GINOWAN, Okinawa — The poor showing of Japan’s ruling party in Upper House elections Sunday could hamper any progress in closing the Marine air base that sits in the middle of this city of 90,000, experts say.
Although the U.S. and Japan in May reaffirmed a 2006 plan to close Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and move air operations to a new facility on Okinawa’s northeast shore, Prime Minister Naoto Kan and his Democratic Party of Japan may be too weak to act assertively on the controversial move, regional experts say. Most Okinawans are against the 2006 agreement and the implementation of that pact could be stalled by Okinawa’s next governor.
“Futenma is a scab that they would not want to pick,” said Masaaki Gabe, professor of International Relations and director of the Institute of International Okinawa Studies at the University of the Ryukyus.
Kan will try to stay away from the issue as much as possible, Gabe said, pointing out that the party’s inability to keep a campaign promise made last summer to move the Marines outside Okinawa soured islanders so much that the party did not run an Okinawan candidate in the recent election.
Some U.S. experts on Japanese politics concur.
“The Japanese are going to be embroiled in their own domestic politics for a while,” Dan Sneider, a Japan expert at Stanford University told Kyodo News Tuesday.
“Kan and the DPJ’s ability to overcome opposition in Okinawa is going to be impacted by their weakening on the national level,” Sneider said. “The weaker the government is in Tokyo, the less able it is to strong arm the Okinawans.”
Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo, also doubted there will be much progress on the Futenma issue, even though the two sides agreed in May that construction details were to be worked out in August prior to a meeting by the U.S. and Japan defense and foreign ministers in the fall.
“Kan agreed to go forward with the 2006 plan, but will the Okinawans let him? Anger is high there,” Kingston told Stars and Stripes. “This issue is not going to die. The Okinawans are promising to disrupt construction of any offshore runway. It’s definitely going to be a problem for Kan.”
The election for Okinawa governor is in November. Whoever’s elected will have the power to delay — if not quash — the Futenma relocation project because the governor must sign off on any construction that would affect the island’s waters. The current air facility plan calls for runways to stretch from the lower part of Camp Schwab onto a landfill in Oura Bay.
“The outcome of the election weakened the capacities of the Kan administration,” said Kazuya Sakamoto, professor of Japan and U.S. relations at Osaka University’s Graduate School of Law and Politics.
Kan’s position as head of the party and prime minister also could be at risk. During a meeting of top DPJ members Monday, there were calls for Kan to resign.
Kan said he has no plans to do so. If he does eventually resign, he would be the fifth prime minister in four years to step down. He became prime minister in June after Yukio Hatoyama quit after admitting defeat on the Futenma issue.
Most minority parties have already discounted forming a coalition with the DPJ. Sakamoto predicted Kan and his party will have to form a closer alliance with their political nemesis, the Liberal Democratic Party, which they unseated last September after the more conservative party’s almost unbroken 50-year rule.
“Now that the LDP has regained strength, the DPJ will have no choice but to be influenced by the LDP,” he said.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Katsuya Okada alluded to such a possibility during a press conference Tuesday in Tokyo. Using the term “Twisted Diet” to describe the situation, he said “we are headed for some tough maneuvering,” according to a transcript.
“It is a fact that this issue cannot move forward without the understanding of Okinawa,” Okada said.