Why did Hatoyama go after Futenma first?

With little surprise, the Hatoyama government has decided to postpone a decision on the future of Futenma, after alienating both the Okinawan people and the US government with its indecisiveness on the issue. Reuters reports that after months of treating the end of May as the deadline for solving the dispute, the government has announced a new target of November.
The damage has, of course, already been done, now that the government’s approval ratings have sunk below twenty percent and with the DPJ’s looking certain to fall short of a majority in the House of Councillors in this summer’s election. As Michael Cucek suggests, Hatoyama may be holding on to power simply because no DPJ member wants the responsibility for leading the party to near-certain defeat in the election.
When the history of the Hatoyama government is written, the central question that will have to be answered is why it made Futenma the top priority of its government. While the Hatoyama government has been up to other things — some good (calling bureaucrats to justify their programs, liberalizing campaigning practices), some not so good (its ambiguous record on public works) — it is not an exaggeration to say that the government has been mortally wounded by the dispute over Futenma, not because of the government’s position per se, but because of its inability to take a position. Arguably it is due to his mishandling of Futenma above any other issue that has led Hatoyama to be branded as a poor leader, for good reason.
It is truly mystifying why the Hatoyama government not only threw itself into the Futenma morass shortly after taking office, but took on the problem without a clear plan of action. The easiest — the wisest — course of action would have been to delay. The relocation was already delayed, thanks to LDP foot-dragging. The transition to a new, inexperienced ruling party offered the perfect excuse for delaying the issue further. At the very least the government could have stalled for time until after the House of Councillors election. And why not? The DPJ was elected last year on a manifesto that was, but for a short (and short on specifics) section on foreign policy, wholly concerned with fixing Japan’s economy and society. The government would have good reason for putting Futenma on the shelf for at least its first year.
I can think of a few explanations for why the prime minister acted as he did. 
First, as I’ve argued before, he may have believed that he would be able to find a solution that would satisfy both Okinawans and the US simply by negotiating one-on-one with Obama. Alternatively, he may have simply thought that the US would be more willing to compromise than it proved to be. We might call this the miscalculation hypothesis. 
Second, perhaps the government wanted to make a clear statement that it marked a departure from LDP rule, and Futenma proved a good, high-profile demonstration case. Given the relatively narrow window between the launch of the government and the campaign for the upper house, perhaps the Hatoyama government reasoned that tackling Futenma was a way of achieving some policy goal that could be presented to voters in a way that other pledges, which will take a longer time to deliver, would not. (This hypothesis is compatible with the first.) 
Third, the DPJ could have been acting on the basis of ideological beliefs. I’m less convinced by this argument, if only because by trying to please all sides the Hatoyama government has elicited almost a total absence of its own beliefs on the issue other than the need to find an alternative site than the one in the 2006 roadmap.
Fourth, I suppose it is possible that during the 2009 general election campaign the DPJ leadership came to believe that the issue had to be resolved immediately, and acted accordingly.
I’m not sure which of these explanations, if any, best captures the government’s reasoning. Perhaps there is no clear reason, which would explain why the government wandered into the issue seemingly without a plan. Meanwhile, the Hatoyama government’s mishandling of the dispute means that even November could be a difficult target to meet.
This post will likely be the first of several on the fallout of the Futenma dispute.

UPDATE: As can be seen in the comments, I did leave out one obvious explanation: US pressure, both explicit in the form of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s infamous visit to Tokyo shortly after the DPJ took power, and implicit, in the pressure posed by Obama’s November visit to Japan, for which the DPJ wanted to have something to offer to the US President.

Media coverage of tension between the US and Japan meant that every comment, every plan, every “promise” reverberated in Japan, so that each step the government took on Futenma was one step deeper into the quagmire.

9 thoughts on “Why did Hatoyama go after Futenma first?

  1. Fat Tony

    My memory seems to be failing me. I thought the DPJ was foot-dragging on the Futenma issue until a certain SecState delivered the 'Tokyo Smackdown'. I was in Japan the few weeks after the election, and most of the talk I saw related to climate change and Hatoyama strutting his stuff at the UN/G20. Of course he had to talk about the bases with Obama when he met him, but I don't think that means the DPJ made the issue a priority. I was still there when Gates made his \”to hell with your sovereignty\” remark, and usually disinterested people I know were pissed. How could it not be an issue after that? In fact, my faulty memory also recalls something about Hatoyama saying he wished he didn't have to take so much time up on Futenma, because he wanted to get onto his domestic agenda. In other words, the hard line by Gates et al. is the reason this is a priority for him. He probably would have otherwise shelved it until after July had it not become an issue before then.And speaking of July: things don't look good for the DPJ, but they look worse for everyone else. Who is the DPJ going to lose to?


