Yukio Hatoyama, the relatively new prime minister of Japan, surely rues his choice to modify the 2006 bilateral agreement on downsizing the US military presence in Japan and relocation of the Futenma Marine Corps Air Station. He has given an anguished performance worthy of Hamlet, zigzagging between alternative sites while showing why critics insist that he is in over his head and way too indecisive. One TV pundit attributes his puzzling performance to his studies at Stanford University where he worked on chaos theory. Hatoyama’s public support ratings have imploded from 72 per cent last September to 33 per cent as of early April. Public disenchantment stems mostly from money scandals involving him and Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) Secretary, General Ichiro Ozawa, but his mishandling of the alliance, and dithering on the base question, has also undermined his credibility.

Hatoyama assumed that the Japanese were fed up with the highhanded way Washington deals with Tokyo and the Liberal Democratic Party’s obsequious kowtowing to US demands while it dominated post-1955 politics. Perhaps they are, but given that Japan is in a dangerous neighbourhood, with North Korea less than 10 minutes away as the missile flies, the US military isn’t quite as unwelcome as some pundits suggest. Hatoyama has discovered that the public is not so keen about his more assertive stance towards the US. Recent polls suggest that 57 per cent of voters oppose his Futenma base relocation quest while only 5 per cent give him high marks on this initiative.

To be fair, the US has not exactly covered itself in glory either, with Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, blowing into town last October in the role of Colonel Blimp, bellowing ‘my way or the highway’ and insisting that it’s the best agreement possible given the circumstances. Perhaps, but not if you are from Okinawa where anti-base sentiments run high: only 12 per cent there wish to preserve the military base status quo. Gate’s boorish performance was counterproductive, but at least served to demonstrate Hatoyama’s point about US arrogance.

In contrast, Ambassador John Roos has done an excellent job under adverse circumstances, keeping a low profile while rescuing the situation from Pentagon’s blundering, opening channels of communication and maintaining a level of cordiality and trust crucial to negotiations. His stellar performance adds ammunition to the argument of George Packard in his recent article in Foreign Affairs calling for reassertion of civilian control over US policy in Japan involving military matters.


The Futenma dilemma began during the DPJ's campaign last summer when it was wooing voters with a range of promises. It has backtracked on a number of these campaign pledges, but decided it was worth drawing a line in the sand at Nago where the 2006 Roadmap called for building an offshore facility to accommodate the Marine forces now using Futenma, a noisy airbase compromised by its location in a densely packed residential area in Ginowan city. As part of the agreement Tokyo will pay some $US6 billion for relocating 8000 Marines and their dependents to Guam and building facilities for them there.

The DPJ's pledge to shift the base outside of Okinawa resonated among local voters. The problem is that the US has grown accustomed to issuing orders and never imagined that Japan would suddenly expect to be treated like other US allies. That was the first mistake.

The second was when the Pentagon overreacted to a statement last September by newly appointed Foreign Minister Kazuo Okada who suggested that a modified base relocation plan would have to be decided on in 30 days. It was never going to happen, but alarm bells went off in the Pentagon and, rather than calmly coping with the rhetorical posturing, the Pentagon poured fuel onto the controversy by loudly insisting that the Hatoyama administration live up to the agreement. Period. By doing so just as the new government was finding its feet and trying to establish some credibility, the Pentagon inadvertently made it more difficult for the DPJ to find a face-saving way to wiggle out of this particular campaign promise. Thus, Hatoyama finds himself in a lose–lose situation since he can't please both the US and domestic supporters, especially in Okinawa. This is a far cry from the populist gesture he imagined would bolster his credentials as a leader and put bilateral relations on a more even keel.

Okinawan voters have complicated this diplomatic tango by handing a narrow victory earlier this year to the anti-base candidate for mayor of Nago, the proposed site of the new offshore runway. Susumu Inamine eked out a narrow victory with 17,950 votes, only 1588 more than his opponent, a drop in the ocean of 127 million Japanese. Nevertheless, the Nago plan is now politically radioactive and both governments understand that this option represents a dead-end and are thus trying to cobble together Plan B before the May deadline for reaching a decision. The timetable for relocation of Marines to Guam hangs in the balance.


After five decades of prolonged one-party rule under the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), it is a good sign for Japanese democracy that voters have "thrown the bums out of office". The DPJ is making the transition from opposition to ruling party and will remain in power for at least the next four years. The DPJ, in reviewing bilateral security agreements, is doing what any party would do in its situation. In the Philippines, South Korea and Europe, the US has adjusted its military presence to changing political realities and respected host nation's wishes. It is time for the US to remember that it is a guest in Japan and to act accordingly. The US should agree to renegotiate the status of forces agreement to address related tensions and move with deliberate speed to recalibrate its military presence in line with mutual interests. Currently, the DPJ, the Japanese media and public are weighing the pros and cons of the military alliance, and airing longstanding grievances, a process that is good for the alliance and consistent with a healthy democracy.

While there have been some teething problems in this process, ultimately it is creating a much sounder foundation for bilateral relations. Recent revelations about secret pacts allowing US nuclear weapons to transit Japanese waters under a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy, and reversion of Okinawa, were denied by the LDP even after it no longer mattered, exposing a web of deceit and evasions that undermine public trust. The alliance deserves better from both governments and can only gain from the Japanese people and their government's reassessing the nation's security needs and determining what is necessary to meet those needs. In calling for greater equality, Hatoyama should also clarify what initiatives consistent with achieving that objective he is willing to undertake. On this point, as on others, he has been extremely vague.

Under the Bush administration, relations became skewed towards security concerns. Thus the current turbulence is a powerful reminder that it is time to reinvigorate a broader bilateral agenda beyond security ties where there is considerable common ground.


The media has blown Japanese overtures to China out of proportion, suggesting they may signal some fundamental reorientation of Tokyo's foreign policy to the detriment of US interests in the region. This sort of zero-sum thinking ignores the benefits of improved relations between Beijing and Tokyo that is in line with US interests in cultivating China as a stakeholder in the global system. Sino–Japanese relations hit a nadir under prime minister Junichiro Koizumi due to his repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine, ground zero for an unrepentant view towards Japan's aggression in Asia between 1931 and 1945. Washington was not pleased by Koizumi's self-indulgent provocations precisely because they impeded improved bilateral relations.

Rescuing Sino–Japanese ties from Koizumi's negative legacy makes sense because there are several smouldering disputes to deal with and China is now Japan's largest trading partner and is key to its economic future. It is mistaken to read too much into this normalising of relations or to assume that Tokyo plans to downgrade relations with the US. Japan shares more in common with the US than with China and, despite a warming of relations with Beijing, there are fundamental differences in values and competing strategic interests. The rapid rise of China, its growing military power and appetite for resources mean that Japan is even more eager to maintain good relations with the US.