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Japan Protests U.S. Military Ahead of Obama Visit

6 minute read
Coco Masters / Tokyo

While more police officers patrol Tokyo’s subway and train stations in preparation for U.S. President Barack Obama’s two-day trip to Japan this week, people in other parts of the country have already sent the American President a message. On Sunday, thousands of Japanese — with estimates ranging from 6,000 to 21,000 — gathered in the Okinawan city of Nago to demand that U.S. military personnel, who have been continuously stationed on the island since 1945, find a new place to go.

According to a 2006 agreement between Tokyo and Washington, Nago has been selected as the site of a new airfield to replace the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station, located further south on the island in Ginowan city. That — and an agreement to move 8,000 U.S. Marines from Okinawa to Guam — would comprise a major restructuring of the American military presence in Japan, and the U.S. hopes that things will proceed according to the 2006 plan — the culmination of 13 years of negotiations between the U.S. and the former Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) government.

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But recently elected Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, in his historic win, pledged to lessen the burden for local Japanese residents caused by the presence of the U.S. military, sparking fears that Japan would no longer be a steadfast ally in the military realm. The American military presence on Okinawa has been a sore spot in U.S.-Japan relations for decades because of its perceived negative social and economic effects on local communities. Okinawa is home to about two-thirds of the total 47,000 U.S. military personnel stationed in Japan. The 2006 agreement was pushed along following a 1996 conviction of three American servicemen in a rape case involving a 12-year-old girl, and a U.S. helicopter crash in 2004 at a Ginowan university campus. Sunday’s protest followed another on Saturday, when 2,000 demonstrated in the town of Kadena, near Ginowan, to oppose the proposal made by Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada to merge Futenma with the Kadena air base.

In September, Obama called the U.S.-Japan bilateral relationship the “cornerstone of the security of both nations” when he and Hatoyama met in New York City. But with the Obama Administration pressing Tokyo for a decision on military realignment by the year’s end, coupled with Hatoyama’s desire to wait until next year, discussions later this week could cast a shadow over the alliance. “Hatoyama is reluctant to decide by the end of the year, and [if he doesn’t] that will cause a sensitive and difficult situation for the two countries,” says Takao Toshikawa, editor of political newsletter Insideline.

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Tokyo, trying to hold fast to its campaign promises to resolve the base issue in step with the needs of Okinawans, has felt diplomatic pressure from the U.S. State Department over the past few weeks to make a firm decision to enable the terms of the 2006 agreement on Futenma. In late October, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pushed Hatoyama to uphold Japan’s end of the 2006 agreement. “Secretary Gates played the bad cop so that President Obama won’t have to,” says Michael Green, senior adviser and Japan chair of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank. “But I do not think there is any disagreement within the Administration about the critical importance of moving forward with the Okinawa realignment agreement.” Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell has also stressed the importance of resolving the issue with Foreign Minister Okada and Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa.

Green says that the timing is critical. The U.S. wants the decision made by the end of the year because Congress will not appropriate funds for the transfer of Marines to Guam unless the Japanese government okays the deal in time to include relocation in the Defense Ministry’s budget for the 2010 financial year, due by the end of December. The other issue, says Green, is that the mayoral election in Nago, slated for January 2010, could alter the tone of the agreement if the new mayor opposes the plan. Japan political experts have speculated that such delays, including perhaps waiting until next July’s upper house elections, could change the current agreement that was made under the LDP administration, but Green says radical changes under the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) administration won’t be possible. “If the DPJ can repudiate an agreement made by a previous government, then so could the U.S. side, in theory,” says Green. “I do not think the DPJ really wants to open that can of worms.”

Insideline’s Toshikawa says that by waiting on the mayoral election in Nago and then the Okinawa prefectural election next November, Hatoyama — by upholding his campaign promise to respect Okinawa’s say in the matter — would make it difficult to stay on point with the 2006 agreement. “On major issues of diplomacy and defense, the government should consider local elections — but it can become an obstacle.” Toshikawa also says that Hatoyama’s handling of this issue, by fielding the different plans of his ministers, is characteristic of his desire to “unify his Cabinet.” The problem, says Toshikawa, is that Hatoyama, Okada and Kitazawa have different takes on what the resolution entails. “He has not shown his own leadership,” says Toshikawa.

On a television program on Nov. 8, Okada, who canceled his overseas trip to the U.S. this month ahead of Obama’s visit, said the issue would not be resolved during this weekend’s talks. Recently instated U.S. ambassador John Roos said last month to reporters in Tokyo that the U.S. was willing to work with Japan on the issue: “The solution [on Futenma] is the realignment roadmap that has been agreed to. You have to give the Hatoyama administration time.” If that is indeed the solution, Hatoyama might take much longer than the U.S. wants.

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