Okinawa base lease bill clears Lower House panel

With the backing of major opposition parties, a government-sponsored bill aimed at giving Tokyo the power to continue forcibly leasing land for U.S. military bases in Okinawa easily passed a Lower House special committee without amendment April 10.

The bill cleared the Diet panel less than a week after it was introduced. The Lower House is expected to endorse the bill at its plenary session April 11.

The Upper House is also expected to give the bill the green light by the end of next week — well in time for Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto’s planned talks with U.S. President Bill Clinton on April 25 in Washington.

Enactment of the bill will be a major victory for Hashimoto, who has placed priority on gaining a sound legal basis for securing land plots within 12 U.S. military facilities after lease contracts expire on May 14. The properties are owned by some 3,000 antibase landowners.

A failure at the Diet would have caused Hashimoto to lose face. The prime minister has been stressing the importance of securing a stable supply of land for U.S. military bases, describing it as Japan’s duty under bilateral security arrangements.

The bill was initially expected to face an uphill struggle, since the Social Democratic Party, a non-Cabinet partner of Hashimoto’s Liberal Democratic Party, remained opposed to it.

Easy passage of the bill at the special committee was made possible after Hashimoto’s government won the support of opposition parties Shinshinto, the Democratic Party of Japan and the Taiyo Party. Garnering their support was indispensable to the LDP-led government, which lacks a majority in both chambers of the Diet.

With the support of the opposition parties, New Party Sakigake — another LDP ally — as well as pro-LDP independent lawmakers and a parliamentary group, the bill is expected to win close to 90 percent backing in the 500-seat House of Representatives and 80 percent in the House of Councilors.

Last week, Ichiro Ozawa, leader of the largest opposition party, Shinshinto, agreed to cooperate with Hashimoto in ensuring the bill’s clear passage through the Diet after the prime minister accepted Ozawa’s call to facilitate an environment in which the central government will have ultimate authority over the securing of land for U.S. bases. Similarly, the DPJ, the second largest opposition party, decided to support the bill earlier this week after the LDP agreed to take effective steps to help boost Okinawa’s economy.

This unusual show of cooperation between the ruling LDP and its opposition rivals over the Okinawa issue has already started to shake up the present tripartite ruling alliance and is expected to lead to its collapse in the future, if not immediately. The SDP maintains that it will stay in the ruling camp, but the LDP is apparently becoming more flexible and comfortable with changing its partners on an issue-by-issue basis.

The Hashimoto-Ozawa agreement in particular raised speculation of a possible alliance between the two conservative parties, a move which has been advocated by some of the LDP’s old guards. Ozawa himself has hinted at his readiness to cooperate with the LDP on other key issues such as the streamlining of the government and fiscal reform.

But political analysts predict that the current framework of the ruling camp will continue at least until June, when the government starts to unveil its plan on key issues such as fiscal reform.

Under the bill, the government is allowed to continue using land provisionally designated for U.S. forces after land leases expires. This will be allowed even if application procedures to renew leases have not been completed as long as the government applies for an extension and pays compensation to the landowners before the expiration of current leases. The bill was passed together with the committee’s resolution calling on the government to make the utmost effort to revitalize the Okinawa economy and reduce the burden on Okinawa residents.