affairs. He may have to fall on his sword.”

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