In reversal, Japan's Hatoyama says Marines can stay on Okinawa

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama backtracked from a campaign promise to close a controversial US Marine base on Okinawa. He said he was bowing to strategic reality, but the reversal is costing him support at home.

Kyodo News/AP
Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama passes by a banner reading 'Keep the promise' during his tour to Okinawa, southern Japan, Sunday. Hatoyama apologized Sunday to the people of Okinawa for backing away from his campaign promise to move a US military base off the island.

Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama backed away from a campaign promise to close the Futenma US Marine base on Okinawa, saying the base should remain open "considering the current situation on the Korean peninsula."

Prime Minister Hatoyama said Japan will honor the terms of a 2006 agreement with Washington, which calls for the base to be relocated to a less densely inhabited part of the island.

The current base in Ginowan City houses about 4,000 Marines. The new base, complete with runways built on land reclaimed from the sea, will be built near Camp Schwab in the more remote Cape Henoko district of northern Okinawa. Mr. Hatoyama's Democratic Party of Japan promised the base closure ahead of its historic election win last August, and there has been domestic anger over his failure to take action since. The Ginowan City base is deeply unpopular with Okinawans.

Okinawa houses almost half of the 47,000 US service personnel in Japan and three-quarters of the US military bases, despite accounting for only 0.6 percent of Japan’s total land mass. Hatoyama claimed he would “ease the burden” of the military presence on Okinawa, both while in opposition and after becoming prime minister.

After raising Okinawan hopes the base would be moved off island – which saw fierce fighting during WWII and was only returned to Japan in 1971 – Hatoyama has ended up following the path chosen by the previous administration.

“It was easy for him to criticize LDP [the Liberal Democratic Party who ruled Japan for most of the post-war era until their defeat last year], but now in power he realizes the difficulties of the diplomatic relations with the US,” says Testuro Kato, a visiting professor of politics at Tokyo’s Waseda University.

While there has been widespread criticism in Japan of Hatoyama’s handling of the affair, there were also few practical alternative locations put forward from anywhere across the archipelago.“He showed no leadership at all; he must have some poor advisers,” says Professor Kato.

High-profile crimes involving US servicemen, including the gang rape of a 12-year-old girl by Marines in 1995 and the murder of a taxi driver by a sailor in 2008, have left many citizens strongly opposed to hosting bases in the communities, despite the economic benefits.

The US also exerted pressure on the Japanese government to come to a decision quickly, insisted it should honor the 2006 agreement, and nixed a number of suggestions for possible alternatives.

Support for Hatoyama’s party has plummeted to below 25 percent recently from around 70 percent in September.

“Expect opinion polls that will be taken in the next few weeks to show support below 20 percent,” predicts Prof. Kato. Dropping below the 20 percent support level has spelled political doom for many prime ministers in recent decades.


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