Yukio Hatoyama dashed the hopes of the people of Okinawa when, as prime minister, he failed to deliver on his promise to move U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma out of the prefecture.

But now he wants a chance at redemption and to prove — as a retired lawmaker — that he can find another location and prevent the replacement base from being built as planned in the Henoko district, farther north on Okinawa Island. He has made this his ultimate goal.

The original decision to move the contentious base from its current site in the crowded city of Ginowan is based on a 1996 agreement reached by the United States and Japan, which was led by a Liberal Democratic Party administration. But the ball never got rolling as strong local opposition to the current base and to any notion of replacing it with another airstrip in the prefecture stymied the plan.

Then along came Hatoyama and his Democratic Party of Japan, which trounced the LDP in the 2009 Lower House election. The DPJ rode to power on a wave of public ire over the LDP’s five decades of rule, on its U.S.-inspired mantra of “change,” and on a platform replete with promises the rookie party would soon find difficult to keep.

Among these were Hatoyama’s pet goal of making sure Futenma’s replacement base would be built elsewhere in Japan or — to the hopes of many — outside Japan altogether.

Hatoyama lasted less than a year in office, exiting under a cloud lined with his failure to deliver on Futenma. The next two DPJ leaders backed away from his vow.

Now the LDP is back with a vengeance. After clobbering the DPJ in the Dec. 16 election, Shinzo Abe has staged a comeback as prime minister and told Washington that, this time around, Futenma’s replacement base will be built in Henoko.

In a recent interview with The Japan Times, however, Hatoyama, 65, said the move to Henoko won’t happen, given the strong opposition in the prefecture. Hatoyama, who retired in November, enthused about his plan to establish an East Asia peace center, a research institute based in Tokyo, next spring to promote peace and stability in the region. At the top of its agenda will be the Futenma issue, he said.

“It is true that I caused so much disappointment when I couldn’t fulfill my promise of moving the Futenma base at least out of the prefecture, but the Okinawans now have the awareness that Hatoyama was the only prime minister who chose to face them and take action on their behalf,” Hatoyama said. “The most important thing is that Futenma must not remain (in Ginowan). We must find a different plan other than Henoko at all costs, and I believe that is my duty.”

Like last time, Hatoyama’s heart may be in the right place but his ability to deliver is the big question. Tokyo and Washington spent years trying to find a relocation spot before Hatoyama came along and flopped as prime minister.

But the political blue blood, whose grandfather was the late Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama, expressed confidence that he will find a way, pointing out that influential lawmakers in the U.S. are starting to share his view.

Some U.S. senators, including Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, denounced the relocation plan as “unrealistic, unworkable and unaffordable” in 2011.

“I don’t think the Henoko plan will happen because the people of Okinawa are already unified in saying ‘no,’ and it won’t be easy for the LDP to implement it no matter how hard it tries,” Hatoyama said. “I will hold discussions with experts on how we can break free from this deadlock and find a way that will give hope to the Okinawans.”

Hatoyama’s liberal diplomatic stance revolves around his “yuai” (fraternity) philosophy, which he championed as prime minister. This was embodied by his proposal to establish an “East Asian community.” The idea flopped, however, after the U.S. expressed strong concern about being excluded amid apparent efforts by Hatoyama to steer Japan closer to China. U.S. relations deteriorated rapidly as he struggled with the Futenma issue.

But Hatoyama refuses to give up and claims the ultimate goal of his future research center will be to build the community to form a “no-war region” at a time when Japan is experiencing rising territorial tensions with both China and South Korea.

With Abe back at the helm, the international community is concerned about Japan’s crumbling diplomacy in the region. Hatoyama said there is hope that Abe will step away from his hawkish posturing, which includes calls to raise the status of the military and amend the war-renouncing Constitution.

“History has taught us that small incidents can lead to war — we’ve seen it happen repeatedly — and there is no guarantee that it won’t happen this time,” he said. “One major task for Prime Minister Abe is to make sure that Japan can build future-oriented diplomatic ties.”

The academic-turned-lawmaker, who has a Ph.D. in engineering from Stanford University, held his Lower House seat from Hokkaido for eight terms before being forced to give it up by the executives appointed by the party’s last prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, who withheld support from any member who opposed its key goals of doubling the sales tax and joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade talks.

Throughout the DPJ’s 39-month first turn as the ruling party, it demonstrated an inability to govern, mostly because internal squabbles prevented it from reaching a consensus on its key goals, including the tax hike and the TPP.

Hatoyama and former DPJ President Ichiro Ozawa spearheaded a fruitless attempt to torpedo Noda’s tax plan. But Noda crossed party lines and got the LDP and New Komeito to support the tax bill (which the LDP initially proposed), and in the end, about 90 members, including Ozawa, decided to pack up and leave the DPJ.

Hatoyama, one of the DPJ’s founders, stayed on. But he lamented that the party had become merciless and made it impossible for those who disagree to stay aboard.

He said the reason the DPJ lost three-fourths of its Lower House seats in the Dec. 16 election was because it couldn’t find unity. He insists that what he and Ozawa did was not to sow division, but to make the party keep its campaign promises — including the pledge not to raise the consumption tax during the four years its Lower House members would be in office when they came to power.

“Just because we disagreed with the party executives, they went the opposite way from fraternity and kicked us out,” he said. “They chose to create the biggest enemy within the party and ended up losing badly. The people made a natural judgment — if a party can’t control its own, how can it rule a nation?”

Ozawa and his allies bolted from the DPJ in July. When Hatoyama tried to run in the Dec. 16 poll, he was given an ultimatum: Sign an agreement to support the party’s policies or leave. He opted to retire.

Hatoyama also revealed that Ozawa made repeated overtures to join him. But he said he decided it wouldn’t be appropriate for one of the DPJ’s founders to start anew somewhere else.

Looking back on his 26-year career, however, Hatoyama said he has no regrets.

“I am the very man who created the DPJ and it would be unethical for me to leave the DPJ and start anew, and so as the person responsible for the DPJ, I put an end to my career as a lawmaker,” Hatoyama said. “I hope the DPJ, under its new president, (Banri) Kaieda, will become a more broad-minded party . . . and will be able to change its ways and find a new path.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.