Futenma Base ‘Miscalculation’ Leads to Hatoyama’s Fall

World Politics Review
By David Axe
June 2, 2010

Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and his Democratic Party of Japan rode into power in the fall of last year on the promise of tax cuts and a fresh approach to foreign policy. After a spate of crises less than a year after taking office, Hatoyama’s approval rating plummeted. Last week, a small leftist party allied with the DPJ split from the ruling coalition. On Tuesday, Hatoyama announced he would step down as prime minister.

A financial scandal involving DPJ stalwarts partially explains Hatoyama’s fall from grace. Equally vexing for the 63-year-old from one of Japan’s leading political families was what one analyst calls Hatoyama’s “miscalculation” regarding the six-decade military alliance between the United States and Japan. In his election campaign, Hatoyama had vowed to revisit a 2006 deal allowing 4,000 U.S. Marines to remain on the crowded Japanese island of Okinawa, which in World War II was the site of a bloody battle between invading Marines and Japanese defenders.

After strongly hinting during the fall election that he would abandon the 2006 deal and evict the Marines, last week Hatoyama announced that he would in the end opt for the existing agreement. Under the terms agreed to four years ago, the Marines were to eventually relocate their airstrip to a less-populated part of the island prefecture. But many Okinawans oppose any Marine presence on the island.

The Futenma base has been unpopular among the now-largely pacifist Japanese public, particularly Okinawans. In 1995, three American servicemen from Futenma abducted and raped a local schoolgirl, further stoking opposition to the base. Aircraft crashes are also an ongoing public safety concern on the island, which hosts several Japanese and American military bases in addition to Futenma, along with some 20,000 U.S. personnel. …

“This is not a good moment to be taking large numbers of U.S. forces out of Japan,” Sheila Smith, an analyst from the New York City-based Council on Foreign Relations, told World Politics Review. “The U.S., South Korea and Australia have been very vocal to Japan, saying, ‘Hey, be careful what you’re doing.'”

“The Japanese understand that,” Smith continued. “The fact is that the capability of the U.S. Marines — they being a deterrent and a first-response capability, flexible and fast — is the whole reason for basing them in Japan. I don’t think anybody at any moment questioned that the Marines ought not to be brought home. The question is which community in Japan will be comfortable hosting them.”

But that led to what Smith called a “not-in-my-backyard” paradox, where no Japanese community wanted to host a large U.S. base, even if most Japanese concur that American bases are, in principle, necessary. Hatoyama, it seems, underestimated the strength of that sentiment when he teased Okinawan voters with the prospect of removing the Marines from the island.