GINOWAN, Okinawa — Ichiro Ozawa, known as the power behind the scenes of the Democratic Party of Japan and a fervent U.S. military base opponent, announced Thursday that he will run for prime minister against incumbent Naoto Kan.
With the two DPJ members divided over U.S. military basing issues, it’s an election that could spell further trouble for an agreement with the U.S. to close Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and move the air units to a new facility on Camp Schwab, by the village of Henoko on Okinawa’s rural northeast coast.
If Ozawa takes leadership of Japan, the Henoko plan could be shelved, if not scrapped, experts on U.S.- Japan relations predicted Thursday.
Ozawa has been an opponent of the project that the two countries signed off on in 2006 as part of a broader realignment of U.S. troops in Japan. He supported former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s review of the plan after the DPJ swept into power a year ago, and resigned as the party’s secretary-general in June when Hatoyama quit after admitting he could not find an alternative location for the base outside Okinawa.
Ozawa, 68, announced his decision to run after receiving Hatoyama’s endorsement early Thursday. If elected, he would be the sixth Japanese prime minister in four years.
Kan, who succeeded Hatoyama and as prime minister serves as president of the DPJ, supports the Camp Schwab plan, which the two countries reaffirmed in May.
Ozawa could seek to alter the bilateral agreement if he is elected, said Masaaki Gabe, professor of international relations and director of the Institute of International Okinawa Studies at the University of the Ryukyus.
Ozawa also has supported developing closer ties with China. He once suggested that the role of the U.S. military in Japan could be reduced to just the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet, based at Yokosuka Naval Base near Tokyo. He also has suggested that the Marines could move to an auxiliary Marine airfield on Ie Shima, off Okinawa’s northwest coast, or to a little-used commercial airport on Shimoji Island, located to the south.
“He could be Japan’s first prime minister to actually shift the axis of Japan’s foreign policy — which traditionally leans heavily toward the United States — more toward other Asian nations,” Gabe said.
Kazuya Sakamoto, professor of Japan-U.S. relations at the Graduate School of Law and Politics, Osaka University, warned of chaos regarding the Futenma plan if Ozawa is elected.
“He weighs heavily on the will of left-leaning people, which is very dangerous,” Sakamoto said. “There is no doubt that if he is chosen, it will add another layer of confusion to the U.S.-Japan relations.”
Over the past year, anti-base rallies on the island have drawn more than 100,000 protesters, and the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly and all of the island’s mayors oppose the Camp Schwab project.
Last spring, Ozawa warned that accepting a new base on Okinawa would be political suicide for his party. In July the DPJ failed to win a majority in July’s Upper House elections.