Hatoyama's Resignation

U.S. President Barack Obama with Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.

Japanese Prime Minister Hatoyama suddenly resigned last week, citing his inability to remove a U.S. airbase from Okinawa as a reason.

"Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's resignation after just eight months in office has triggered shock across Japan and raised new doubts about the country's political stability," wrote Dr. Sheila A. Smith, senior specialist for Japan Studies at the New York-based think tank the Council on Foreign Relations. "The fact that a U.S. military base figured centrally in his decision has also generated concerns about the damage to the crucial relationship with Washington under his government."

Indeed, the sudden departure of Hatoyama has forced both Tokyo and Washington to rapidly reevaluate their bilateral relations, which have been under enormous strain since the victory of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which the Obama administration perceived as anti-alliance.

Hatoyama's campaign promise to Okinawans was surely a big vote-getter and assisted in the DPJ's victory, but it may have deeply displeased Washington. As far as the United States is concerned, from the onset the electoral promise was not meant to be honored. The United States had essentially already locked Tokyo in to an inflexible situation (previously negotiated with the former, more pro-American Liberal Democratic Party-led government) by which certain parts of the base would be expanded, by means of a 2006 bilateral agreement, to another location in Cape Heneko. As part of this deal the United States was to build an additional runway at this strategic facility. Hence, more military activity, not less, on Okinawa.

Last Friday during the ongoing discussions between military and diplomatic officials on both sides, an agreement was achieved—just before the Japanese's self-imposed end-of-May deadline—which basically maintained the base where it is and prolonged the status quo. The fallout from this accord led to Hatoyama's surprise resignation and plunged the country into a period of political instability.

Washington and Tokyo were engaged in bilateral talks on the overall extension of a security arrangement that goes back 50 years and remains the linchpin agreement that binds the two strategic allies. However, the negative side of the Japan-U.S. Mutual Security Treaty is that 75 percent of U.S. bases and facilities in Japan are concentrated in Okinawa.

In coming to last week's agreement, it remains unclear to what extent pressure was exerted on the Japanese or Hatoyama by the Obama team.

"I don't believe our team put pressure on Mr. Hatoyama," Dr. Smith said. The renewed agreement is not in Smith's view a "done deal ... but an ongoing process," she told reporters. An overall lasting accord, in order to be meaningful and heal the current rift in relations "requires the cooperation of the people of Okinawa," she said.

It is no secret that the presence of the U.S. military is deeply unpopular in Okinawa. (Incidents of rape by the stationed troops are not uncommon. Nor is the constant nuisance of noise pollution from helicopters and aircrafts.) Hence, in order to make the agreement work, local and community actors need to be part of the negotiating process. Yet they seem to have been left out of the loop, Smith said, and thus the "people feel deeply betrayed."

The outcome of the base's status must be seen in the context of the current tension on the Korean peninsula and the growing confrontational stance by China towards the traditional U.S. military dominance in the Far East. The base remains, and Washington has reasserted itself in the region, but perhaps not in the most diplomatic manner, and in the process has triggered a domestic political crisis for its wayward Nippon ally.

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