NAHA, Okinawa Pref. — Even though former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama broke his promise to move U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma out of Okinawa, his involvement in the matter ended the moment he left office.
But for the people of Okinawa the story is far from over, and the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, which Hatoyama led until early June, may end up paying a high political price to clean up the mess left by the former prime minister.
The DPJ gave up on fielding a candidate in Okinawa for Sunday’s Upper House election, fearing the party would garner little support after Hatoyama’s announcement in May that, following eight months of fruitless efforts to find an alternative site, most of Futenma’s operations would remain in the prefecture.
Naoto Kan’s rise to power has even worried Okinawans as the new prime minister immediately vowed to follow the bilateral accord the Hatoyama government concluded with Washington in late May, which basically adheres to an original 2006 agreement to move the facility to a less crowded area on Okinawa Island.
“I had hoped the party would bring about a change, but it didn’t,” a 63-year-old woman from the prefectural capital of Naha said of the DPJ, which won last year’s general election. She added that she did not know which party to vote for in the Upper House election.
In a bid to capitalize on Okinawa’s intense anger at the DPJ and capture voters, all opposition party candidates running in the prefecture are calling for Futenma, which is currently situated in a crowded residential area in Ginowan, to be relocated outside Okinawa, or even be shut down.
Political pundits predict that the latest national poll will see a low voter turnout in the prefecture — the country’s only constituency with no candidates from the ruling party — noting that voters are being offered virtually no options.
“Voters are also skeptical as to whether their ballots would exert any influence on the management of the government,” given that the DPJ will likely stay in office for a few more years at least, said Masaaki Gabe, professor at the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa.
Even Aiko Shimajiri, an incumbent Upper House member of the Liberal Democratic Party, the main opposition force, has claimed that Futenma should be moved outside Okinawa. It was the LDP-led government that signed the original bilateral accord on U.S. forces realignment in May 2006.
Neither her campaign office nor the LDP’s local branch are hesitant about pushing for a completely different pledge from the party’s headquarters, and the branch has even mapped out a separate platform for Okinawa, home to about 1 million eligible voters.
If Shimajiri wins, the branch will press the party’s Tokyo office to seek full-fledged support from other prefectures for reducing the base-hosting burden on Okinawa, said Sunao Ikema, secretary general of the LDP’s Okinawa branch, while stressing that the risks Futenma poses to local residents must be removed immediately.
Shimajiri, 45, is the LDP’s lone Diet member representing Okinawa. The LDP lost all of its Lower House seats from the prefecture in last summer’s election.
But Hiroji Yamashiro, 57, an independent candidate who is backed by the Social Democratic Party and has long taken the lead in antibase protests in Okinawa, has denounced Shimajiri for changing her stance just to gain votes.
Advocating the outright removal of what is often claimed to be one of the most dangerous U.S. military facilities in the world is Tadayuki Ijyu, 59, a doctor running with the support of the Japanese Communist Party.
“We should not force pain on people in other areas and our party is the only one that can make a clear demand to the U.S. government,” he said in a stump speech in Naha in late June.
Further complicating the contest are harsh criticisms leveled by Shokichi Kina of the DPJ, who is seeking his second term on the party’s proportional representation ticket, against the Kan administration for sticking to the May accord to relocate Futenma within Okinawa.
“I am the one who is pursuing what the party initially advocated and the party is the one that has changed its stance. How can I ensure consistency?” said the musician-turned-politician who heads the DPJ’s local office, displaying little hesitation in building up a “Tokyo vs Okinawa” stance.
Hatoyama’s flip-flopping not only shattered Okinawa’s hopes, however faint, that the DPJ would bring about a long-awaited breakthrough in the stalled base relocation issue — devastating local confidence in politics — but also made Okinawa feel even more discriminated against and isolated from the rest of the country.
“This time, I became more aware than ever before that people on the mainland don’t want to get their own hands dirty,” said the woman from Naha, a former prefectural official who asked not to be identified by name.
The residents of Okinawa have complained that they were sacrificed during the closing days of World War II and are still compelled to bear the burden of hosting U.S. forces today, with about 75 percent of U.S. military facilities in Japan located in their prefecture.
Hiroshi Ashitomi, who for years has led a sit-in protest against the construction of a replacement facility for Futenma on the coast of Henoko in Nago, said Hatoyama’s decision helped shed light on the “political discrimination” against Okinawa.
Ashitomi said he felt frustrated when Kan expressed his appreciation to Okinawa for hosting U.S. forces during a June 23 ceremony to mark the 65th anniversary of the end of the Battle of Okinawa.
“It’s nothing but an insult to us,” he said. “Despite his background as a civil activist, it doesn’t seem like he sympathizes with our feelings.”
Amid the backlash from Okinawa, Gabe at the University of the Ryukyus said the Kan government is unlikely to win local approval for implementing the May deal, no matter who is chosen in the local gubernatorial election in November, further clouding Tokyo’s prospects of meeting the 2014 deadline for completing the realignment.
While many people in Okinawa said they credit Hatoyama with bringing the Futenma issue to the forefront of politics, they also hold him responsible for snuffing out any hopes they still held of resolving the matter to their satisfaction.