Why Hatoyama is failing on Futenma

Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio returned home to Japan Wednesday after attending the Nuclear summit in Washington hosted by US President Barack Obama. Whatever significance the summit had for Obama’s diplomatic agenda, as far as US-Japan relations are concerned nukes were overshadowed by Futenma. Hatoyama’s self-imposed deadline of resolving the dispute by May is approaching, and there are few signs that his government will be able to reach a conclusion that satisfies the US and local communities in Okinawa by the end of next month.
Indeed, on the eve of Hatoyama’s trip the government announced that it would be holding off on opening working-level talks with the US because it did not yet have a plan to present.
While the press is filled with rumors regarding the various alternative sites under consideration by the Hatoyama government, there is no sign (yet) that the government is coalescing around a single option.
Even if the dispute is resolved favorably (whatever that means), it is safe to say that in terms of the process, the Hatoyama government’s approach to Futenma has failed. What explains the Hatoyama government’s disastrous performance on the Futenma issue? Why has the government performed so poorly on an issue that has taken on such importance for the government?
The Prime Minister: On Futenma, the buck has to stop with Hatoyama, something that Josh Rogin identifies as a major source of dissatisfaction in Washington. Despite the importance of this issue — despite Hatoyama’s willingness to invoke the Japanese set phrase (“I’m risking my political life”) to signal this issue’s importance for his government — Hatoyama has been wholly absent from this debate. There is no excuse. Even if Hatoyama wanted to respect the policymaking process by letting his cabinet ministers debate the matter, on an issue as thorny as Futenma Hatoyama ought to have been taking the lead. As AEI’s Michael Auslin notes in Rogin’s piece, there is no sign that Hatoyama has a preference regarding an alternative to the current relocation plan.
I would argue, however, that Hatoyama is indecisive not because his party is unruly or filled with conflicting opinions. Has there ever been a political party in a democracy that did not house differing opinions on important and not-so-important political issues? As I’ve argued before, I think that the DPJ’s divisions are an issue to the extent that Hatoyama has created a void at the head of the government. Hatoyama does not appear to have concrete preferences about any policy area, not just Futenma. He has shown little command of policy specifics, and has not yet moved past speaking in bland generalities.
On Futenma, I also think Hatoyama deserves considerable blame because I think he thought that he could rely on personal diplomacy with Obama in lieu of a concrete alternative plan. His government’s audience, however, was not the president but working-level officials in the US who have mastered the details of the current plan and most alternatives over the course of years of negotiations with the Hatoyama government’s predecessors. Hatoyama seemed to think that if he could just reach an understanding with Obama, the details would take care of themselves. 
When the Hatoyama government is no more, “Trust Me” may well be the epitaph on its tombstone.

The Cabinet: Perhaps the cabinet doesn’t deserve its own heading, seeing as how many of the flaws in cabinet’s policymaking process are the result of Hatoyama’s vacuousness, but since anonymous officials in Rogin’s piece see the “process” as a problem, it is worth addressing this argument.
The cabinet is responsible to the extent that the debate has not been contained within the cabinet committees responsible for addressing the issue. The debate between Foreign Minister Okada Katsuya and Defense Minister Kitazawa Toshimi has, for example, played out in the pages of the nation’s newspapers. The process has been unruly and haphazard, with no apparent logic to how the government considered various alternatives to the 2006 roadmap.
The cabinet — or perhaps more specifically Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirano Hirofumi — also deserves the blame for failing to develop a communications strategy on Futenma from the beginning. At various points in time Hirano has interjected to remind ministers and the public that all options (including the status quo) are on the table, that the government is proceeding from a “zero base.” What should of happened is that from the beginning the prime minister, the chief cabinet secretary, and other ministers should have stressed its message plainly — particularly to the Okinawan people — and announced its process and criteria for weighing alternatives. It should have set out its own roadmap for deliberations instead of merely setting a deadline.
Again, at least some of the blame for the cabinet’s dysfunctions rest with Hatoyama for creating a permissive environment. The dysfunction may also to a certain extent be a consequence of the bumpy transition to a new policymaking process based on cabinet government, in which all ministers are responsible for the government’s policies instead of just the policies of their ministries (hence Okada’s stressing the importance of unity among ministers). The Futenma problem is the first major test of the new system, and the government’s failure should be seen in that light.

Coalition politics: Another argument to account for the dysfunctional government looks to the DPJ’s coalition with the Social Democrats and the People’s New Party. Hatoyama is indecisive, this argument goes, because he is trying to keep his coalition partners — especially the Social Democrats — in the government.
I am inclined, however, to see the coalition explanation as one of the least significant when it comes to explaining the Hatoyama government’s behavior.
First, there is enough dissatisfaction with the 2006 roadmap within the DPJ to suggest that even without the SDPJ being in government the Hatoyama government would still have tried to find an alternative plan. The SDPJ has perhaps complicated the process through its cooperation with activists in Okinawa and its own efforts to find an alternative site, but these activities have had at worst a marginal effect on problems that would have plagued the Hatoyama government even without the SDPJ’s involvement.
Second, while some point to the SDPJ’s threat of pulling out of the government should the air base stay in Okinawa, there is considerable reason to doubt the SDPJ’s ability to follow through on a threat to withdraw from the government. Indeed, SDPJ members themselves have questioned the idea. The fact is that the SDPJ gains little from abandoning its seat inside the Hatoyama cabinet, and party members know it. From the prime minister’s perspective, were he to find an alternative plan that the US would accept, it seems doubtful that he would back away from it on the basis of SDPJ grumbling.

