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Futenma: Kiss of death for Japan Prime Minister?

Date Posted: 2010-04-22

In a high stakes political game, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama appears to have placed all his cards on the table in a way that only supports moving Futenma Marine Corps Air Station to Tokunoshima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture.

When he took the gamble and put his chips on Tokunoshima, he seemed to believe his advisors that the citizens of the tiny island would back his play. They haven’t! With resounding fury, Tokunoshima residents have told the Prime Minister not to even think about moving American troops and helicopters to their island.

“If the decision is not made to relocate the functions to Tokunoshima, the Cabinet will have to resign en masse,” is how one Diet Upper House member from Hatoyama’s own Democratic Party of Japan described the dire circumstances. The belief is that Hatoyama will have no choice but to step down as Prime Minister if his gambit to move the controversial U.S. Marine base from Okinawa to Tokunoshima fails.

Another lawmaker from Hatoyama’s DPJ said Hatoyama “finds himself driven into a corner, and it’s he who is shooting himself in the foot.” Some 15,000 Tokunoshima residents turned out Sunday for a rally to tell Tokyo they’re not interested. The U.S. Government continues to tell Tokyo they want the 2006 deal made between Japan and the United States to be implemented. That plan calls for moving Futenma from downtown Ginowan City to sparsely populated northern Okinawa, with the bulk of the new base on an existing U.S. Marine Base, Camp Schwab, with two V-shape runways extending into Oura Bay on reclaimed land.

Even with Tokunoshima citizens voicing opposition, Hatoyama reacted to Sunday’s demonstration as only “one expression of the public opinion.” The Prime Minister’s own Defense Minister, Toshimi Kitazawa, has now conceded it would be difficult for Hatoyama to move forward with a plan to relocate Futenma to Tokunoshima. “We must take it extremely seriously that half of the island’s residents demonstrated their opposition to the plan,” he said.

“Under current conditions, says Kitazawa, “it would be pretty difficult for us to ask Tokunoshima to host the base.” That brings the spotlight back to Henoko in northern Okinawa’s Nago City, and the agreement made by the previous Japanese government. Hatoyama has said he wouldn’t keep Futenma in Okinawa, despite U.S. government encouragement he do so.

“Since I’ve said we will settle the issue by the end of May,” Hatoyama says, “there’s no other way but to proceed with the plan with determination.” The Prime Minister didn’t say whether he’d resign voluntarily if the Futenma issue wasn’t resolved within the coming six weeks.

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