The Futenma Debate: No Way Out for Hatoyama

One of the defining issues of Yukio Hatoyama`s seven-month-old prime ministership has been the ongoing brouhaha about relocation of the Futenma airbase. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) signed an agreement with the United States to move the base to the outskirts of an existing Marine infantry base, Camp Schwab, in 2005. The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) swept to power last year; one of their flagship pledges being to move Futenma first out of Okinawa, and then out of Japan altogether. They claim that as the 2005 agreement was signed by a different government, it does not apply to them. The United States counters that they signed a deal with the Government of Japan, and the Government of Japan, whomever that may consist of, must honour the deal.

Even with the most skilful handling, Mr Hatoyama may have found it impossible to garner a compromise which satisfied all interested parties; his cabinet, the Okinawan prefectural government, local communities, and most of all the United States and the 50-year-old bilateral alliance. What he has actually done is to dig himself an inescapably deep political hole with the twin shovels of dithering and incompetence. After his election, he promised a compromise solution by the end of the year. This was pushed back to May 2010, angering Washington. To complicate matters, in January citizens of Nago City, home to Camp Schwab, elected a new mayor on an anti-base platform, making it very difficult for Hatoyama to go back to the original 2005 plan. Then, perhaps most inexplicably, he implied that he was bringing back the deadline from May, saying; `It’s already March. If the decision cannot be made by the end of the month, we may run out of time`. April arrived with no sign of agreement, and now the original May deadline looms without any sign of a deal being reached.

As American officials fume at the lack of progress, and the base issue overshadows much larger concerns such as the changing North Korean situation and increased Chinese naval activity around Japanese waters, Hatoyama continues to offer no more than the odd platitude (`I`m risking my political life on this issue`, `I want to decide what to do as soon as possible`) in place of real leadership. He himself has shown no preference on which of the possible options he prefers for the relocation of Futenma, much less the political will to try and bring other cabinet members around to his point of view. One of his campaign pledges was to introduce cabinet-controlled drafting of legislation on the Westminster model, but he seems to have used this as an excuse to entirely remove himself from his position as cabinet head. The result has been akin to a class of rowdy children whose teacher has left the room. Lacking supervision, other cabinet members have begun to bandy about opposing views and personal criticisms, in public as well as in private; witness the argument conducted by Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada and Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa in the pages of the national newspapers. They’ve probably started chucking pencils and firing elastic bands across the room in cabinet meetings as well.

Hatoyama may claim that he has to be cautious, because his is a coalition government, reliant on the support of the Social Democratic Party of Japan (SDPJ), who have threatened to leave the coalition if Futenma is not moved away from Okinawa. However, this is surely an empty threat. The SPDJ exercise far more power than their national support deserves (it gained 7 out of 480 seats at the last general election) as part of the ruling coalition, and to leave it mere months into a four year term would be tantamount to political suicide. The tail should certainly not be wagging the dog on this issue.

Others argue that Hatoyama is making a show of resisting American pressure, because his government is at heart anti-American. This argument is surely too ridiculous to require too much debunking. If Hatoyama was anti-American, his decision would surely be easier; tell the US to pack their bags and go home. The time and effort which has gone into finding a workable alternative to Futenma show the importance to Japan of an equable relationship which includes American troops on Japanese soil.

Whatever defense might be put up for Hatoyama, without his leadership the government has been allowed to split on the issue. Without his deciding a personal preference, based on extensive research of all the alternatives, to the Futenma plan, he has been unable to push negotiations in any particular direction. Having not produced any kind of detailed alternative to the existing plan, he even takes away the ability of the United States to offer a compromise. In place of this detailed plan, he repeats the mantra `trust me`, like a third rate television hypnotist. Even if a new deal is hammered out tomorrow, the electorate, the U.S., and the people of Okinawa will be dissatisfied with Hatoyama`s performance. On Futenma, as on fiscal reform and postal privatization, his approach has been a curious mix of laissez-faire leadership and policy statements so woolly they could be marketed as sweaters. The result has been to allow bickering subordinates to gain prominence in national media outlets, leaving him like a cat that has been put out for the night, scratching ineffectually at the back door to be let back in.

Poor Japan. After 50 years of one party LDP rule, the rise of the DPJ gave you the relative stability and normality of a two party system for a few short months. Now, thanks to the exquisite incompetence of the two party leaders, you appear to be trapped in a no-party system. You deserve better.

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About Japanese travel

I`m a Brit living in Japan, not doing very much of note but enjoying it all the same
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