Okinawa call to shape new US-Japan era
By Axel Berkofsky
Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has given his government a deadline of
May to decide whether or not Tokyo will stick to a Japan-United States
agreement from 2006 on the relocation of US troops in Japan.
The 2006 accord foresees the relocation of the US Marine Corps air station
Futenma from the residential area of Ginowan, located in the southern densely
populated part of Okinawa, to Henoko, a less densely populated area on the
northern part of the island.
As part of the agreement, signed after 13 years of cumbersome and controversial
negotiations, Washington agreed to reduce the number of US troops stationed in
Japan (47.000 in total) by
relocating 8.000 marines from Okinawa to Guam by 2014.
Make the 'right' call, Washington says
Plans to revisit the existing relocation agreement have been on the agenda ever
since the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) led by Hatoyama took power in
September. The longer he waits to make the "right" call - which, as far as
Washington is concerned, would be to stick to the existing agreement - the more
he and his ministers are messing up the US-Japan alliance, said the Wall Street
Journal in an opinion piece published on January 28 entitled "The Hatoyama
"The more Japan's ordinary citizens ... worry that the US-Japan security
alliance is at risk, the more they'll lose confidence in their national
leaders. Hatoyama's approval ratings are already hovering around 45%, and
falling," the WSJ article claimed.
Yet Japan's "ordinary citizens" are not mostly concerned with the country's
defense and security policies, as recent opinion polls have shown. The economy
and the prime minister and DPJ secretary general Ichiro Ozawa's alleged
involvement in financial and corruption scandals are higher priorities.
As it turns out, Hatoyama not caving in to Washington on defense and security
matters is one of the few things the Japanese public approves about his
United States analysts have in recent months rounded on Japan's prime minister,
claiming in print and behind the megaphone that Hatoyama's decision to resist
US pressure on the relocation agreement puts the US-Japan alliance at risk and
jeopardizes Japanese national security.
This is alarmism, says Linus Hagstrom, acting director of research at The
Swedish Institute of International Affairs in Stockholm. "The US reaction so
far is utterly out of proportion with the gravity of the issue. When US
officials and analysts call the base relocation issue a litmus test for the
US-Japan alliance, they are overreacting. It is probably part of a strategy to
compel Japan into compliance," he told Asia Times Online.
Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Center for Strategic and
International Studies Pacific Forum in Honolulu, says Japan's relatively new
government has yet to fill in some blanks in regards to knowledge of
international relations in general and the troops' relocation plan in
"The Japanese administration doesn't have much security expertise and doesn't
understand how the agreement works. It is an integrated whole, you can't just
do part of the package," he told ATol.
This view is not shared by Christopher W Hughes, professor of international
politics and Japanese studies at the University of Warwick, Britain.
"Japan has the right to try to negotiate the base agreements if it wants to.
The Pentagon's frustration with Japan after all these years of trying to solve
Futenma is understandable, but it is not as if the US does not review and
rethink policy or agreements with new administrations. These are two sovereign
governments, and supposed allies, so they had better start talking again."
Renegotiating the base relocation agreement, however, is not exactly on top of
Washington's Japan policy agenda, as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
informed her counterpart Katsuya Okada in mid-January. At a meeting in
Honolulu, Clinton again urged Tokyo to stick to the existing agreement and
Japan's alleged "commitment" to relocate the marines from Ginowan to Nago.
The agreement is - at least as far as Washington is concerned - most probably
still what US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called "non-negotiable" during
his visit to Tokyo last November.
This is pretty much in line with how Washington has always dealt with Japan, as
a junior alliance partner, says Linus Hagstrom. "Washington has urged Tokyo
over the last 20 years to take on more responsibility in international affairs,
engaging in so-called 'burden-sharing'. Judging by the US reaction to the
Futenma issue, however, it seems that Washington only supports an increased
Japanese role as long as it can control Japan. Washington does not want a more
independent ally and is not at all interested in 'power-sharing'."
Nobody wants them
Hatoyama in the meantime is hanging in there, although he has given up on his
original idea to find a new home for the Futenma marine corps station outside
"From the perspective of a deterrent force, moving all base functions to Guam
will probably be impossible. The process will now focus on choosing a site in
Japan," the prime minister said recently after Washington made it repeatedly
clear that it does not want more than 8,000 of its own soldiers in Guam by
Indeed, there is no shortage of suggestions coming from within the Hatoyama
cabinet on where to relocate the base, but most are unrealistic.
Among others, it was suggested to move the marines to Shimoji, a small island
about 280 kilometers southwest of Okinawa's main island, or to Iwoto island,
which is close to Tokyo. Others in Hatoyama's cabinet thought it would be a
good idea to keep the Futenma station in Ginowan and transfer some of its
helicopter drills to what was referred to as a "remote island".
All of them are bad ideas as far as Washington and interested parties in Japan
are concerned, Hughes says.
"Of the alternatives in Okinawa, no one wants the marines corps airfield, and
no one else in Japan seems to want it. And if someone did, I don't think that
would be acceptable to the US side if the idea is to keep the marines'
helicopters close to the marines' ground forces," Hughes fears.
Then again, Hughes adds, it might eventually not really matter where the troops
move to as long as Washington continues pretending to be interested in
negotiating with Tokyo. "I think Hatoyama's plan, if he really has one, is to
contain this crisis and get the US to negotiate. Then he might come up with
some kind of compromise plan in May which his coalition partners, Okinawa's
population and the US will swallow."
More trouble ahead?
All is well that ends well then? Perhaps not quite, since Washington remains
worried that Japan's attempts to renegotiate the base relocation agreement
could be the beginning of the end of the asymmetric US-Japan alliance.
Hatoyama and his DPJ are already thinking out loud about changing the US-Japan
Status of Forces Agreement that protects US troops from legal prosecution in
Japan. What's more, Hatoyama and party friends are planning to move the
reduction of the Host Nation Support, ie Japan's financial support for the US
military in Japan (amounting to US$4 billion per year) up on the US-Japan
agenda in the months ahead.
In the meantime, however, Tokyo and Washington are assigning funds for the
relocation of US marines to an as yet unclear location in May.
In its fiscal budget for 2010, Tokyo has allocated 28.8 billion yen (US$321
million) for the relocation of the Futenma station and has put aside 34.6
billion yen for the transfer of marines from Okinawa to Guam.
Washington and the US Congress are doing the same, having in December adopted a
$310 million budget for the transfer of marines from Okinawa to Guam in 2010 -
though they could threaten to delay the allocation of funds beyond 2010 if
Tokyo decides not to stick to the 2006 troop relocation agreement.
Familiar tit-for-tat US policies for sure, but Washington might for a change
join Tokyo at the receiving end in the months ahead.
Professor Axel Berkofsky is Gianni Mazzocchi Fellow at the University of
Pavia, Italy and senior associate research fellow at the Milan-based Istituto
per Gli Studi di Politica Internazionale (ISPI).