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Prime Minister snubbed in Washington: Hatoyama struggles to find acceptable Futenma solution

Date Posted: 2010-04-15

Yukio Hatoyama sat next to U.S. President Barack Obama during a Monday night state dinner in Washington, but he didn’t get a chance to meet with America’s leader in any formal setting during the Nuclear Security Summit Monday and Tuesday.

Japan’s Prime Minister, who last November told the American president to “trust me” on finding a solution on where to move the controversial Futenma Marine Corps Air Station, has found himself unable to find any alternative plan to the May 2006 agreement made by his predecessors in Tokyo, while stirring discontent from virtually every corner from communities that have cropped up as potential new sites for the base now located in densely populated Ginowan City.

He’s promised to make a decision by the end of May, but nobody is comfortable predicting what route Hatoyama will go. Some sources say he’ll ultimately stick with the 2006 Agreement between Japan and the United States, despite his campaign pledges to the contrary, because the U.S. continues to call it the only reasonable plan. Other plans abound, including one of creating an artificial island between White Beach and Katsuren Peninsula on Okinawa’s eastern shores to house joint U.S. and Japan Air Self Defense Units with a set of two 3,500-meter-long runways, as well as space for moving the Naha Military Port operated by the U.S.

Yet another proposal is to move Futenma to Tokunoshima in Kanagawa Prefecture on the mainland for fixed wing aircraft while building a heliport at Camp Schwab in northern Okinawa. Still another plan being proposed by Yoshihiro Kawakami, a House of Councilors member, that U.S. Marines be moved to Guam and Futenma kept only for emergencies.

Hatoyama had hoped for one-on-one time with President Obama during the sessions with leaders from 47 countries, so he could “tell him about the progress” of his government’s actions on finding a solution within the next few weeks. He was rebuffed, although Obama did meet with Chinese and Indian leaders, as well as those from seven other countries. Japan received no responses on its requests for meetings, according to diplomatic sources.

Diplomatic sources also say the U.S. government is refraining from any substantive talks with Japan until it learns of exactly what Hatoyama is going to propose. The fact that differing stories are bouncing in Japan about what the Democratic Party of Japan-led government will propose—and the fact Okinawan leaders are being told different stories than what the media is quoting national leaders on—is leading to a sidelines perspective by the U.S. The U.S. Ambassador to Japan, John Roos, has told Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada America wasn’t prepared to begin working level talks on a Futenma replacement site by the end of this week. Roos says Japan must first provide specific, concrete proposals and gain the support and approval of local communities involved in any new plans, before the U.S. will start talking.

Hatoyama did gain some attention at the Nuclear Summit, offering a proposal “establishing a nuclear security support facility in Japan with the aim of beefing up nonproliferation and security measures against nuclear terrorism.”

Sources said it would not be appropriate for Hatoyama to bring up the Futenma issue, which has become a major headache for both Japan and the United States. "I want to use all my strength to realize the Tokunoshima (plan)," Hatoyama told Cabinet members before departing for the U.S., signaling to some, at least, the direction in which he’s leaning. Other government officials are disagreeing; hinting Hatoyama will eventually slide back to the May 2006 agreement established when the Liberal Democratic Party led the country.

The U.S. Marines are vehemently against the Tokunoshima plan, because it would separate the Marine aircraft and the Marines being supported by a 200-kilometer distance, an unacceptable distance in military tacticians’ eyes. Tokunoshima residents are against the idea too, staging a rally last month to protest, with another set for later this month.

The White Beach-Katsuren Peninsula idea is faring no better, with local seaweed growers and members of the DPJ's two coalition partners — the Social Democratic Party and Kokumin Shinto (People's New Party)—outright opposed. The plan’s been around for years, first introduced by Robert Eldredge, an advisor to the Marine Corps. He proposed the artificial island in 2005, pitching it to Norio Ota, honorary president of the Okinawa Chamber of Commerce, and to Wallace Gregson, then the three-star commander of U.S. Marines in the Pacific and now an assistant secretary of defense for Asian affairs.

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