The DPJ: What about divisions within the DPJ? Even if Hatoyama can safely ignore the SDPJ, has he been hindered by divisions within his own party? This view is popular in Washington, where it is taken as common knowledge that the DPJ is an incoherent, dysfunctional party. I have never been convinced that the DPJ is any more divided than the LDP was during the height of its power — and I am convinced that it is less divided than the LDP today.
On the Futenma question in particular, it is hard to see how the “divided DPJ” has undermined the government. The DPJ as a whole — like the cabinet — is largely in agreement on the need to develop an alternative plan (this includes “pro-US” DPJ politicians). While there may be some disagreement on the question of whether the alternative site should be inside or outside of Okinawa, I see no reason to believe that Hatoyama’s indecision is the result of undue consideration of one view or the other, or that the party’s backbenchers would not fall into line if and when the government reaches its conclusion.
To the extent that there is a division between government and party over Futenma, it is the role played by Secretary-General Ozawa Ichiro that matters. Throughout the process, Ozawa has spoken out against any plan that keeps the replacement facility in Okinawa, consistent with the party’s old “Okinawa Vision” paper that called for moving the base first out of the prefecture, then out of Japan entirely.
But again, it is worth asking what the process would have looked like had Ozawa been on the same page as the government. Has Hatoyama been indecisive because he was too solicitous of Ozawa’s opinion? Has Ozawa forced the government to consider alternatives outside of Okinawa that it would not otherwise consider? At this point it is hard to say for sure, but even if Ozawa was on the same page as the government the Hatoyama government would have struggled to develop an alternative.

Ideology: Related to explanations based on party or coalition politics is an explanation based on ideology, that the whole dispute is the result of some kind of reflexive anti-Americanism on the part of the Hatoyama government.
As I see it, this argument is patently false. Were the Hatoyama government acting on the basis of a desire to boot US forces from Japanese shores, there would be no Futenma problem. The government would say “Yankees go home” and that would be the end of the story. That the Hatoyama government is searching so hard for alternatives — including alternatives within Okinawa — is evidence of its desire to maintain a constructive relationship with the US that includes US forces stationed in Japan, not evidence of its desire to undermine the relationship. The Hatoyama government’s flailing about is evidence of its good faith in trying to find a solution that will satisfy all parties to the agreement.
Double-edged diplomacy: At the heart of the matter is, of course, the relationship between the central government, the Okinawan prefectural government, and local communities, all in the shadow of the alliance with the US. Beyond Hatoyama’s deficiencies and beyond party politics in Tokyo like the complicated game being played between these actors.
Accordingly, even as one criticizes the Hatoyama government’s approach to the Futenma problem, it is necessary to acknowledge that the Hatoyama government inherited a mess from the LDP. The LDP’s approach to the roadmap was to reach an agreement with the US first, and local communities later. Between 2006 and 2009 very little had been done to secure the ratification of the people of Okinawa, who polls show as overwhelmingly opposed to the current plan. Prefectural and local officials have actively opposed both the current plan and alternative plans that would keep a replacement facility in Okinawa. According to the Okinawa Times, mayors of thirty-four of the prefectures forty-one municipalities will be participating in a mass public meeting on 25 April to oppose relocation inside Okinawa. The Okinawan public feels “betrayed” by the Hatoyama government and will, if anything, increase the pressure on the government.
One can debate the extent to which public anger has been fueled by the DPJ’s raising expectations in Okinawa only to dash them once in power, but local concerns would be important regardless of the Hatoyama government’s behavior since taking power.
The US government has been equally inflexible when it comes to the 2006 roadmap. To a certain extent, the US bears responsibility for upping the stakes on Futenma. By leaning hard on the Hatoyama government from its first weeks in office — starting with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s blunt message for the new government — Washington trapped the Hatoyama government between its perceived promises to the Okinawan people and its need to be seen as a responsible steward of Japan’s most important bilateral relationship. Every action taken by the Hatoyama government thereafter was amplified, plugged into the narrative of the “crisis” in the relationship growing out of the Hatoyama government’s understandable desire to revisit the 2006 roadmap.
While there are signs that the US might be willing to compromise if and when the Hatoyama government provides a detailed alternative, the damage has been done. By raising the stakes for the Hatoyama government, the US government made it less likely that it will get what it wants, a quick agreement along the lines of the 2006 agreement that speeds along the process of relocating Marines to Guam.
These arguments suggest that while some tension over Futenma may have been unavoidable, both the Hatoyama government and the Obama administration could have taken steps to minimize the damage to the relationship and the Hatoyama government. Had the Hatoyama government established a coherent, insulated policy review process from the beginning and communicated to the US the modesty of its aims (while trying to lower the expectations of the Okinawan people) and had the US government recognized the Hatoyama government’s good faith and given it some room to maneuver domestically, the tension in the US-Japan relationship could have been avoided.
As it stands, the Hatoyama government is trapped. If it accepts the current agreement unchanged after months of posturing, it will undoubtedly face considerable opposition from a public that will ask what it was all for. If it presents a plan featuring an alternative location in Okinawa, it risks outrage in Okinawa and rejection by the US. If anything, the Hatoyama government’s best option may be presenting the US with an alternative plan featuring a site outside of Okinawa, which would both appease the Okinawan public and force the US to vote up or down. Would this outcome be perverse? Absolutely, and it would  ikely ensure that the issue would remain on the agenda for months to come. But it seems like the only option open to the Hatoyama government as it tries to escape a trap of its own making.

2 thoughts on “Why Hatoyama is failing on Futenma

  1. Robert

    Dear Tobias, If you were the Prime Minister, where would you move Futenma and why? Thank you in advance for stepping out and responding.


  2. PaxAmericana

    Good post.In hindsight, isn't a big part of the problem that the DPJ needed to build a network in DC earlier? It seems that many of the players there simply want the DPJ to go away, so they can return to the status quo ante. It definitely looks like very few people in DC actually want to work with the new government, as opposed to bring it down.


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