Q&A: Former Japanese PM blasts US base on Okinawa

Government must listen to its people insisting on no new American Marine base on the island, Yukio Hatoyama says.

Japan base
Former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama attends a protest against the construction of a new US base at Henoko [EPA]

Tokyo, Japan – Yukio Hatoyama came to power in a landslide “regime change” election of August 2009.

The vote displaced the 54 years of nearly unbroken rule by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) – a conservative organisation, despite its name – and replaced it with the centre-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).

However, Hatoyama lasted only eight months as prime minister and his DPJ was ultimately defeated in the general elections of December 2012, when the long-ruling LDP returned under the leadership of ultraconservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

One thing that has not changed through the years is the controversial issue of US military bases on the island of Okinawa. Many on the southern island are upset by base pollution and noise, crimes committed by US service personnel, and the threat of accidents.  

Realignment plans for US Marines remain of particular importance – a thorn in the side of Japanese governments.

The Pentagon insists that moving the Marine Corps base from Futenma to a beach in northern Okinawa called Henoko is the “only option” that would be acceptable.

The problem that faces both Washington and Tokyo, however, is the local people steadfastly refuse to accept this plan, arguing instead the US Marines must be relocated to somewhere outside of Okinawa prefecture.

Al Jazeera sat down with former prime minister Hatoyama, whose administration sank largely on account of this very issue, to talk about his views on Okinawa today. This discussion came as Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga travelled to Washington earlier this month to communicate his people’s wishes.

Al Jazeera: Is it a good idea for Governor Onaga to build his own diplomatic links with the United States?

Yukio Hatoyama: Fundamentally, I think it is a good idea.

Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga [Reuters]Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga [Reuters]

Until now, national security issues have been dealt with as if it is a problem separate from the country itself. They have been dealt with solely between Tokyo and Washington. Even in the time that I was in office, it had been decided that Henoko will be the alternative location for the Futenma base.

However, this decision was reached while continuing to ignore the opinions of Okinawan citizens. Especially as I continued to say that at a minimum the base should be moved to another prefecture, in the end I was forced to return to Henoko.

The Okinawan people have become very angry as a result of this decision, and out of it sprung the demand that the Henoko plan be rejected.

This feeling is now being integrated into the democratic process. Up until now, the democratic will of the people has been totally left out of discussions between Tokyo and Washington.

I strongly believe that progress made through discussions between Okinawa and Washington will be useful in solving the problem democratically. 

Al Jazeera: Governor Onaga has described the central government’s policy towards Okinawa as reflecting a sort of “corruption” in Japanese politics. Do you hold this same view?

Hatoyama: Governor Onaga has indeed described Japanese politics – the national government in particular – as corrupt. Although his words are very harsh, I believe he is correct.

That is to say, when the Japanese government makes very big decisions, it should be a matter of course to take seriously the will of the people.

However, the government is forcefully insisting on the relocation to Henoko without demonstrating any respect to the people’s opinion.

Under normal circumstances, it stands to reason that a democratic nation should respect the will of the citizens of each prefecture.

Al Jazeera: The US and Japanese governments assert these bases are necessary for national security. Do you feel there is any military threat for Japan?

Hatoyama: Prime Minister Abe is making mischief as he addresses the nation, for example, regarding the threat from China. I do not believe that it does any good at all for either country to talk provocatively about threats.

Certainly, the Chinese military capability has been expanding at considerable speed.

 Japanese islanders oppose building a new US base

However, instead of just saying that it is a threat, I believe that more effort needs to be made in foreign diplomacy to find a way to get along well with each other and to cooperate.

Increasing military strength as a means of deterrence is only going to provoke an opponent. As a result, opponents simply increase their own military strength more and more.

Then, Japan will match this by cooperating with the United States, and as a result, tensions will be very high. It could reach a peak of such volatility that a small incident could become a large and unrestrained conflict.

I do not believe for a moment that increasing military strength will show any results as a deterrent.

If one is talking about deterrence, rather than seeing each other as a threat, it would be far better to find a way to get along and to cooperate. That would be a far bigger deterrent – or so I believe.

Al Jazeera: During the last part of your administration, you were the one who endorsed the May 2010 US-Japan Agreement that confirmed Henoko as the location for the Futenma replacement facility. What are your thoughts about that as you look back today?

Hatoyama: When Obama came to Japan [in November 2009], we discussed the notion that as we are a new administration, it means that as a matter of course not every policy will necessarily be the same as before.

President Obama himself naturally had no reason to adopt the same policies as the preceding Republican administration.

I felt that President Obama was flexible in regard to change. At that time, he wanted me to reach a decision by December 2009. We had promised it by May, nearly half a year later.

In the end, I didn’t have enough time to decide on a new, alternative location for the base, and the Budget Committee did not have enough time to prepare.

Looking back on it, as many other people pointed out, the deadline of May was a very short time to try to reach a conclusion. I regret that I hurried to achieve the results in such a short time. It would have been better to try to come to a decision together with President Obama in a more leisurely manner.

There is one more thing that I would like to add. I believe that as a result of my decision I fuelled the great anger of the Okinawan people.

Following this, the Okinawan people’s determination to prevent at all costs the construction of the Henoko base resulted in election victories for the prefectural governor, House of Representatives candidates, and the mayor of Nago city.

Accordingly, even as I express my deep regret, I also believe that it was in response to my own failure to achieve anything substantial that this course towards the electoral victories of the Okinawan people was launched.

Follow Michael Penn on Twitter: @ShingetsuNews

Source: Al Jazeera