GINOWAN, Okinawa – Failing to get support from junior members of his ruling coalition for his plan to relocate Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama may break with his ruling coalition and make his proposal public without their approval.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano told reporters in Tokyo Monday that there may be a way for Hatoyama to keep his pledge to settle on a relocation plan by his self-imposed May 31 deadline without getting the Social Democratic Party or the People’s New Party to agree.
“We will make clear the government’s policy,” Hirano said according to a transcript of the press conference. “There may be a way for the cabinet to acknowledge it (without approval) by the prime minister issuing a statement of his view.”
Hatoyama’s dilemma stems from a campaign promise he made last summer to review a 2006 agreement with the U.S. to move the Marines to a new airstrip to be built on Camp Schwab, in rural northeast Okinawa. He told voters he favored moving the Marines off Okinawa, if not out of Japan altogether.
He reportedly has settled on a compromise that involves building a smaller air facility on Camp Schwab on pilings, rather than landfill, moving some Marine air functions to Tokunoshima, an island 125 miles northeast of Okinawa, and moving some training of U.S. forces on Okinawa to mainland Japan.
Okinawa officials are against any relocation on Okinawa and U.S. officials have criticized the smaller airstrip on pilings as endangering the sea environment and being more open to a terrorist attack.
There also is concern that any modification of the 2006 agreement would necessitate a new environmental assessment and further delay the project.
Within the Japanese government there has been talk that negotiations on settling the issue may extend another six months.
On Tuesday, Mizuho Fukushima, leader of the SDP and minister of consumer affairs, said she opposed Hatoyama deciding on a plan without her party’s approval.
“Relocation of the Futenma operations is a matter of extreme importance, therefore it should not be settled by mere words from the prime minster,” she said, according to a ministry spokeswoman. “Instead, this should be thoroughly discussed at the basic policy committee level by ministers from the three parties.”
In the past, the left-leaning SDP has threatened to leave the coalition if the government decides to move the Futenma air operations to another part of Okinawa.
People’s New Party leader Shizuka Kamei, the minister of postal reform and financial services, also criticized Hatoyama. He said the prime minister’s plans for Futenma “creates nothing more than confusion.”
Kamei added that the new government has only been reviewing the Futenma relocation plan since September and there should be no rush to come to a quick solution. The Liberal Democratic Party, which had an almost unbroken 50-year rule before Hatoyama took over in September, has been trying to close MCAS Futenma since 1996.
“The Futenma issue was stalled for 13 years under the LDP-led government,” Kamei told reporters in Tokyo Tuesday, according to a ministry spokesman. “The change in government will not bring a solution instantly in six months or so – it’s not magic.”