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Make or break for Japan’s left

Japan's Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama has resigned after his failure to honour an election promise to move a US military base from Okinawa, Glyn Ford reports

June 22, 2010
7 min read

Less than nine months after a landslide victory in Lower House elections, Japan’s Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has been forced to resign leaving the future of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government on the line.

What precipitated his resignation was the humiliating U-turn on an election promise to move a major US base out of Okinawa. Hatoyama procrastinated for months as his decision over the base would either undermine Japan’s traditional subservient relationship with Washington and the Pentagon – with fierce pressure from Obama and Clinton – or break up his coalition government.

Now his successor Naoto Kan – admittedly enjoying a brief electoral honeymoon -has to hold together his three-party coalition, get government business through in the Upper House and keep DPJ MPs, elected from Okinawa, like Shokichi Kina (rock singer turned politician) on board.

Mizuho Fukushima, the Japanese Social Democratic Party (SDPJ) leader and consumer affairs minister, has already resigned from the Cabinet saying she could ‘not betray the Okinawans’. While the People’s New Party (PNP), Shizuka Kamei has also resigned, consequent to the decision to push ahead with the Upper House elections on 11 July and disagreement over post office privatisation – but for the moment the PNP remains part of the coalition.

Earlier in the year these elections looked merely unfinished business left over from last September’s victory inevitably securing the DPJ a clear majority without their two coalition partners. Now all bets are off. Even before the final decision on Okinawa, Hatoyama’s dithering had cost him dear with 73 per cent public dissatisfaction at his handling of the affair.

The DPJ’s election last September saw the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) out of office for the first time – save for a twelve month period – in well over half a century. Few outside of Japan would have imagined that, with a global financial crisis, an economy (some say, in a similar state to Greece) and another security crisis on the Korean Peninsula, it could be something so prosaic that would threaten the future stability of the government.

Ostensibly the issue was the future deployment of a single US military facility in Okinawa. In reality there were much more significant security and trade issues riding on the decision. Hatoyama has promised to devolve power to the regions and local governments, and to build a new relationship with his neighbours in the region. Both would see a Japan not without America, but with less America – and Tokyo in future on top, not on tap in the security relationship with Washington. Yet he handed Washington a stick to beat him with.

Security and trade issues

The DPJ’s economic priority was – and is – to negotiate a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the US. But Washington already has the Korea-US FTA, agreed back in June 2007, mouldering on the hill as the perceived threat to the US automotive industry makes early progress extremely unlikely. A US-Japan FTA would require much heavy lifting by the president that in the current climate he may not be capable of, but certainly without a compliant Japan he would not even attempt.

Since Japan’s surrender in August 1945, the US has utilised the prefecture of Okinawa – a 1000 km string of hundreds of islands between the south of Kyushu and Taiwan – to house one of the three or four sets of bases that allow it to project its military power globally. Despite that Okinawa, the smallest and poorest of Japan’s Prefectures (comprising less than 1 per cent of Japan’s land area), has had more that 50 per cent of the US military in Japan deployed on its territory – and in a particularly obtrusive way – taking up 20 per cent of Okinawa’s land area and 40 per cent of its arable land.

The base in question is the US Marine Corps Air Station at Futenma, on the main island of the chain, in the middle of Ginowan City. Futenma was the base for many of the operations against Iraq and now Afghanistan. It was agreed initially (1995) to move it to an offshore facility near Henoko (in the north of the island) – an agreement subsequently amended in 2005 to make Henoko an offshore extension of Camp Schwab in the same area. Both plans involve building over coral reefs, across sea grass beds and devastating the habitat of a rare species of dudong.

Local tensions and health concerns

The real problem is the people – the Okinawans don’t want the military bases, full stop. They have had enough. Demonstrations, protest camps outside the bases and land and sea campaigns are constant. The agreement to move Futenma in 1995 was triggered by a massive wave of protest, following the brutal rape of a twelve-year-old girl by three US servicemen, with anti-base demonstrations by up to 85,000 people – more than 10 per cent of the population.

The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the US and Japan grants ‘extraterritoriality’ to US soldiers, meaning they were immune from local prosecution and were tried by the US authorities. In the aftermath of the rape, a non-binding referendum saw 95 per cent of the population vote for the removal of all US bases, while 80 per cent of the population around Henoko voted against the relocation, despite the potential jobs on offer in a depressed area.

There are health problems, too. Studies around another city-based facility in Okinawa, the Kadena Air Base, where US planes fly 24 hours a day, show low birth weights, attributed to the disturbance faced by pregnant mothers from the noise, while around many of the bases, clusters of cancers and leukaemia have been reported. Clusters that local researchers blame on long-term pollution of the soil and atmosphere by fuel, oil, solvents and heavy metals associated with military activity.

Paying for their own misery

In the past it was all too convenient for both sides. Okinawa was the only significant part of Japan to be invaded by the US and its allies, with hundreds of thousands of men, women and children dying. It was also immediately turned into a formidable military launch pad for the proposed invasion of mainland Japan. An invasion only brought to a halt by the atomic bombs falling on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

For Tokyo, Okinawa was a rural backwater where they didn’t even speak ‘proper’ Japanese, at worst it was Japan’s first colony, not incorporated in Japan until 1879, when Okinawa’s children had their language beaten out of them. Even today on mainland Japan to sound or admit to being Okinawan is to invite discrimination.

Recent revelations that the Okinawans, along with the rest of Japan, are paying for their own misery haven’t helped. Secret protocols in the Okinawa Reversion Treaty of 1971 and in SOFA mean that Japan is contributing at least $100,000 per annum for each US serviceperson in Okinawa, and maybe two or three times that, meaning that Japanese taxpayers are paying dearly for the occupation of Okinawa with US troops costing less to deploy in Japan than at home. Repatriating the troops would cost the Pentagon money.

Since the reversion of Okinawa to Japan in 1972, the local population has fought a constant war of attrition to reclaim what they see as their land. In contrast to the rest of Japan, Okinawa showed strong support for the Japanese Communist Party, the SDP and Hatoyama’s DPJ. All three promised they would transform the situation – easy in opposition; but then suddenly two of the three were in government. The SDP made it clear that the US bases issue was a deal breaker, while the local party candidates used the DPJ’s commitment as central elements in their campaigns.

The desperate attempt by Hatoyama to look for an alternative site in Japan proved a disastrous farce. A suggestion of Tokunoshima, an island in the far north of the Okinawa chain that is part of Kagoshima Prefecture rather than Okinawa Prefecture led to mass demonstrations on the island and instant opposition from Kagoshima’s Governor Yuichiro Ito.

Mainland Japan may want US security but they don’t want US soldiers. Now the fight is on to secure a DPJ majority in the Upper House on 11 July. If they win, as they now well might, it is clear that despite the hope that Hatoyama’s resignation would kill the issue, the battle of Okinawa will return to haunt them.

Glyn Ford is a former Labour MEP

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