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Prime Minister may ‘go it alone’ on Futenma

Date Posted: 2010-05-21

If there’s anyone with a problem sleeping nights, it’s Japan’s Prime Minister, who seemingly can’t find anyone in agreement with his plans for relocating Futenma Marine Corps Air Station out of Ginowan City.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama first campaigned to rid Okinawa of Futenma, then promised everyone—including U.S. President Barack Obama—he’d have it settled by the end of 2009. That changed, and he promised to deal with Futenma by the end of May, but he’s now backed off, saying “if there are issues that need to be discussed in June and beyond, we will obviously work hard.” That there are many contentious issues on the table would be an understatement.

Hatoyama’s latest proposal, announced after he declared “the importance of national security has emerged as the entire nation has become interested in the Futenma issue.” He now wants to press forward with the 2006 Japan-U.S. Agreement, but with several modifications. He now wants to base relocated to the Henoko district of Nago, as originally agreed, but wants to cut the number of runways in Oura Bay from two down to one, while shortening that one.

Hatoyama also wants to eliminate the landfill project that was agreed upon, instead substituting it with a single 1,500-meter runway to be built on stilts, or steel pilings using what is called the Quick Installation Platform, the same system being used to build the new runway at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. Democratic Party of Japan estimates are that the piling-support system would take about seven years to build, and cost 1.5 times more than the current plan.

He also wants to shift part of Futenma’s mission to Tokunoshima in south Kagoshima Prefecture. The trouble is, nobody seems to like any of his ideas. The people of Tokushima turned out en masse recently–26,000 of the island’s 30,000 inhabitants—to say they don’t want anything to do with a U.S. base on their island. Tokunoshima’s three mayors have looked into Hatoyama’s face and told him the same thing.

On Okinawa, it’s no different. Nago City’s new mayor, Susumu Inamine, who was elected on the basis of his promise to block Futenma being moved into the neighborhood, was vocal last weekend at a rally during which 17,000 participants joined hands twice to encircle Futenma. On top of that, a new Asahi Shimbun survey of Okinawans recorded 76% of residents opposed to Hatoyama’s plan. Only 13% of the 746 people surveyed were in favor of the plan to keep the base and move some of the training to Tokunoshima.

America, for its part, wants to see the 2006 agreement implemented as designed. It is apprehensive about having a single runway, and that one built on support pilings. U.S. officials have expressed strong reservations on both ecological and environmental grounds, but also because of fears the runway would be vulnerable to terrorist attacks. After initially being somewhat enthusiastic about the Tokunoshima element, the U.S. backed off after learning the shortfalls of the Tokunoshima Airport, which officials described as not wide enough, too short, and not strong enough.

And if that isn’t enough headaches for the Prime Minister, both of his Democratic Party of Japan’s junior coalition partners have flatly denounced the plans. Both the Social Democratic Party and the People’s New Party are openly telling the government to delay making any decisions.

Hatoyama continues to press his case, and is expected to return to Okinawa as early as this weekend to make his arguments before Okinawa’s governor, Hirokazu Nakaima. He’s hoping to persuade the governor to modify his position and support the Henoko/Camp Schwab move. He’s not likely to encounter a friendly Nakaima, because the governor’s requests that live-firing exercises on Kumejima and Torishima islands be stopped have been rejected by the central government on grounds there simply aren’t any alternative locations available. Hatoyama is hoping, during his Okinawa visit, to lobby for understanding from citizens.

Most observers believe Hatoyama is beginning to grasp the consequences of settling the Futenma issue, and he hopes Nakaima will, too. If Futenma doesn’t move soon, it’s considered likely it will remain in Ginowan City, where it’s immensely unpopular. Equally important, failure to move Futenma would most likely stop the shift of 8,000 U.S. Marines to Guam, and a number of base closures, including parts of Camp Foster, plus Camp Kinser in Urasoe City, would probably be cancelled. Only after a replacement airbase is built and Futenma moved would the Marines and their families be relocated to Guam.

The National Governors’ Association is slated to meet in an emergency session May 27th in Tokyo, with Futenma being the prime—and perhaps only—topic on the table. “As much as possible, I’d like to reduce Okinawa’s burden of hosting the bases,” the Prime Minister told NGA President Wataru Aso. “I’d like to ask governors for their cooperation.” Even before the NGA meets, the SDP and PNP are calling for the governors to stay out of the matter.

That may not really be a problem, because early polling of the governors doesn’t exhibit any support for Hatoyama’s ideas. Hokkaido’s Governor, Harumi Takahashi, says his prefecture is already accepting some of the burden, pointing out “we’ve accepted firing drills in an effort to help ease the burden on Okinawa.” Tokyo’s Governor, Shintaro Ishihara, is more candid. “The United States selected Okinawa for geopolitical reasons,” he says, and notes it will be difficult to relocate U.S. Forces from Okinawa to anywhere in mainland Japan. And Nagasaki’s Governor, Hodo Nakamura, says “we already host a U.S. base, which is playing an important function.”

Kagoshima Prefecture’s Governor, Yuichiro Ito, says he’s opposed. Period. Tokunoshima is in his prefecture, and he’s not pleased to even talk about it.

The only one excited about the prospects of moving Futenma or other bases to the mainland is Osaka’s Governor, Toru Hashimoto. He wants the airbase drills at Kansai Airport in his city. “We welcome the national government’s request,” he told reporters.

The Prime Minister is now considering going forward with decision-making on his own, not going for consensus from his Cabinet or citizens. “There may be a way for the prime minister to speak”, says Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano about the government’s plan, but without collecting approval signatures from all the members of the Cabinet. Hatoyama has promised to consult with the two junior coalition members before making his decision.

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