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Prime Minister Hatoyama’s Surprise

by Sheila A. Smith
June 2, 2010

Photo courtesy of REUTERS/POOL

Yesterday’s resignation of Yukio Hatoyama as Japan’s prime minister was swift and complete. Prime Minister Hatoyama cited two reasons for his decision to step down. The first was his failure to fulfill a campaign promise to move the U.S. Marine Air Station Futenma off Okinawa, and the resultant collapse of his coalition with the Social Democrats. The second was his personal responsibility – along with that of the party’s secretary general Ozawa Ichiro – for ruining the party’s reform effort with suspicions of old school money politics.

The past eight months have been a challenge for U.S. alliance managers, who were unprepared for the unpredictability of the day-to-day relationship with Japan’s new government. The historic transfer of power was broadly praised as a significant step in the longer term process of political change in Japan. The dominance of the LDP had long seemed an anachronism, but the transition process last year created new challenges. The priorities of the new DPJ Cabinet with respect to alliance goals were unclear, and the new policy team lead by Prime Minister Hatoyama seemed to have difficulty forging a consensus.

But more than anything, the inherent difficulty of U.S. military basing in Okinawa took the new DPJ government by surprise. The early U.S. insistence on the implementation of the plan agreed upon in 2006 to construct a new runway in Henoko made a full policy review difficult, and in many ways pushed the new government into a series of decisions it was unprepared for. The DPJ had committed itself to reconsidering the plan devised under the LDP to relocate the Marines within Okinawa prefecture. Yet the former opposition party did not have full access to the policy rationales for that choice, nor did it fully understand the political realities of building a consensus on policy change within Okinawa. Arguing for dispersing the Marines’ operations to other localities in Japan, Prime Minister Hatoyama made a series of public appeals to communities in Kagoshima prefecture and other locales, instantly prompting public rejections of his appeals for help. At the same time, Okinawa residents also rejected his efforts to find a compromise option that included building a facility within their island, and the political movement rejecting the plan to construct a runway within Okinawa gained significant momentum.

Today, the DPJ’s first Cabinet has resigned in disarray. Hatoyama has taken responsibility for the party’s difficult first eight months of governance. On Friday, the DPJ will select a new leader, and a policy team will be formed for a second effort to govern Japan. This second chance at meeting the party’s promise to offer Japanese voters a viable alternative approach to solving the country’s economic and social problems will likely make or break the DPJ. It is too early to know how the lessons learned by the Hatoyama Cabinet will be internalized by the party, but with Futenma so visibly on the list of mistakes made, the U.S. government will also need to reassess the past eight months and consider the lessons learned for future alliance cooperation. With the Korean peninsula becoming less predictable, it will be imperative for Washington and Tokyo to renew their efforts, build trust and set forth an agenda for the U.S.-Japan alliance that reassures both countries and the region, that the difficulties surrounding Futenma can be overcome.

Post a Comment 6 Comments

  • Posted by Arun

    While Uzbekistan could evict the US from an airbase that is important to the current war effort, Japan cannot even relocate a base that is standing sentinel; and a government falls.

    What is the underlying difference?

  • Posted by Aceface


  • Posted by Nathan

    Uzbekistan was all about who was paying what; Russians paid more.

    The issue with Futenma was not about removing the base, which would be easy. It was about relocating the base in a nation full of people who mostly wanted the alliance and my base but were almost entirely Not-In-My-Back-Yarders.

    The moving part was already agreed to; it was the where that was the question.

  • Posted by MOTOYe Kenkicho

    Thank you,Your cool blog’s japanese renew.

  • Posted by Publius

    I just like to express my sincere gratitude to Dr. Sheila A. Smith for her very accurate and intricate analysis on the current ongoing situation of the DPJ government in terms of the Futenma relocation issue.

    Allow me to supplement her article with a couple of facts, if I may.

    First, the agreement was finally reached between the US government and the Japanese government on May 28th 2010, under which both sides confirmed the intention to locate the Futenma Replacement Facility (FRF) at the Henoko area, a small seaside village located in the Nago city of Okinawa Island.

    However, the agreement seems to be far from a permanent solution. Instead, the situation is still very fluid. If the Okinawa people, especially the people of Nago city strongly oppose to the construction of the FRF, there will be a deadlock. In a democracy, nobody, even a government, can construct a military base against an opposing local people. The agreement of May 28th may never be implemented.

    According to a poll, 84% of the Okinawa people demand that the FRF to be located out of Okinawa. No governor, no mayor, or no village leader in Okinawa supports the Henoko plan.

    Under the present legal system, the Okinawa governor has the final authority to approve a construction of any facility on the seaside area. This authority comes from a regional government’s inherent right to protect local environment. Therefore, even the central government can never take it away. If the central government enacts a law to remove the authority from the opposing governor, it would be unconstitutional. Federalism works here.

    Secondly, when you compare the texts of the 2006 agreement made under the LDP government and the agreement of May 28th 2010, you will notice remarkable differences in the style and substance. The 2006 agreement provides that both governments “will locate” the FRF at the Henoko area. However, the 2010 agreement provides that both governments “confirmed the intention to locate” the FRF at the Henoko area. The reserved text of the 2010 agreement seems to reflect the unpredictability and uncertainty of the construction of the FRF at the Henoko area.

    Also, the 2010 agreement, for the first time, provides that both governments recognize the concern of the Okinawa people, and that both governments committed to examine the relocation of the US force’s training out of Okinawa to (1) Tokunoshima, a small island in the Kagoshima prefecture, (2) the Japanese Self-Defense Force’s facilities in the Japanese mainland, or (3) outside of Japan such as to Guam.

    Therefore, it would be fair to say that both governments, recognizing the strong opposition of the Okinawa people, are beginning to get prepared for the contingency of a quagmire surrounding the construction of the FRF at the Henoko area.

    Thirdly, there is a quiet yet determined movement among legislators of different parties in the Japanese parliament that seeks for coalition-building to demand the relocation of the FRF out of Okinawa. This movement of coalition-building among legislators is spearheaded by the Social Democratic Party who had opposed to the agreement of May 28th 2010, and, as a result of that, was evicted out of the government by former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.

    Whether this coalition-building among legislators will expand to make a majority in the Japanese parliament is yet to be known. However, if the Japanese parliament makes such a resolution that the FRF should be located out of Okinawa, the Cabinet will be forced to review and revise the agreement of May 28th 2010.

  • Posted by Orville

    You are so interesting! I do not think I’ve truly read anything like this before. So wonderful to discover someone with some original thoughts on this subject. Really.. many thanks for starting this up. This website is one thing that is needed on the internet, someone with some originality!

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