Washington may well be rejoicing at the result of today’s election inside the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Prime Minister Naoto Kan defeated rival Ichiro Ozawa by a large margin in a battle for the party’s top spot. Ozawa, with his calls for a more equal partnership with the United States and a renegotiation of the Okinawa military base deal, did not create a lot of warm, fuzzy feeling in Washington. If Ozawa had won, he might well have reopened negotiations on the 2006 agreement that would close the Futenma Marine Corps base, build a second facility in Okinawa, and relocate many of the Marines to Guam. Disagreement over this 2006 deal caused a deep rift in U.S.-Japan relations that continues even today.
Kan, on the other hand, has dutifully fallen into line. On taking over from Yukio Hatoyama, who resigned shortly after backing away from his call to renegotiate the 2006 relocation agreement, promptly called President Obama to make the proper reassurances. “He made the call even before formally assuming office,” writes Gavan McCormack at Japan Focus, “and in his introductory policy speech to the Diet he pledged, as had Hatoyama before him, the ‘steady deepening of the alliance relationship.’”
But Washington shouldn’t pop the champagne corks quite yet. There are two other elections to consider.
Nago is the city in Okinawa nearest to where the United States and Japan plan to build another base to replace part of the aging Futenma Marine Corps facility. Until recently, the city council in Nago was deadlocked, with twelve members supporting the relocation plan and twelve members against (and three neutrals). But after Sunday’s election, the anti-base forces have a 16-11 lead. This result strengthens the position of the mayor of Nago, Susumu Inamine, who ran on an anti-base platform last January.
Next up is the Okinawan governor’s race in November, which pits a lukewarm opponent of the base relocation plan against a steadfast opponent. “Okinawa’s governor can hinder the progress of the relocation plan by refusing to allow dumping tons of landfill into Oura Bay, known as the northernmost feeding ground of the endangered dugong, a saltwater manatee,” write David Allen and Chiyomi Sumida in Stars and Stripes. “If the governor refuses to approve the landfill project, the national government would have to pass special legislation to bypass his veto.”
Both Naoto Kan and the Pentagon have said on various occasions that they won’t go ahead with the relocation plan without local approval. Okinawans oppose the plan by a huge majority. After these elections, it will be increasingly difficult to find any political institution on the island to provide a veneer of local support.
Meanwhile, Congress is coming back in session and the Obama administration will soon have to answer domestic critics of the relocation plan. Barney Frank has taken the lead in questioning the utility of the Marine Corp’s presence on Okinawa. And, in a climate of belt-tightening, the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to cut three-quarters of the administration’s $452 million request for Guam relocation funds.
Some combination of Okinawan resistance and congressional skepticism may well derail the 2006 relocation agreement that so troubled U.S.-Japanese relations this year and cost one prime minister his job.