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.