Futenma base issuePrime Minister Yukio Hatoyama is finally showing some mettle and exercising leadership in an effort to break the deadlock over the Futenma airfield issue in Okinawa Prefecture.
Hatoyama on Wednesday met with Torao Tokuda, a former Lower House lawmaker from Tokunoshima island in Kagoshima Prefecture, and asked him to use his influence to settle the Futenma issue.
Hatoyama has also decided to visit Okinawa Prefecture on Tuesday, midway through the Golden Week holidays, for talks on the issue with Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima. It will be Hatoyama's first visit to the southernmost prefecture since he came to office last September.
Hatoyama has made encouraging remarks concerning Futenma. "I have a plan in mind," he once said. "I'm putting my job on the line (in trying to settle the issue)."
The problem is that he failed to lay the groundwork or exert strong leadership to ensure that his ministers remained united on the matter. As his self-imposed end-of-May deadline approaches, Hatoyama apparently felt under immense pressure to do something. But his move came far too late.
The Okinawan people are demanding that the air base be moved out of the prefecture. The U.S. government is insisting that the current agreement to relocate the base to another part of the island is the best option. In addition, the Social Democratic Party, a junior ruling coalition partner of the Democratic Party of Japan, is opposed to relocation within the prefecture.
It was clear from the beginning that there could be no plan to satisfy all the parties concerned. What has Hatoyama been doing for the past nearly eight months?
The proposal Hatoyama has put together would modify the current plan, which requires reclamation off the coastal area of the Henoko district in Nago to build a new facility. The Hatoyama's plan would instead build a runway on a newly built pier and transfer part of the Futenma base's helicopter squadrons to Tokunoshima.
Hatoyama pledged to move the air base "at least" out of Okinawa Prefecture. He probably thinks that a plan to shift part of the burden to the island in Kagoshima Prefecture would allow him to claim that he has honored part of his promise.
But about 60 percent of the island's residents held a rally to demonstrate their opposition. In his meeting with Hatoyama, Tokuda made clear that it is impossible to persuade the islanders to accept the plan. Trying to get a depopulated and economically distressed area to accept a military base in exchange for policy aid for regional development is exactly the same misguided approach as the one that has been adopted to relocate the Futenma airfield to the Henoko district.
Exploring options to move the base out of Okinawa Prefecture is not wrong in itself. But it is natural for the Tokunoshima residents to put up strong resistance to hosting a U.S. military base because the island was, like Okinawa, under U.S. occupation for some time after the end of World War II. We cannot help but question the integrity of any politician who has no qualms about selecting Tokunoshima as a relocation site merely because it is not part of Okinawa Prefecture.
As a permanent remedy, the government should try to find a way to move the base to Japan's mainland, even though that would be a formidable challenge and require an enormous amount of time and energy.
As details of the relocation plan being considered by the government have dribbled out in media reports, Hatoyama and his ministers have clammed up, saying, "no decision has been made." Such an attitude among top policymakers has been befuddling people in Okinawa Prefecture and in the areas that were named as possible relocation sites, thereby deepening their distrust of the government.
Hatoyama must clearly explain to Nakaima how he is trying to resolve this sticky problem. In Okinawa Prefecture, tens of thousands of people gathered in a recent mass rally to demand that the Futenma base be moved elsewhere. Hatoyama no longer has the luxury of not spelling out his proposal.
That is all the more so if he thinks it is inevitable to ask Okinawa Prefecture to keep shouldering at least part of the burden. The prime minister should have an open and honest conversation with the Okinawa governor about how to eliminate the danger posed by the Futenma base to local residents while reducing the burden borne by the prefecture.
Hatoyama's belated trip to the southern island will be a depressing one.
--The Asahi Shimbun, April 29