Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Okinawa Question

TOKYO — I have been thinking about Yukio Hatoyama’s sense of history since he stepped down as Japan’s prime minister last week, citing his failure to relocate the U.S. Marine air base out of Okinawa as one reason.

Why did Hatoyama make this promise in the first place, given that the relocation of the Futenma base is a thorny, complicated issue that has been stalled for the last 14 years?

Was it because Hatoyama understood the history of Okinawa’s sacrifices for the mainland, which has resulted in Okinawa’s hosting of 75 percent of U.S. forces in Japan today? Did he feel a responsibility to address the history of tensions between Okinawan communities chafing under the continuing burden of military bases, and the consistent lack of political will at the center to rectify this situation?

Did it come from a sense of personal responsibility for his grandfather Ichiro Hatoyama’s reported offhand comment in 1955, when he was prime minister, that Okinawa was an “American trust possession,” at a time when Okinawans were smarting from having been left under U.S. administration while the rest of Japan regained its sovereignty?

Whatever his reasons, it was a promise heavy in historical and emotional significance, which is why Hatoyama’s failure to deliver on it had so much political impact.

Was Hatoyama doomed to fail from the beginning? Maybe. The Futenma base issue is only the most visible tip of a much larger configuration of issues relating to the foundations of the postwar Japanese state and U.S.-Japan relations. It was naïve to think that Hatoyama could singlehandedly undo a situation that has been more than 60 years in the making.

But there are many ways to fail, and Hatoyama failed particularly badly. He reached an agreement with the United States on May 28 about Futenma’s relocation despite the strong, vocal and frequent expressions of opposition from Okinawans.

The anger at Hatoyama’s betrayal shut down channels of communication between Okinawa and the central government and aggravated local mistrust of the center. It has also exacerbated the sense among Okinawans that “mainland Japan” is perfectly willing to continue its discriminatory treatment of Okinawa by leaving the island to carry the burden of the U.S.-Japan security relationship from which all Japan benefits.

But this is not only about Okinawa. Any serious attempt to address the question of bases on Okinawa cannot avoid the inextricably linked question of the entire U.S.-Japan security arrangement.

In mishandling the Futenma issue, Hatoyama squandered the opportunity to start a frank discussion — and perhaps even a rethinking — of what Japan’s role in that relationship is, and what it wants from it.

This is crucial for Japan as a whole because a conversation about the country’s future direction (including its existing security relationships) within a rapidly changing East Asia is becoming increasingly necessary.

Hatoyama cast his resignation as taking responsibility for failure on the Futenma issue, but this too, looks likely to hurt the situation. Since his resignation, Japanese media and popular attention to the Futenma issue has collapsed, and Okinawa’s base issue faces the very real risk of getting lost in the transition to the new government.

Indeed, the new prime minister, Naoto Kan, has made the Japanese economy his primary focus. Regarding Futenma, he reaffirmed the government’s commitment to the May 28 agreement with the U.S. while promising (vaguely) to give attention to reducing Okinawa’s base burdens.

Kan did, however, mention at a press conference that he had recently started reading a book on Okinawa to deepen his understanding of its history. Let’s hope that his reading helps him understand the weight and complexity of the base issue, and that it gives him enough of a sense of history to see why he must not lose sight of it.
Tze M. Loo assistant professor of East Asian history at the University of Richmond, Virginia.

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