Yet another Japanese Prime Minister has stood down less than a year into the job. Yukio Hatoyama resigned today a little more than eight months after taking office. His resignation came after he was forced to break an election campaign promise and keep open the controversial US marine base on the southern island of Okinawa. Speaking to members of his Democratic Party of Japan, he said he had tried for six months to move the base off the island but failed. He then bowed out as the fourth Japanese Prime Minister to be forced out of office in as many years.
Hatoyama had come to power on a wave of change. The DPJ won a historic election by a landslide in August 2009 over the Liberal Democrats who had ruled Japan for nearly 50 years. But the price of victory was high. Hatoyama made some extravagant election promises he would find difficult to keep. None was more difficult than removing the US bases off Okinawa.
Okinawa’s history and importance saw to that. The World War II Battle of Okinawa was one of the biggest and bitterest of the Pacific Campaign and was the last major battle before Japan’s surrender. It was the largest amphibious assault of the war outside of D-Day and 200,000 Japanese (half of whom were civilian) died in its fruitless defence. The US also suffered its largest casualties in the Pacific war with 12,000 soldiers killed in the invasion. 90 percent of the island was destroyed and the island would remain under American administration for 27 years after the war.
Okinawa was a crucial base in the Korean and Vietnamese wars as well as a launch pad for covert missions in Cambodia and Laos. Americans called the island the Keystone of the Pacific. America’s 50,000 military personnel on the island were exempt from local laws according to the Status of Forces Agreement. Their immunity and the wars they fought from the island led to the formation of a large protest movement on the island. The island was formally handed back to Japan in 1972 but the bases stayed. It remained the focal point of the treaty in which US guarantees Japan’s security at their expense.
But opposition to the Americans on the island grew to the point in 2007 where 85 percent wanted them out. Noise pollution, accidents, crime and environmental degradation were all cited as reasons. The US has looked at moving troops out to Guam and Australia but due to the large numbers involved (47,000 troops are still stationed there) the army is saying it is logistically impossible to move them all out until 2015.
This was the background to Hatoyama’s election promise. But after discussing the matter with President Obama last month, the best result Hatoyama could achieve was to move Futenma base from its current urban location to a less crowded part of the island. The deal was little different than the Liberal Democrat deal in 2006 Hatoyama vowed to overturn. According to the BBC “operational objections from the US, as well as opposition from people living on other islands proposed as alternative locations…forced the prime minister into a humiliating climbdown.”
The repercussions were immediate. Mizuho Fukushima, the gender equality minister and leader of the Social Democrats, said she could not "betray the Okinawans" by supporting the agreement. She was sacked from the ministry for not backing the deal. Fukushima then vowed to leave the ruling coalition. While the DPJ’s huge majority means they could easily rule alone in the Lower House, they rely on the SDs support to form a majority in the Upper House for which voters go to the polls in July.
The writing was on the wall for Hatoyama’s when new figures showed his approval rating plunged to just 17 percent at the start of this week. Hatoyama was the latest Japanese leader to find out he could not unlock the keystone of the Pacific. As Racewire says, the Okinawa base still stands as a symbol of an invidious occupation, and the communities living in the shadow of the US hegemony every day grow more and more resentful of their “protectors.”