Time Running Out for Japan`s Yukio Hatoyama

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama spent part of the early May Golden Week holiday in Okinawa, but unlike other vacation-goers, he wasn`t here to enjoy the warm weather and beaches. He spent most of his time closeted with Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima trying to convince him to support his plan for realigning American bases. He wasn`t very successful.

Astonishingly, this was the first time since he took office last September that Hatoyama had visited the southern island. Normally, that might not have mattered much, but considering how the issue of moving the Futenma US Marine Corps air base to another location has ballooned into perhaps the issue of his administration, one wonders why he waited so long.

Time is fast running out on Hatoyama`s self-imposed deadline of finding a solution acceptable to all parties -- Washington, Tokyo and local authorities -- by the end of May. So it is not very surprising the government is beginning to back away from that pledge.

Senior party officials reportedly have been pressuring him to drop the May 31 deadline pledge for fear that he might be forced to resign if he fails to find an acceptable solution. That might have a disastrous impact on the up-coming election in July for half of the membership of the House of Councillors, the upper house of Japan`s bicameral parliament.

In any case, it is would be virtually impossible for him to find a solution in the next two weeks that is acceptable to all of the parties involved. Anti-base sentiment on Okinawa is at a fever pitch. In late May some 90,000 Okinawans turned out for a massive anti-base protest, attended by the governor and most of the island`s mayors.

Hatoyama is trying desperately to come up with something to show that he had managed to alter the long- planned realignment to make it more palatable even if he concedes that the main Marine air base will have to stay in Okinawa, despite his long-stated desire to move it off the island entirely.

The premier`s plan is said to involve moving most of the air operations from Futenma to a location further north at Camp Schwab in Nago city, which was the plan negotiated by Washington with the previous government. He proposes building a new runway on pilings instead of using land fill as being more environmentally safe.

Hatyoama still holds out a dream of moving a part of the air operations or drills to a facility to be built on the island of Tokunoshima just off Kyushu. That way he can say that he at least moved a part of the operations off Okinawa, since it is part of Kagoshima prefecture.

But this is probably a pipe dream. The island`s 26,000 residents are, for the moment, adamantly opposed to hosting any part of the US forces and seem unmovable to any persuasion or economic blandishments that Tokyo might hold out for them. All three of the island`s mayors say the issue is non-negotiable.

Moreover, the Americans are opposed to any plan that splits the operations between two distant places. They are more amendable to relatively minor technical adjustments to the main proposal. It is expected that Tokyo will, for now, concentrate on negotiating with the US and leave the effort to persuade localities until later.

Meanwhile, the prime minister is daily being skewered in the Japanese press for his inept handling of this issue. WEAK LEADERSHIP and HATOYAMA STRIKES OUT AGAIN are just a couple typical headlines from the Asahi Shimbun newspaper.

“What a mess,” writes Japan Times reporter Masami Ito. “Not only has Hatoyama lost the trust of the US government, but he must also face the ire of tens of thousands of Okinawans disappointed over his failure to keep his promise to move the base out of Okinawa.”

In retrospect, it is clear the government should have endorsed the formally agreed plan in the immediate wake of the August general election, when the cabinet`s approval ratings were in the 70s. Hatoyama could have argued it was a fait accompli, signed by the previous government and sealed by a vote of parliament.

Now the government`s public approval ratings have sunk to 20 percent in some recent polls, not much higher than the previous government`s ratings prior to its disastrous defeat last summer. The only saving grace for Hatoyama and his party is that the approval ratings for the Liberal Democratic Party, now in opposition, are even lower.

Not all of the government`s falling popularity can be ascribed to the premier`s inept handling of the Okinawa question. The scent of political corruption and mishandling of campaign funds continues to hover around the Democratic Party of Japan`s number two man, party secretary general Ichiro Ozawa, as well as some lingering questions about Hatoyama`s own political fund-raising operations.

It was just a year ago that Ozawa resigned as party leader under a corruption cloud and made way for Hatoyama. The Democratic Party went on to win some 200 seats in the lower house election in August. Pressure will be building on him to dump Ozawa prior from his party post before the July election.

In the wake of their landslide victory last summer, it seemed inevitable that the DPJ would gain enough seats in the upper house this July to pass bills without having to rely on votes of its two smaller coalition partners. One of them, the Social Democrats, adamantly opposes keeping the Marines on Okinawa. The need to keep them on board is one reason why Hatoyama has tried so hard to find a way to move the base off the island entirely.

It is now beginning to look like the party might actually lose control of the upper house even with the votes of its minor party partners. If that happens, the premier will almost certainly have to resign to take responsibility for the loss, which would make him even more of a short-timer than three previous LDP premiers, all of whom quit after about a year in office.

It should be remembered that Washington is almost as eager to close Futenma as any demonstrator. Over time, a city of about 90,000 people has grown up surrounding the base. Any incident, such as a helicopter crashing into market or college campus, could, in the present atmosphere, force the Marines out of Okinawa entirely thus lowering the over-all deterrent value of the American presence in Japan

It is likely that Hatoyama will be spending a lot more time in Okinawa in the coming months, and he won`t be going to the beach.