Tobias Harris has posted an excellent dissection of the contours of the Futenma issue over at Observing Japan. I will offer a couple of reflections of my own.
Mr Harris makes an interesting and very valid point that if Hatoyama and the DPJ were really acting in bad faith vis-a-vis the US relationship, the situation would look very different. To quote:
That the Hatoyama government is searching so hard for alternatives — including alternatives within Okinawa — is evidence of its desire to maintain a constructive relationship with the US….not evidence of its desire to undermine the relationship

This is often forgotten I feel – although I guess it depends on your reading of how much the Japanese public “values” the US-Japan alliance.

If Hatoyama was decisive about the issue in an “anti-American” way (or more appropriately for Japan “standing up to the bully” kind of fashion), the very same people who currently are having misgivings about the damage to the US-Japan relationship from a purely calculating point of view might have found some satisfaction in the identity/symbolic politics of this, which has its own kind of benefits.

Basically, the public might have been willing to “sell” off a bit of short-term good will in terms of the US-Japan relationship in order to buy a little bit of long-term “realism” to base the relationship on in terms of communicating to the US the rules of engagement for the development of the relationship in the future. This battle may well have to be fought another day – possibly in less US friendly terms.

That Hatoyama has not indulged in this kind of politics has been to his own detriment  – he may well be appearing to be compromising the relationship for no “good” reason.

Which we can connect to another point Mr Harris makes about Hatoyama being boxed in by the US  on this issue and the US escalating the issue. Here I have to wonder, overall, how much damage long-term this may do to the US-Japan relationship – to the detriment of the US more than Japan perhaps. Hatoyama’s own deficiencies on this will be patently obvious to the public (which is detailed well in the post) but the public is probably also fully aware of the role US influence has played in this. This perception, especially if an out-of-Okinawa solution fails, will be fodder for symbolic politics for any subsequent cabinet/government.

Furthermore, if the US is seen to be “hard to work with” on these kind of issues, does this not provide an incentive for future Japanese politicians to avoid taking the “good faith” angle? The case and the fate of the curious Hatoyama Yukio may well be a textbook example for future budding Japanese politicians.

Possibly US alliance managers thought they could embarrass the DPJ out of government?
If so, this looks decidedly ill advised as not only electorally speaking with all of the most US-friendly politicians comfortably tucked away in the increasingly irrelevant LDP, but a pretty bad reading of the public mood. I wonder how much will be learned from this however – it will be obvious to many that the public does not approve of Hatoyama’s handling of Futenma.  But for the reasons that the alliance managers think? I doubt it.

2 thoughts on “Futenma

  1. I think Obama has been unduly harsh (at least publicly) on Hatoyama, however I do understand why he would be frustrated. Hatoyama said he would take care of this months ago and virtually no progress has been made. And then Hatoyama explained that the negotiations are being taken care of my the Japanese and US ambassadors. I think perhaps U.S. officials are annoyed that Hatoyama himself isn’t taking charge but rather is leaving this to his ambassador.

    I’m also not sure that the US has more to lose than Japan here. Don’t misunderstand me – I love Japan (I’m here after all), but if American-Japanese relations were to degrade, America would stand to lose a couple of important military bases (yet is still would have a presence in the Pacific). Japan would be forced to rely strictly on its own SDF as it has no standing army. Granted, perhaps it doesn’t need an army OR US forces to protect it, but I bet a fair amount of Japanese would feel a little uneasy at the prospect.

    • Thanks for the comment.

      On a personal relationship level, I am sure Obama has a right to be frustrated with Hatoyama (read the Observing Japan link in my post for a good takedown of Hatoyama), but some of the reaction from some circles in the Washington policy making establishment have brushed off Hatoyama too easily as being just some sort of aberration, and Japan will soon come to their senses, so to speak. However, there are many that would argue (including many non-establishment U.S. voices) that the U.S. has failed the properly the comprehend the changes in Japanese politics – and Japanese attitudes post-Cold War in general.

      As for the alliance – yes, if the U.S. withdrew its support “cold turkey” I do think that Japan would have much to lose – but I think the assumption here is that neither party wants that and rather, the U.S. giving Japan a bit more “room” to move is the best option – but if Japanese citizens and policy makers feel they are not being taken seriously then this would certainly lead to a strategic rethink about the whole relationship. This is what I mean by trading off some goodwill for some “realism”.

      As for whether Japanese would feel comfortable or not about Japanese remilitarisation – I guess it depends on whether you see the Japanese as pacifists, or peace-preferring “realists”. I definitely think the later – after all the younger generations are much more comfortable with Japan using force overseas if necessary than previous ones have been. This doesn’t necessarily mean more “nationalistic” in the rampant dangerous sense that many (only wish to) see in Japan – there are many sensible people in Japan who would love to see Japan have much more military bite, at the very least for the purposes of collective self-defense – and they aren’t (just) nationalist kooks like Ishihara et al!

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