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Hatoyama dumps May 31st deadline on Futenma

Date Posted: 2010-05-14

“Will everything be over on May 31st? Probably not.” That’s how the Minister for Okinawa Affairs described the chaotic negotiations to find a replacement location for the controversial Futenma Marine Corps Air Station located in Ginowan.

Seiji Maehara, speaking to reporters, added that “it would be inevitable” for negotiations with officials in Okinawa and Tokunoshima to continue into June, and perhaps beyond. His words Sunday rang true on Monday, as Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama formally dropped his self-imposed deadline for deciding where and how to relocate Futenma.

Hatoyama, after meeting with his Foreign Minister, Katsuya Okada, Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa, and other officials, now says he’s going to focus on negotiating with Washington as his primary objective. Behind that decision is the intense opposition from both Okinawa and Tokunoshima to having the new airfield located on their turf. In Hatoyama’s recent visit to Okinawa, he apologized to citizens and explained it was necessary for the island to continue carrying the burden of hosting the Marine Corps air activities.

At the same time, while announcing he’s on the verge of accepting the 2006 agreement between Japan and the United States—made by the Liberal Democratic Party then in power—he’s seeking modifications to the Nago City Henoko district plan. He wants to build only one runway instead of the two V-shape runways approved in the earlier accord, and he wants that runway built on pilings instead of landfill. Hatoyama is also still clinging to the hope he can have part of Futenma’s flight operations moved to Tokunoshima on the far southern tip of Kanagawa Prefecture.

His dilemma is that neither Okinawa nor Tokunoshima want Futenma. Some 90,000 Okinawans rallied several weeks ago to demand he get the troublesome base off the island. At Tokunoshima it’s no different. A rally last month brought out half the island’s 30,000 residents opposed to putting part of Futenma operations at their airport, and several weeks later cranked out a petition signed by 26,000 citizens apposed. On top of that, three of Tokunoshima’s mayors have gone to Tokyo and firsthand told the Prime Minister they want no part of U.S. Marines moving to their island.

Hatoyama remains convinced he can convince the citizens of both Okinawa and Tokunoshima to change their minds, citing “It’s important to pursue the process of seeking understanding in a direct way.” While saying that, and declaring his intent to negotiate with Washington, there’s only very slight expectation the U.S. will go along with his plan. A second round of negotiations was scheduled with U.S. officials on Wednesday. U.S. officials have already argued such changes, including Tokunoshima, would create problems in dealing with existing threats.

The Prime Minister’s actions are perceived by some as stalling, both to preserve his own political future and to keep the Social Democratic Party from leaving his Democratic Party of Japan coalition. The SDP is vehemently opposed to Futenma remaining on Okinawa. Across Japan, there have been veiled and open calls for his resignation as Prime Minister if he can’t settle the issue by the end of May.

Hatoyama has waffled some, insisting now there was never a DPJ pledge to move Futenma “at least outside of Okinawa Prefecture,” saying those were only his personal opinions during the run-up to the election that put him in power. The Prime Minister visited Okinawa to make his case personally, asking Governor Hirokazu Nakaima and the island’s citizens to be more flexible in order to support the government.

Okinawa’s Shokichi Kina, head of the DPJ’’s Okinawa Prefectural Chapter, was blunt, telling “Mr. Hatoyama, I’ll say it directly: You should cut (Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi) Hirano loose and reform the cabinet.” Kina recommended the Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Naoto Kan take over the position, believing new blood would bring a new approach to dealing with the Futenma issue. SDP leader Mizuho Fukushima was equally adamant “the administration should accept the will of the residents of Okinawa as it engages in politics.”

Even as Kazuo Shii, the leader of the Japanese Communist Party is criticizing Hatoyama and saying “no matter how many excuses he makes, he broke a campaign promise and he should bear a heavy political responsibility.” The Prime Minister is indicating he’ll soon be back in Okinawa to attempt to persuade citizens and local governments to support his Futenma plan.

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