  2. PaxAmericana

    Like Fat Tony, I seem to recall it was the US and its lobby in Japan that pushed so hard on the Futenma issue. Even now, it is the interests that ran Japan for 50 years pushing so hard on this. Perhaps the DPJ underestimated the power of the military in current US politics. After all, the military has almost no power in Japan, and the DPJ had almost no contact with the DC establishment.


  3. I did forget about Obama's visit in November, which I think helped push the issue up the agenda. I'm just not sure that the extent to which it was pressure from American hardliners versus internally generated pressure to do something about the issue.Naturally Hatoyama would rather deal with anything else, but once he started setting targets that were sooner rather than later he owned the issue. If he had set the target at some point further down the road, the US would have been annoyed, but Washington would have been in the position of beseeching Japan to come to an agreement, instead of Hatoyama's asking the US for understanding and more time. It's hard to see how postponing for a year or so could have turned out worse than what actually happened.


  4. Fat Tony

    In October-November, or whenever he announced it, May looked a long time away. Hatoyama probably figured a deadline would put the Futenma issue temporarily out of commission, leaving him time to come up with a solution that was acceptable to all. People close to Hatoyama also say he thought that Obama would sit down and talk to him about this man to man. Hatoyama does have a good degree of unjustified faith in his own abilities – which originates from his place as the scion of a political dynasty. But I don't think, given the apparent seriousness of this issue, that half an hour with the prez is such an unreasonable request, especially if you are going to be in DC anyway. Unfortunately, Obama was receiving advice from hard liners to give Hatoyama the cold shoulder.Of course, Hatoyama is to blame for his indecisiveness. Just imagine what would be happening if Ozawa had managed to gain the spot as prime minister. I imagine he would have come down like a ton of bricks on Gates, and used anti-American nationalism as a bargaining chip.


  5. Anonymous

    Maybe Hatoyama can console himself with the realization that the Okinawan People have also sold their political credibility – on the promise of“development.”If elections in the prefecture, from the mid-90's to 2009, had not continued to produce mayors and governors ready to accept relocation, despite referenda and people's initiative results overwhelmingly to the contrary, they may have allowed themselves a more viable case to protest. In any case, the bases are not going away. If the US should be driven out, the SDF would push for more consolidation of the existing bases and would be right back on the ones that were left. Basically the best Hatoyama and Okuda can do now to bolster their position is to come up with a single angle of their attack, then stick to it. Once you turn to one argument after another after another, you lose bargaining power. Because Sec of State Clinton is going to be even more clear than Obama and Ambassador Roos in her presentation to the Japanese side next week that the current plan is the best plan and all alternatives were explored in the lead up to the initial agreement.


  6. From Gavan McCormack, \”Hillary in Japan – The Enforcer,\” The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 8-7-09, February 22, 2009. In retrospect, Hatoyama did not have a lot of wiggle room:\”So long as the Koizumi parliamentary majority lasts (and provided the LDP does not split or fall apart in the meantime), that ratification should be possible. Once that is done, the US will insist it be honoured, whatever future government Japan might have. As Hillary put it, \”I think that a responsible nation follows the agreements that have been entered into, and the agreement that I signed today with Foreign Minister Nakasone is one between our two nations, regardless of who's in power.\” [8]\”It was a clear shot across the bows of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and its increasingly popular leader, Ozawa Ichiro. The US knows full well the DPJ’s position that no new base should be built within Okinawa, i.e. that Futenma should be returned tout court. [9]\”Washington has made clear that it views Ozawa with nervousness and distrust. Hillary’s mission, therefore, has to be seen as a means to block his party from implementing its Okinawa policy. The gauntlet now thrown in his face, Ozawa must decide whether or not to resist ratification. If he chooses to resist, an unprecedented diplomatic crisis will erupt.\”


  7. The improbable question floating in the Japanese group Mind had always been “Can Japan say NO?” And the answer provided by the LDP had always been “YES, but NO.” Now, the DPJ seems to be saying “In a minute, please.” Is this another way of saying “NO, but YES.” Is the DPJ government attempting to create a space for itself without confronting the bullying tactics of US? Can Karate persuade the US military? If you take all the emotions off the table, there is a very interesting high stakes game in progress. It’s no winner take all, but, it is Japan trying to create a little space for itself. From a certain perspective, it’s a win win.


  8. Robert

    I truely believe that Prime Minister Hatoyama felt there was going to be a \”true change\” in Washington D.C. I think that he expected that the change would be easy in that President Obama gave the indication that he wanted to remove the Military from Iraq and create a smaller footprint around the world. I also personally felt after President Obama's election that Futenma would be removed since it would be only one base in the vast numbers of bases that the US has. I was excited in feeling that President Obama would start to consolidate bases to indicate U.S. intentions to the world of turning away from being the \”cowboy\” and also to be fiscally prudent. We know that that has not happend and the U.S. military is getting bigger and expanding into another war (Afghanistan) and we have tripled our Nation's debt. Shame on us for believing in a change and Shame on Hatoyama for believing that \”Yes, we can\”.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s