Described by many as the worst crisis in decades in Japan-US relations, the controversy surrounding the relocation of the US Futenma air base in Okinawa has left Japan’s Prime Minister with the choice of defying its most important ally or breaking a key election pledge. But as David McNeill reports, whatever the outcome, the debate has reinforced Okinawans’ disillusionment with power politics and government promises.
Exactly half a century ago, Tokyo and Washington signed a landmark agreement so divisive it forced then US president Dwight D. Eisenhower to cancel a trip to Japan, led to the resignation of Japanese Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi and sparked riots and violent demonstrations by students and trade unionists across this country.
Yet, despite the best efforts of its opponents, the US-Japan Security Treaty (AMPO)–the keystone of US defence policy in Asia–is still with us. The two sides officially celebrated its 50th anniversary last month even as they were buffeted by what may be the most serious crisis in the treaty’s history. Many wonder if it will survive at all.
The treaty is one of the odder creations of international diplomacy because it depends on a key contradiction: How can a country that is supposedly neutral and pacifist also be a key player in the US global defence network? The answer, points out Japan-based political scientist Douglas Lummis, is Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture.
Nearly a thousand miles from Tokyo, and a psychological world away, Okinawa hosts about 75 percent of all US military facilities in Japan. Thousands of young marines–many battle-scarred from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan–are uneasily stationed there. The Marine’s ageing Futenma air base squats smack in the centre of crowded Ginowan City, bringing noise, pollution and crime.
For decades, Okinawans complained of being forced to bear the burdens–and contradictions–of the nation’s entire defence strategy. Out of sight and mostly out of mind of the mainland, they demanded the US bases and troops be spread more evenly around Japan. Until last year, they were largely ignored by a succession of conservative governments led by the Liberal Democrats (LDP). But the election of the liberal-left Democrats (DPJ) under Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has raised hopes of long-awaited change.
The prime minister has made little secret of his desire to end what he calls Japan’s ‘subservience’ to US interests. He has publicly questioned whether Japan should host any American troops at all during peacetime and called for a major reassessment of military policies that he believes are still frozen in Cold War amber.
Before being elected, he demanded a review of a 2006 agreement calling for the replacement of the ageing Futenma base with a giant seaport, including an 1800-meter runway, in a pristine and ecologically important area off of Okinawa’s northern coastline–paid for with Japanese taxes. Okinawans responded by overwhelmingly backing the DPJ in a general election last August. Now, they’re wondering if they made a mistake.
Caught between Washington’s increasingly insistent demands to honour the 2006 deal and his promise to Okinawa, Mr. Hatoyama dithered before deciding to appoint a government committee to adjudicate. His strategy now seems to be to wait until the outcome of local elections in Okinawa before making a final decision in May.
That has been a cue for shrill denunciations in the Japanese press of the prime minister’s ‘confusion’ over Okinawa, saying it risks damaging or even destroying the alliance. Opting for the Hatoyama route means Japan ‘would have to increase its 5-trillion-yen defence budget by 10 percent annually for the next 10 years,’ warned Se’taku political magazine in February.
As always, many on the island have a different take. Why on earth does the mainland press always talk like Japan is a ‘sulky teenager’ in its relationship with Washington, wonders Yoshikazu Makishi, an Okinawa-born architect and environmentalist. ‘This is a relationship between two grownups–Japan can say no. Then the two sides could begin to have mutual respect.’
The Futenma issue shows that at least one aspect of the relationship hasn’t changed in half a century, says Makishi: the views of locals on this tiny speck in the Pacific are again being drowned out by the demands of big power politics in Washington and Tokyo. And the ‘liberal’ regime in Washington is, if anything, more demanding than the neo-conservative government that it replaced.
Photo Credit: Akifumi Matsuzaki