Former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s recent interview with Okinawan newspapers on his failed attempt to move U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma out of Okinawa Prefecture has caused strong reactions from Okinawa’s people and its newspapers. But his interview sheds valuable light on how and why his attempt failed despite his good intentions.

His interview caused anger because he admitted that the justification he used for the May 28, 2010, Japan-U.S. agreement to transfer the Futenma functions from a densely populated urban area in Ginowan in the central part of Okinawa Island to Henoko, a less populated area in Nago in the northern part of the island was an expedient excuse.

In a May 4, 2010 meeting with Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima of Okinawa Prefecture, Mr. Hatoyama said in effect that he had no alternative but to give up the idea of moving the Futenma air station out of Okinawa Prefecture. Asked why the facility has to remain in Okinawa, he said that as he “studied the issue more and more,” he came to realize that various U.S. armed forces units, including marines, combine to maintain a deterrent.

In the interview, he said that when it became clear that he had to accept the Henoko plan, he had to find a “post factum justification.” Although he did not believe that U.S. Marines in Okinawa per se directly deter war, he thought the word deterrent in a wide sense could be used as such a justification. Using the Buddhist concept of “hoben” — a way in which Buddha leads people to understand his teachings depending on the degree of their ability to understand — he said that if someone insists that his justification was hoben, he had to admit that it was hoben. In everyday language, hoben is usually taken to mean an expedient excuse.

Two Okinawan newspapers — Ryukyu Shimpo and Okinawa Times — wrote editorials criticizing Mr. Hatoyama’s “hoben” remark, saying it indicated he speaks too carelessly. They also criticized his lack of leadership in his attempt to get Cabinet members and bureaucrats to achieve the goal he had set.

Mr. Hatoyama’s interview and the Okinawan newspapers’ reactions show that informed public discussions must be held on the question of the deterrent provided by the U.S. armed forces in Japan while paying due attention to Okinawa’s heavy burden of hosting U.S. military bases. Facilities in Okinawa Prefecture account for some 74 percent of area used by the U.S. military in Japan, and they occupy 18 percent of Okinawa Island.

In the context of the Futenma issue, discussions should focus on whether the U.S. deterrent will become ineffective if the Futenma facility is moved out of Okinawa. Ryukyu Shimpo pointed out that many Okinawans have long regarded Mr. Hatoyama’s “deterrent” justification as a lie because they know that even a U.S. defense secretary has harbored doubts about the U.S. Marines’ functions, that U.S. military brass made it clear that U.S. Marines’ top priority is to rescue American nationals in the case of a military contingency and that the U.S. Congress has begun discussions on the reduction of U.S. armed forces stationed overseas and the closure of U.S. bases abroad.

Mr. Hatoyama’s interview shows that despite his strong desire to move the Futenma facility out of Okinawa, he was ill-prepared and encountered strong resistance from both the bureaucracy and his own Cabinet.

Mr. Hatoyama said that although he had a sense of mission, he lacked a well thought out plan. He also said that he did not expect that the Futenma issue would lead to his resignation. Probably his biggest mistake was that he did not inform U.S. President Barack Obama in strong, concrete terms about the suffering Okinawan people have endured since World War II, the heavy burden they are shouldering in hosting U.S. bases and their desire to see Futenma base moved out of the prefecture. He also lacked a strategy to break through the resistance that he faced.

Regarding bureaucratic resistance, which proved to be his greatest obstacle, Mr. Hatoyama said, “The Defense Ministry and the Foreign Ministry, which should have considered together with me the (Futenma) transfer issue, instead wanted to value the ‘base’ with the United States.” In this case, Mr. Hatoyama’s use of the word “base” apparently meant the basis the ministries share with the U.S., that is the traditional thinking about the Futenma issue. He said Cabinet members were so influenced by the two ministries’ thinking that a feeling that moving the Futenma functions out of Okinawa was impossible prevailed in his Cabinet to the point that only a few Cabinet members supported his attempt.

The opposition parties have taken issue with Mr. Hatoyama’s “hoben” remark and demanded that he speak as an unsworn witness in the Diet. He should voluntarily take this opportunity to have meaningful and deep public discussions started over the Futenma issue and the question of the deterrent provided by the U.S. armed forces in Japan.

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