Did Washington Bring Down the Japanese Prime Minister?

It’ll be even harder for the next leader to meet U.S. demands.

The beach-lined shores of Oura Bay

In March, I found myself standing on the white sand of the beach-lined shores of Oura Bay in northern Okinawa, Japan, looking out on a postcard view of green islets set in azure waters. It could have been the site of a Club Med resort. Instead, behind me were the beige stucco barracks of Camp Schwab, home to the 4th U.S. Marine Regiment.

This quiet spot is ground zero for a political storm that this week brought stunning change to the government of Japan. Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, along with Democratic Party of Japan leader Ichiro Ozawa, resigned Wednesday due to a dispute over plans to relocate the U.S. Marine Air Station at Futenma, in the southern part of Okinawa, to this base. Resistance to plans to fill the sparkling bay with a massive landfill covered with concrete runways, aprons, and sheds for Marine transport aircraft and helicopters proved to be their undoing.

This marks the first time a Japanese government has fallen over U.S.-Japan security issues since Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi was forced to step down in the wake of massive demonstrations against the conservative government’s decision to ram through the passage of a revised security treaty in 1960. Currently, the Japanese public blames Hatoyama and the DPJ for mismanaging the alliance. It is a narrative that the Japanese mass media has been pounding away at for months, and there is some truth to it. But eventually, if not immediately, the Japanese public is likely to notice that the nation’s principal ally, the United States, was intimately involved in, if not directly responsible for, the downfall of the Japanese prime minister.

For reasons of history and geography, Okinawa bears a preponderate share of the U.S. military presence in Japan. Almost three-quarters of the land area of American bases is on Okinawa, taking up 20 percent of the island itself. The DPJ pledged to reduce that burden, a stance that helped the party and its coalition partners sweep all the parliament seats in Okinawa in the September 2009 election.

So when the DPJ took office, following a stunning electoral victory that ended a half-century of nearly uninterrupted conservative rule in Japan, the new government sought to re-examine the Futenma relocation plan to reduce the base footprint on the island. But the Pentagon refused to reopen the issue, a message Secretary of Defense Robert Gates delivered in rather blunt fashion during an October visit to Japan.

In the months that followed, Hatoyama and his government veered, with increasing desperation, between trying to satisfy the electorate and finding a solution that Washington might accept. They floated a series of options, some serious, some less than half-baked, including failed efforts to persuade reluctant communities in the rest of Japan to take on some of Okinawa’s burden. The Pentagon insisted that only the Schwab plan was viable, because the local administration, thanks to Japanese government largess and the promise of construction contracts on the landfill job, had signed off on the plan. But despite that backing, not a single shovel of sand had been moved, and a small army of environmentalists and other protesters stood ready to block Schwab’s gate the first time a dump truck headed that way.

By December of last year, efforts to find a viable alternative were floundering, and the government, worried about the growing public spat with the Americans, appeared ready to accept the original plan, with some measures to ameliorate local concerns about noise and the environment. But Hatoyama and party boss Ozawa balked when the small but politically important left-wing Social Democratic Party threatened to bolt the coalition government over the issue. They worried that if the DPJ lost its thin majority in the Upper House, the opposition could block passage of the budget in parliament and potentially trigger a new general election.

Obama administration officials grew increasingly exasperated with what they saw as Hatoyama’s indecisive, even erratic, leadership. In calculated press leaks and private conversations, they fed growing fears in Japan that the prime minister was dangerously undermining the alliance, and they quietly encouraged talk of replacing him.

Americans harbored growing concerns about the new government’s desire to strike a more independent pose, along with Hatoyama’s gauzy vision of a new East Asia Community, modeled on the European Union. “The basic issue is that Hatoyama was determined to establish more strategic independence for Japan but did not understand that without Japan developing any alternative strategy for its own defense, this was a dead end,” a senior official told me this week. American officials lectured Japan about the strategic importance of the Marines in countering China’s rise without any sense of irony that the Obama administration is engaged in its own, largely unrequited, courtship of Beijing.

While Americans squeezed Hatoyama’s government, the pressures on the home front also increased. In January, voters in the area around Schwab elected a mayor who ran on a platform opposing the new base. Even the conservative governor of Okinawa moved to oppose the base plan, which he had previously backed.

Hatoyama’s poll numbers plummeted as the Japanese public saw him unable to resolve conflicting demands and held him responsible for a growing crisis in the U.S.-Japan alliance. State Department officials, led by the U.S. ambassador in Tokyo, softened, though didn’t fundamentally change, the base plan. Last week, Hatoyama gave in, offering a plaintive apology for finally accepting the construction of the new base, though leaving crucial details to be negotiated later this summer. Echoing U.S. officials, Hatoyama pointed to the North Korean sinking of a South Korean naval vessel and growing concerns about Chinese military activity to argue that he now understood the need for the Marines and their helicopters to stay on Okinawa.

Privately, though, Japanese officials tell a different tale. “I do not consider that the Korean situation as well as the exchanges with the Chinese had much impact on Hatoyama’s decision on Futenma,” a close adviser to the prime minister told me. “The Futenma decision comes very much out of the domestic situation—there was nowhere to relocate Futenma. The tense situation surrounding Korea may help to explain the decision to the general public, but it has nothing to do with the decision itself.”

Unfortunately for Hatoyama and the DPJ, it was way too late to convince the Japanese public of anything. As Japanese officials warned last winter, their coalition partners in the Social Democratic Party left the government in protest and threatened to back a no-confidence resolution in the Upper House of parliament. Weekend polls showed that even though two-thirds of Japanese citizens oppose the American solution, they still blamed Hatoyama for mishandling the affair. With his own party now worried that he would drag them down to defeat in Upper House elections in July, Hatoyama, along with Ozawa, left the stage.

The clipped White House statement left little doubt that Hatoyama’s departure was welcome in Washington. But is this a pyrrhic victory? The next government is likely to be even less able to negotiate, much less to force Okinawa to accept the new base. A weakened DPJ will probably have to forge a new coalition after the July Upper House election. Come November, Okinawa voters may elect a new governor who is an even more radical foe of all U.S. bases on the island. And the persistence of the Okinawa squabble will demonstrate to many Japanese people that Washington bears as much responsibility for this crisis as the departed prime minister.

Eventually, after their anger and disappointment with Hatoyama fades, the Japanese people will turn their eyes toward Washington and wonder whether this is how allies should treat each other. It is a good question.

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