Issue of US base a ‘ticking time bomb’ for Japanese PM

Irish Times
By David McNeill
April 22, 2010

JAPANESE PRIME minister Yukio Hatoyama has apologised to the people of a small Japanese island for sparking rumours that they could be forced to host a huge US military heliport.

Mr Hatoyama said in parliament yesterday that he was “very sorry for causing concern” to Tokunoshima Island, after more than half its population of 28,000 came out last weekend to protest against such a base.

The humiliating mea culpa is the latest episode in an issue that has become political kryptonite in the prime minister’s seven-month-old government – and which may well cause his downfall this summer.

Mr Hatoyama said last month that he would “risk his [political] life” to solve one of Japan’s most vexing foreign-policy problems – reducing the huge US military burden on Japan’s southernmost prefecture, Okinawa. …

Mr Obama’s government is demanding that Tokyo honour a 2006 agreement to replace Futenma with a giant seaport, including an 1,800m runway, off Okinawa’s northern coast near the town of Nago – all paid for by Japan. In January, Nago voters gave their verdict on the row when they elected the virulently anti-base Susumu Inamine as mayor. …

This week, the mayors of three towns on Tokunoshima – about 200km north of Okinawa – revealed that they had been approached by Tokyo to see whether they were amenable to a solution. They were not, and when news of the plan leaked angry citizens staged the biggest protest in the history of the island. ….