Okinawa's cost: Political fallout could take a huge toll in Japan

Written by Susan Mannella on .

The Japanese government has agreed that U.S. forces may retain their base on the island of Okinawa -- reneging on a promise to its electorate, putting its political survival at risk and probably giving the United States something it doesn't need.

One reason last August that Japanese voters elected the Democratic Party of Japan, led by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, was his pledge to reduce the number of U.S. forces, which now stands at 50,000. Another pledge was not to extend the presence on Okinawa of what has become a troublesome base, U.S. Marine Air Station Futenma. The Japanese resent the noise of the jet aircraft, crimes committed by American military personnel and the general compromise of Japanese sovereignty constituted by foreign troops on their soil.

After ousting the Liberal Democratic Party which had governed Japan practically without a break since 1955, Mr. Hatoyama and the DPJ government began implementing that portion of its electoral platform. But the administration of President Barack Obama complained at the post-election change of course and urged the new leadership to stick to the course of the former government. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates engaged in some heavy arm-twisting, supported by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Mr. Obama, less overtly.

Mr. Hatoyama's government has now caved, agreeing that the Futenma base can be moved elsewhere on Okinawa, as opposed to an off-island location like the U.S. territory of Guam. Presumably, there will also be no change in the level of U.S. forces either.

From the U.S. point of view, the cost of the base and the large troop presence in Japan will remain the same. Furthermore, the new, more modern DPJ government has suffered a body blow and is being accused of being an American stooge. That could prove fatal to it politically as early as July 11, when elections to the upper house of Japan's parliament will take place.

It is hard to see how either retaining the Okinawa base or maintaining the high level of U.S. forces in Japan, with American troops also in South Korea, Guam and Hawaii, is worth either the money or the political cost.


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