Japan-US ties in Question

Recent Features

Features | Security | East Asia

Japan-US ties in Question

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.

If you need an example, look at who has been appointed Director of the State Department’s Office of Japan Affairs under Barack Obama. In his previous post as US Consul on Okinawa, Kevin Maher was ‘well known for his arrogance and rudeness toward the Okinawan people,’ recalls Lummis. He cites an incident in 2008 where Maher shouted ‘baka yaro’ (you idiots) at a group of demonstrators. ‘This from a career diplomat.’

Okinawans have more reason than most to be sceptical of big power plans. As a new Japanese government probe will undoubtedly prove, even Japan’s so-called three nonnuclear principles–committing the country to never produce, possess or allow the entry of nuclear weapons–were not safe from the political calculations needed to maintain the facade of pacifism.

The no-nuke rule, outlined by Prime Minister Sato Eisaku in 1967 and formally adopted by the Diet in 1971, was undermined by a backroom deal struck between Washington and Tokyo that was signed by Sato and President Richard Nixon in 1969. Its origins go back at least four years to a memo signed at the US Embassy in Tokyo in July 1965.

After decades of rumours, that secret pact–allowing nuclear-armed U.S. ships and aircraft to traffic over and through Okinawa and other parts of the country–was confirmed by a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry bureaucrat last summer.

The deal, agreed during the fraught negotiations to rewrite the security treaty in 1960 is said to have depended on a ‘misinterpretation.’ Tokyo claimed that it believed it would receive prior consultation before any nuclear-armed dockings or flyovers; Washington had no such understanding.

When the LDP discovered otherwise, it kept quiet—‘instead of publicly acknowledging a change in position,’ the leading, liberal-leaning Asahi Shimbun newspaper said last year. LDP politicians repeatedly denied the deal, and Sato even won the 1974 Nobel Peace Prize for his ‘opposition to any plans for a Japanese nuclear-weapons program.’ Today, the official bureaucratic line is still that the pact doesn’t exist.

Maher, therefore, has his work cut out for him on his old stomping ground. The prospect of having to live beside a huge new offshore US airbase has alarmed the citizens of Nago, the nearest small city and local polls show opposition running at over well over 70 percent. In January, voters opted for anti-base candidate Susumu Inamine against Yoshikazu Shimabukuro–hardly surprising since most Nago civilians believe the two governments ignored the outcome of a 1997 referendum against the relocation.

Inamine has given heft to a campaign largely shouldered until now by pensioners and students, who have camped for years in Heneko, the small village that will host the US facility. The election outcome has added an extra layer of complexity to an already vexing problem, and to the frustrations of US commanders. ‘National security policy cannot be made in towns and villages,’ Lt. Gen. Keith J. Stalder, commander of Marine forces in the Pacific, said in January.

As the deadline for a decision nears, many analysts believe Hatoyama will give way to US demands and face down the Okinawans–probably the least worst political option. But many have been surprised by his stubbornness so far. Whatever the final outcome of the dispute, says veteran Japan watcher Gavan McCormack in an essay in Japan Focus, ‘the Hatoyama government has so far withstood the most sustained barrage of US pressure, intimidation, insult, ultimatum and threat, and decided, at least for the present, to say: “No.”’

Nanako Otani assisted with this article.