The coalition government of the Democratic Party of Japan, the Social Democratic Party and the New People’s Party have put off until next year a decision on the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station in the central part of Okinawa Island. The government will seek possible alternatives to relocating the base to Henoko — the site in the northern part of the island that Japan and the United States agreed on in 2006.

The decision Tuesday is certain to further irritate the U.S., which regards the 2006 accord as “the only feasible measure” and has called for resolving the Futenma issue by the end of this year. In a November meeting in Tokyo, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and U.S. President Barack Obama agreed to resolve the issue sooner rather than later. At that time, Mr. Hatoyama reportedly said to Mr. Obama, “Trust me.” Tuesday’s decision will heighten the U.S.’s reservations about Mr. Hatoyama.

The decision shows that Mr. Hatoyama has opted for the difficult path of virtually restarting talks with the U.S. He ordered Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada and Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa to look for candidate sites for the relocation apart from Henoko. Behind the decision is his desire to lighten the burden on the Okinawan people under the Japan-U.S. security setup, as well as the political reality that he cannot ignore the SDP’s strong call for the Futenma facility to be moved outside Okinawa Prefecture.

So far, Mr. Hatoyama’s flip-flops, and the lack of coordination between views expressed by Mr. Okada and Mr. Kitazawa, have deepened suspicions that the Hatoyama administration is in disarray over Futenma. Now that a difficult path has been chosen, unity in the administration is imperative. Mr. Hatoyama and Cabinet members cannot be too careful of their words.

Big questions are whether Mr. Hatoyama has in mind a clear scenario for the negotiations, and whether he is prepared to cope with the worst-case scenario — the Futenma function continuing to sit where it is and some 8,000 U.S. marines remaining in Okinawa without moving to Guam. He will need both determination and realism to carry through the negotiations.

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.