Japan's Hatoyama, weakened by Okinawa base decision, sacks deputy

North Korea tensions are reportedly behind Japan Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's unpopular decision to keep the US base on Okinawa. But the move will damage his party's prospects in the July election.

By , Correspondent

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    Japan's Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama speaks about the relocation of US Marine base in Okinawa at a press conference at his official residence in Tokyo, Friday.
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Japan's coalition government was thrown into turmoil Friday after the prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, sacked a cabinet minister because of sharp differences over the fate of a controversial US airbase on the southern island of Okinawa.

The dismissal of Mizuho Fukushima, the consumer affairs minister, fueled speculation that her tiny left-of-center Social Democrats would flee the three-way coalition with Hatoyama’s Democratic party and the People’s New party after just eight months in office. While the government would still retain its majority in both houses of parliament, a Social Democrat defection would further damage Mr. Hatoyama’s already bleak prospects in upper house elections in July.

Ms. Fukushima’s departure came hours after Japan and the US agreed to retain a 2006 agreement to move Futenma marine base, located in the crowded city of Ginowan, to an offshore site in Henoko on Okinawa’s sparsely populated north coast. The agreement was reached during a telephone conversation Thursday between Hatoyama and President Barack Obama,

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"Recent developments in the security environment of Northeast Asia reaffirmed the significance of the Alliance," the joint statement read.

Korea tensions affect domestic politics

A heavily perspiring Hatoyama told reporters in Tokyo Friday evening that mounting tensions on the Korean peninsula had prompted him to accept the US’s relocation plan largely unaltered.

"I am painfully aware of the feeling of the people of Okinawa that the present problem of the bases represents unfair discrimination against them,” he said. "At the same time, the presence of US bases is essential for Japan's security.”

Fukushima had consistently opposed the move and publicly pressured Hatoyama to honor a pledge he made during last year’s general election campaign to move the base off the island altogether.

But he failed to persuade other potential sites to host the base, angering Okinawan residents and local politicians who have described his U-turn as a "betrayal."

Prime Minister 'lacked clear policy'

Analysts say the decision to accept the relocation on US terms would strengthen opposition claims that Hatoyama was no longer fit to lead the country.

“Hatoyama’s approach has always been to try and keep everyone happy,” says Go Ito, a professor of international relations at Meiji University in Tokyo. “But he has achieved the exact opposite. He is clearly sympathetic towards the people of Okinawa, but he didn’t have a clear policy in place to help them, and has left them feeling angry. He has created a real mess. Mizuho Fukushima can walk away looking like a principled politician compared with the prime minister.”

Hatoyama’s decisiveness in removing Fukushima is at odds with the eight months he spent dithering over the future of Futenma airbase, home to 2,000 marines and a long-standing source of complaints from residents about noise, crime, and the ever-present risk of accidents.

Although his Democrats have a comfortable majority in the more powerful lower house, defeat in the upper house would give opposition parties the opportunity to delay important legislation.

Hatoyama likely to be replaced

Today’s accord also means that 8,000 marines and their 9,000 dependents will be transferred from Okinawa to the US Pacific territory of Guam by 2014. Okinawa is home to about half the 50,000 US troops in Japan and 75 percent of American bases in the country.

The deal comes with conditions, however. The US and Japan agreed to conduct an environmental impact assessment as quickly as possible amid complaints that the new runway, to be built partly on reclaimed land, will destroy the local marine ecosystem.

It also leaves open the possibility of moving additional military drills to the island of Tokunoshima in southwestern Japan, despite local opposition.

Professor Ito predicts that Hatoyama will stay on as leader, despite seeing his support ratings sink below 20 percent. But he believes the Democratic party will move to replace him in the autumn, possibly with the foreign minister, Katsuya Okada, or the transport minister, Seiji Maehara, to give itself a fighting chance in the next general election.

“It is important not to confuse Hatoyama’s terrible leadership with the general performance of the DPJ,” Ito added. “The party itself is doing OK.”

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