Okinawa: The U.S. Marine base stays

TOKYO, Japan — In a decision some here have likened to signing a political suicide note, Japan’s prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, has been forced to apologize to the people of Okinawa after reneging on a promise to relocate a controversial U.S. Marine base off the island.

Hatoyama cited mounting tensions on the Korean peninsula as the main factor in his decision to retain a 2006 agreement to shift Futenma, a sprawling airbase located in the crowded city of Ginowan, to a remote location farther north near the town of Nago.

Hatoyama has decided to stick with the 2006 agreement — which keeps Futenma base on Okinawa but which moves it to a more remote location. Residents are angry because they say their island is overcrowded and they don't like the air base.

The volte-face earned Hatoyama instant praise from the U.S., with the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, lauding his “difficult but nevertheless correct decision."

"I thank him for his courage and determination to fulfill his commitments,” she told reporters in Beijing. “This is truly the foundation for our future work as allies in the Asia-Pacific region.”

Washington had objected to moving Futenma base off Okinawa, which it regards as strategically vital should American troops ever be called on to intervene in conflicts between the two Koreas or China and Taiwan.

Hatoyama, who has spent the past six months in a fruitless search for an alternative site, spent Sunday in Okinawa attempting to mend fences with angry local politicians and residents.

He conceded that the decision to renege on his campaign pledge had been “heartbreaking."

“I apologize from the bottom of my heart for the confusion that I have caused the people of Okinawa," he said.

But local leaders, who had hoped that the arrival of a center-left administration last summer would herald a fundamental rethink of the island’s role as host for the bulk of U.S. bases in Japan, could barely disguise their rage.

Susumu Inamine, the mayor of Nago, said the plan was "absolutely unacceptable."

"I cannot help feeling angry as this is a betrayal of the people of Nago and Okinawa,” he told Hatoyama during a fractious meeting at the weekend.

Recent demonstrations against U.S. bases have drawn thousands of protesters: On Sunday, about 1,000 people greeted Hatoyama with signs carrying the Japanese character for “anger” and imploring the Japanese leader to “go home."

(Here's a recent On Location video on the rising anger in Okinawa).

In an attempt to soften local opposition, Hatoyama said he would strive to move some of the Marines’ activities off Okinawa, and to win agreement from the U.S. to construct a new runway so that it would have minimal impact on the environment.

Japan is expected to formally announce the Futenma agreement at the end of this week and to unveil details before President Barack Obama visits Japan in November to attend the APEC summit.

Political uncertainties in the region forced Hatoyama to reconsider last year’s election promise to end Japan’s subservience to U.S. foreign policy and forge closer ties with China.

His U-turn on Futenma came days after South Korea presented evidence that one of its naval vessels had been sunk – with the loss of 46 sailors – by a North Korean torpedo in March, and soon after China sent ships to international waters near Okinawa.

“I decided that it is of utmost importance that we place the Japan-U.S. relationship on a solid relationship of mutual trust, considering the current situation in the Korean peninsula and in
Asia,'' he said.

Hatoyama’s acceptance of the original deal should lead to the transfer of 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam by 2014 in a $10 billion move to reduce the U.S. military footprint on Okinawa. Although it accounts for a tiny fraction of Japan’s land area, the island hosts 75 percent of U.S. military bases and about half of its 50,000 troops.

But the perception that Hatoyama has badly mishandled the issue could have serious political repercussions, and even force his resignation in coming weeks.

The leader of the left-wing Social Democratic party, a junior partner in Hatoyama’s government, has threatened to leave the coalition, while recent opinion polls suggest voters are preparing to punish him during upper house elections in July.

Tobias Harris, a U.S.-based Japan expert, believes the damage to the Hatoyama administration has already been done, “because the damage to the government's reputation had less to do with the substance of the realignment plan — about which the public is divided — than with the
government's gross incompetence in its handling of the issue.”

“Despite its persistent efforts to remind the public that all options were on the table, I wonder whether the public will see the government's actions as anything but capitulation after months of dithering,” wrote Harris on his Observing Japan blog.