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Hatoyama looks vulnerable after fruitless U.S. trip

Endless Futenma debate hurts standing at home and abroad

by Mariko Yasumoto

Kyodo News

WASHINGTON — When he visited the United States nearly seven months ago, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama was making his diplomatic debut as the head of a new administration launched after a historic national election.

But this time out, he toured Washington when voters at home and policymakers in the U.S. alike appeared frustrated with the seemingly endless debate over the fate of the Futenma base in Okinawa. Now that his latest trip is over, Hatoyama was seen by many as going home empty-handed, his future hanging in the balance.

When Hatoyama swept to power last September, the United States “expected that he would soon learn the importance of Japan-U.S. ties and realize what taking power means,” said Koji Murata, a political science professor at Doshisha University.

But that hasn’t happened and “confidence among Washington officials in the Hatoyama administration is now in tatters,” Murata said.

High expectations that the new government would pull Japan out of political and economic stagnation have now turned into disappointment.

But it is a foreign affair — the feud over where to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma — that has become Hatoyama’s biggest challenge.

Although several relocation plans have been floating around the coalition government, there are little signs Hatoyama will find a feasible alternative to settle the matter as his self-imposed deadline of the end of May draws near.

During his two-day stay in Washington through Tuesday, the DPJ leader had no opportunity to hold a formal bilateral meeting with President Barack Obama, who hosted the Nuclear Security Summit.

All the increasingly embattled prime minister was able to get was a chance to speak to Obama for 10 minutes during a summit working dinner Monday, when they were seated next to each other.

“I told him that the Japan-U.S. alliance is extremely important and that we are in the process of making efforts toward resolving the Futenma relocation issue,” Hatoyama told reporters afterward. “I said we will settle it by the end of May.”

While arguing that he is pursuing more equal and closer ties with the United States than when the Liberal Democratic Party was in power, Hatoyama has repeatedly said since taking office that the Japan-U.S. alliance forms the cornerstone of the nation’s foreign policy. But his flip-flops and the lack of coordination within his coalition on the Futenma issue have put bilateral relations to a severe test.

Some critics say the United States has apparently been reluctant to arrange any formal bilateral talks until the Hatoyama government comes up with a concrete candidate site for Futenma.

U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos told Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada earlier this month that Washington is not ready to launch working-level talks on the relocation issue, which Tokyo had been hoping to begin this week.

Yet the United States appears hesitant to take a hard line on the DPJ-led government because the 12-year-old party holds an outright majority in the powerful Lower House and will remain in office at least another 3 1/2 years, barring a snap election.

Whether Hatoyama’s administration can survive is a different story.

Public support ratings for his Cabinet have plummeted to about half of the 70 percent logged at its launch and the Upper House expected in July is looming.

“Prime Minister Hatoyama opened Pandora’s box,” Murata said. “The problem of this issue is that the government is trying to find ‘the best’ solution although there isn’t any such thing. What the prime minister can do is to avoid the worst-case scenario.”

Murata referred to the possibility that the Futenma facility could remain in its current location, a scenario that could disappoint local people and severely undermine U.S. trust in Japan.

Following months of confusion over the relocation, Hatoyama said in the Diet last month that he has his “own plan in mind.”

Analysts doubt that he truly has a secret plan on top of the other ideas that have already triggered opposition from local residents and officials in Washington. Some analysts even say Hatoyama’s days are numbered, and about 47 percent of voters in the latest Kyodo News survey said Hatoyama should step down if he fails to keep his promise to settle the Futenma dispute by the end of next month.

“It is unlikely that the Obama administration will throw a lifeline to Hatoyama,” said Kazuhiro Asano, a professor at Sapporo University. “That means he will be unable to resolve the Futenma issue and will have to step down.”

The row involves a 2006 accord between Japan and the United States to transfer the base in a residential area to a less crowded area in another city in Okinawa as part of a broader realignment of U.S. forces stationed in Japan.

Hatoyama has been reviewing the bilateral accord, which was agreed to by a previous LDP-led government in a bid to ease the burden on people in Okinawa, which has hosted a large bulk of the U.S. forces, but Washington has been pressing him to stick to the original deal.