As Dispute Over U.S. Base Drags On, Japan’s Prime Minister Languishes in Polls

By Patrick Goodenough | April 27, 2010 | 4:57 AM EDT

Tens of thousands of Okinawan residents and leaders demand that a U.S. Marine base be moved off the island at a mass rally on Sunday, April 25, 2010. (AP Photo/Kyodo News)

( – Eight months after his party’s historic election victory, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s popularity ratings sank to new lows this week, amid a drawn-out controversy over the relocation of a United States airbase.
A weekend opinion poll garnered Hatoyama less than 25 percent support of the Japanese public, adding to the woes of a prime minister who is already facing calls to resign and threats of splits in his center-left coalition if he cannot resolve the dispute with Washington.
The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) leader swept to power last August, unseating the long-ruling center-right Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), having undertaken to move a U.S. Marines base off Japan’s southern island of Okinawa.
That campaign pledge flew in the face of a bilateral agreement, first negotiated in 2006, to move the Futenma base from its current location in a densely-populated area to a quieter part of the island. The painstakingly crafted deal also provided for 8,000 U.S. Marines, and 9,000 dependents, to be relocated from Okinawa to the U.S. territory of Guam, by 2014.
Based on that 2006 understanding, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her then Japanese counterpart Hirofumi Nakasone signed a final agreement in February 2009.
With the change of government in Tokyo seven months later, it threatened to unravel.
While agreeing to hear out the new government, the Obama administration has largely stuck to its guns on the original deal – a stance reiterated Monday by State Department spokesman Philip Crowley – and Hatoyama has struggled to come up with any alternative acceptable to Washington.
With a self-imposed end-of-May deadline drawing nearer, the premier is looking increasingly weak, say political analysts, with a perceived lack of leadership coming on top of a damaging political funding scandal.
Elections for Japan’s upper house are due in July, and a strong DPJ win would strengthen its ability to pass laws without having to rely on smaller parties whose support it now requires.
DPJ officials worry such a victory will elude the party if Hatoyama fails to resolve the Futenma dispute by the end of May.

Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama (AP Photo)

In the weekend poll, by the Nikkei business newspaper and TV Tokyo, Hatoyama’s support dropped to 24 percent, continuing a steady decline since polling in the 70s when he took office last spring. And 57 percent of respondents said the prime minister should resign if he does not resolve the Futenma issue.
A mass rally on Okinawa Sunday, calling for the removal of the base, added to the pressure on the government. The protest drew not just ordinary Okinawans, but also the governor of the prefecture, representatives of every municipality, and lawmakers from every parliamentary group in the Okinawa assembly, Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun reported.
The State Department’s point man on the Futenma issue, Kurt Campbell, was due to hold more talks with Japanese officials on Tuesday and Wednesday, Crowley said.
Last month Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, canceled a scheduled visit to Japan at the last minute, and although U.S. officials at the time played down the significance of the move, it was viewed in Japan as a sign of frustration about the wrangling over the base agreement.
Okinawa, which lies well to the south of Japan’s main islands, was the location of some of the fiercest fighting in the Pacific theater during World War II, with more than 12,000 American and 100,000 Japanese soldiers killed there in April-June 1945.
After the defeat of Japan U.S. forces administered the island until it reverted to Japanese rule in 1972.
Strategically located in relation to both the Korean peninsula and Taiwan, today it is home to more than half the 47,000 American troops based in Japan under the six decade-old military alliance.
Their presence has met growing resentment in recent years, flaring up on occasion such as when three Marines were convicted in 1995 of raping a Japanese schoolgirl.
Critics of the U.S. bases were boosted by the arrival of a DPJ government, which ended half a century of political domination by the LDP and said it favored a more “equal” alliance with the U.S.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow