Japan’s Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama resigned June 3, after just eight and a half months in office, amid rising popular anger over a broken campaign promise to renegotiate with Washington to remove a U.S. air base from Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture. His popularity had sunk to 20 percent by late May, from a high of 70 percent when he and the Democratic Party of Japan came to power last September, after decades of Liberal Democratic Party dominance. He was Japan’s fourth prime minister in as many years.
Also contributing to Hatoyama’s resignation were allegations about fundraising scandals, and his abandonment of promises to shift national priorities toward the needs of ordinary Japanese people and to seek a more equal overall relationship with Washington. Another DPJ leader, Ichiro Ozawa, also resigned.
Neither Hatoyama’s resignation nor the earlier exit of a smaller left party from the governing coalition over the Okinawa base issue will force a change in government. The DPJ still has a significant majority in the House of Representatives, which picks the prime minister. By week’s end, the party is expected to announce a new leader who will then become prime minister.
Located in the middle of Ginowan City, one of the island’s largest cities, the U.S. Marine air base at Futenma was originally built near the end of World War II, as the U.S. prepared for a possible ground war against mainland Japan.
Though Japanese governments maintained for decades that Futenma and other U.S. bases on the island were essential to their country’s security, in fact, the Japanese Communist Party newspaper Akahata pointed out late last year that over half the U.S. troops on Okinawa are “forward-based” Marines. Their numbers increased sharply during the Vietnam War, and in recent years they have been regularly deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The island’s location, midway between Japan’s main islands and Taiwan, gives it additional strategic importance to the U.S. military.
Protests against Futenma and against the U.S. military’s occupation of many other sites on Okinawa have been widespread since the 1996 gang-rape of an Okinawan schoolgirl by three U.S. Marines. Since a 1997 referendum rejected plans to relocate Futenma elsewhere on the island, Akahata said, opinion polls have consistently shown 70 to 80 percent of Okinawan respondents opposing plans for a new base.
Concern over frequent accidents escalated after a U.S. helicopter crashed into a university building in 2004. Environmental damage has also been a big issue. Proposals to relocate the base to an area seen as vital habitat for the dugong, an endangered marine mammal, have drawn special ire.
Hatoyama’s announcement late last month that the Futenma base would be relocated on Okinawa, under agreements between the U.S. and Japanese governments, brought praise from the Obama administration. But it also ignited a firestorm of protest, including rallies by thousands around the country and a sit-in by 36 of 48 local assembly members at the government building where the announcement was made.
In fact, demonstrations had intensified in the weeks before the announcement, as Hatoyama’s wavering on the issue became more and more apparent. In late April, 90,000 participants in a protest rally heard the mayors of Ginowan City and other cities declare their opposition to relocation. In mid-May some 17,000 Okinawans braved strong wind and rain to encircle Futenma bearing banners demanding the prime minister honor his pledge to remove the base.