Now, Tokyo.

Okinawan opposition to Futenma has been around for decades, but unfortunately for the Okinawans, so was the Liberal Democratic Party. The LDP was finally ousted, in the Fall of 2009. The LDP was not terribly interested in the Futenma issue, but it did negotiate the 2005 agreement where Futenma’s air assets would be relocated to a northern part of the island, apparently with an airfield/heliport that was to be built over a coral reef.

The Democratic Party of Japan, which came to power in 2009, made re-negotiating the 2005 agreement a key part of its platform. Part of this was to placate their ruling coalition partners in the Social Democratic Party. The SDP, the most pacifist of Japan’s mainstream political parties, not only wants the base gone and opposes relocation elsewhere in Okinawa, it’s skeptical of the U.S.-Japanese military alliance in general. They’re a hard crowd to please.

There were other reasons. The DPJ has long tried to articulate a foreign policy that differentiates itself from that of the LDP, which was completely, unashamedly, reflexively pro-American. Exactly what would replace that has been far from clear, but now it appears that Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama wants to tone down Japan’s subservient relationship with the United States a bit and focus more on building an Asian version of the European Union. How realistic that is is probably fodder for another post, but that’s the direction he’s trying to take Japan.

A lot of Japan watchers are looking at the DPJ and Futenma as indicative of an innate anti-American streak within the ruling coalition. Now that the DPJ and SDP are in power, now it’s time to stick it to the Yankees. Right? Some are even going so far as to question if Japan is tilting towards China.

I’m not so sure about that. I believe that they’re making a big deal about Futenma because Japan’s traditional role within the U.S.-Japan alliance has been a subservient one and that this is a way of Japan asserting territorial sovereignty and independence from the U.S. Hatoyama doesn’t want to break with the U.S., but does want to show how a DPJ government can cast Japan as a more equal partner than the LDP used to. What further proof do you need that Japan is an unequal partner when you have a major American airbase smack dab in the middle of a Japanese city?

That having been said, I believe Hatoyama and the DPJ miscalculated. The Hatoyama government, if it truly had a handle on the situation, would not have pushed the basing issue as hard as it has. There are no good alternatives for the United States, as I’ll get into in the next post.

Japan is an island country with an island mentality–that is, it has a hard time getting a handle on the rest of the world and other perspectives. I have difficulty understanding how Hatoyama and company thought this issue could get any traction with the United States, especially with the U.S. as busy as it is. From the U.S. perspective, this is a minor issue, and it was solved five years ago. The United States, embroiled in two wars and dealing with a rising China, Iran and the nuclear issue, the Arab-Israeli conflict, etc considers the Futenma issue an irritation and is not interested in re-negotiating the 2005 agreement. I’m sure to the Japanese this is a very serious issue, but Hatoyama should have calculated that the interest of the United States in renegotiating Futenma was directly proportional to how engaged it was elsewhere in the world.

So Hatoyama bets his political future on getting the base moved, but the U.S., distracted as it is, says “deal with it,” and refuses to move. Now we’re in a major political crisis over a minor issue that only realistically affects a very small part of Japan, with potentially far-reaching implications for an alliance more than sixty years old. The immediate risk is the toppling of the government of a major ally and economic world leader over base that–if you count airframes in Google Maps–currently houses only about 18 aircraft. The long term…who knows.

Hatoyama claims he has some secret plan for resolving the issue. He says he’ll “stake his life” on it, with what is becoming his typical melodrama. He’s a bit of an odd duck. (Some would say a Volgon.) He also blew his own self-imposed deadline for resolving this, so whatever the plan is, keeping it secret right now is more important than his credbility.

Personally, I think he has no idea what to do, and has painted himself into a corner on an issue that essentially has no good outcome.

Next: Part Four, and the view from Washington.

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A contributor and editor at the blog War Is Boring, Kyle Mizokami started Japan Security Watch in 2010 to further understand Japan's defenses and security policy.
Kyle Mizokami has 596 post(s) on Japan Security Watch