from Asia Unbound

Nago Election Ushers in “Plan B” on Futenma

January 27, 2010

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The election last Sunday of Susumu Inamine as mayor of Nago City in northern Okinawa effectively puts an end to the idea that the current plan for relocating Futenma Marine Air Station can somehow be realized. The mayor, in his first press conference, in fact stated that Nago would not accept either a landfill facility or one that rests solely on land,  and thus made clear his intention to oppose any compromise effort to downscale the existing plan so as to avoid the environmental damage to Okinawan coastal waters.   

But it was the cabinet secretary’s insensitive handling of questioning on how the Hatoyama government would proceed that put the nail in the coffin of the Henoko option. In a public statement, Hirofumi Hirano attempted to minimalize the election outcome by suggesting it was only one expression of public sentiment, and then went on to state that his government would use legal means to impose its decision.   

A threat, perhaps? This was certainly odd language for the political party that repeatedly encouraged Okinawans to voice their views on Futenma relocation. By claiming outright the central government’s authority over issues of national security, the cabinet secretary sounded more like his predecessors in the LDP than the citizen’s party that the DPJ has long imagined itself to be. His party’s coalition partners—the People’s New Party and the Social Democratic Party—moved quickly to disassociate themselves from the DPJ. Okinawa’s national legislators met across party lines to signal their anger—one leading Diet member was so mad he wanted to “punch” the cabinet secretary.

The sad fact is that the Hatoyama government deeply miscalculated Okinawan sentiment on the base issue, and indeed Okinawan sentiment toward Tokyo. Yet, it is this miscalculation that matters most when it comes to relocating Futenma. The depth of the political problem was obvious today, as the DPJ’s powerful Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa was mobilized to visit Okinawa prefecture. Ozawa’s own troubles will be the subject of the next blog entry, but suffice it to say that he—and he alone—is the only one in the DPJ at the moment who can effectively apologize to the people of Okinawa for Hirano’s offense.  

Can Ozawa work his magic on the Futenma relocation derailment? My guess is the time for an Ozawa solution has passed. Too much damage has been done to the DPJ’s credibility on Okinawan issues; even with credibility it would have been a hard sell. I suspect the prime minister will need to find a new  cabinet secretary. At the very least, he will need a new person to lead his task force on Futenma relocation. Perhaps Mr. Ozawa?

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