Tokyo Notes

Deadline? What Deadline?

When’s a deadline not a deadline? When it’s been made by PM Yukio Hatoyama…

When’s a deadline not a deadline? When it’s been made by Yukio Hatoyama. When’s a leader’s promise not a campaign pledge? When it’s been made by Yukio Hatoyama.

In danger of becoming a bad political joke, Japan’s prime minister has dug himself into deeper political trouble over the issue of the Futenma air base relocation issue by denying that a promise he made to move the base outside Okinawa Prefecture was a manifesto pledge and by reportedly dropping his self-imposed deadline to resolve the issue by the end of May.

Hatoyama’s attempt to redefine his outside-Okinawa commitment as a promise he made as party leader but not an actual campaign pledge, might tally up with the written content of the Democratic Party of Japan’s election manifesto, but it flies in the face of common logic and the party’s idea of politicians taking more responsibility for what they say.

Meanwhile, the decision to drop the deadline has had cabinet ministers looking to play down its original significance. On Tuesday Defence Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said continuation of negotiations beyond the end of May ‘can’t be helped,’ according to Kyodo News. Earlier, Government Revitalization Minister Yukio Edano had questioned whether the progress and effort made toward reaching a solution should be discarded because of failing to meet the deadline, according to the Asahi Shimbun daily.

Renegotiating a bilateral accord over the relocation of a US air base that no region in Japan wants to host was always going to be an extremely difficult task, but the prime minister already bought himself time back in December by setting the May deadline. To ask for more time again casts yet further doubt on a DPJ administration that has managed to overshadow its achievements through its chaotic handling of the Futenma issue.

With the local mayors of Tokunoshima island in Kagoshima Prefecture rejecting talk even of helicopter drills being held there, Hatoyama and co. will now have to find another way of trying to save some fragment of face over the matter as we head past the May deadline. The Asahi suggested Tuesday that this might come in the form of adding an environmental clause to the US-Japan Status of Forces Agreement.

Making the Americans do and pay more to clean up after themselves will no doubt win some plaudits, but it’s hard to see the DPJ emerging from this mess without leaving all sides distinctly unhappy—from Okinawans and voters nationwide to the US and the other members of Hatoyama’s coalition government.