Japan’s Obama

In August 2009 Hatoyama Yukio led the Japan’s Democratic Party to victory in the general election, ending more than a half-century of Liberal Democratic Party rule. (The cabinet of Socialist Party leader Murayama Tomiichi,  which ruled from June 1994 to January 1996, was the product of a deal insuring that the most important posts would go to LDP members. The consequences of this deal, especially the Socialists’ abandonment of their opposition to the U.S. military alliance and the existence of the Japanese “Self-Defense Forces” in violation of the pacifist constitution, cost the party much support and they fared miserably in the next general election.) Since its establishment in 1955, the LDP had staunchly defended the defense alliance with the U.S. and the presence of U.S. military bases (all expenses paid by the host government). But those bases have not been popular in Japan.

On the very day that Japan regained its sovereignty (effective April 1952) with the signing of the San Francisco Treaty ending the state of war between Japan and the Allied Powers, Japan was forced to sign an agreement not only providing for tens of thousands of U.S. forces to remain in the country but even to suppress domestic uprisings. When the treaty came up for renewal in 1960, an estimated 16 million (17% of the population) took part in protests. Protests continued after LDP politicians, in a sneaky parliamentary maneuver in the dead of night, ratified the treaty. These were so intense that Japanese security forces advised President Eisenhower that they could not guarantee his safety during a planned state visit in order to sign the document.

The treaty (shorn of the provision about suppressing domestic uprisings) has been renewed regularly ever since. Polls in recent years suggest that ANPO (as it’s called in the Japanese acronym) has become accepted by the vast majority and that most Japanese believe U.S. bases “important” for regional security. (This represents, I think, a shikataganai or “nothing can be done about it” mentality, the feeling that it was Japan’s fate following wars of aggression to accept occupation and transformation. The fact that the country has prospered, in no small part due to U.S. war expenditures beginning with the Korean War, has weakened resistance to the treaty and the bases.

But most of the bases, and the bulk of the 33,000 U.S. troops in Japan, are stationed on the island of Okinawa. There are about 27,000 personnel, mostly Marines, and 22,000 family members. Military bases occupy 10% of the islands’s territory. Okinawans complain of lost land, incessant noise, the storage (to 1972) of U.S. nuclear weapons on the island (in violation of Japanese law), and GI crime. The reported U.S. military crime rate is higher here than anywhere else in the world; since 1972, 26,413 crimes and 456 accidents caused by U.S. military personnel have been reported. The brutal abduction and rape of a 12-year old girl by a seaman and two Marines in September 1995 fueled an already powerful movement to shut down the bases.

Many Okinawans not only dislike the U.S. presence but deeply resent the terms of their relationship with Tokyo. Until 1872 Okinawa was not part of Japan but an independent kingdom paying tribute to both Japan and China. Thereafter it was annexed by the newly-established Meiji state as its first act of colonization (Taiwan and Korea would follow in 1895 and 1910.) The Ryukyuan (Okinawan) language and Japanese are related but not mutually comprehensible, and there are cultural differences. Okinawans were treated like second-class citizens up to the Battle of Okinawa in the summer of 1945, when military authorities ordered the population to resist the invaders to the death. Up to 150,000 civilians were killed or committed suicide out of a population of 500,000.

Tokyo agreed in 1952 that, “the United States will have the right to exercise all and any powers of administration, legislation and jurisdiction over the territory and inhabitants of [Okinawa], including their territorial waters.” This is also resented. Following mass campaigns and a parliamentary motion demanding return of the island, the U.S. returned Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty in 1972, but retaining the bases, now paid for by the Japanese. There was no military withdrawal, obviously, nor one ever planned.

Surely many Okinawans feel that (1) we never asked to be annexed by Japan; (2) we have met with discrimination at the hands of Japanese; (3) we took more than our share of punishment during the war for Japan’s aggression; and (4) we never asked for and don’t want these bases. There are of course those who make their livelihood from them, and are more positively disposed. But on April 27, more than 90,000 people (out of 1.4 million Okinawans) demanded that Futenma Marine Corps Air Station located in the center of Ginowan City be relocated off the island. (The U.S. and Japanese governments had agreed to remove it elsewhere on the island.) Many in the crowd called for the removal of the bases entirely.

Hatoyama’s Democrats won their victory last August in part because they  pledged to press for the removal of Futenma from Okinawa, proposing its relocation to a smaller nearby island. They also demanded end to the unpopular refueling mission in the Indian Ocean in support of the U.S. in Afghanistan, and  a more equal relationship with the U.S.  “But” as Kenji Hall wrote in Bloomberg Businesweek, “on Nov. 13, after spending nearly an hour and a half in ‘densely packed’ discussions with President Barack Obama at the Prime Minister’s residence in Tokyo, the Japanese leader seemed a lot less combative. . . As for talking as equals, Hatoyama didn’t even get to raise the issue. ‘Even before I could say it, President Obama said that U.S.-Japan relations should be on an equal footing,’ he said as Obama stood by his side during a news conference televised live by public broadcaster NHK.”

Hatoyama’s popularity, 77% soon after the election and still 72% in late October, dipped to 50% in December, partly due to his apparent vacillation on the issue of an equal relationship. In January the Democrats fulfilled their promise to end the eight-year refueling misson, but offered $5 billion towards Afghan reconstruction to appease U.S. anger at the move. His popularity was then in the low 40s.

As recently as April, prior to the massive Okinawan demonstration, he declared “It must never happen that we accept the existing plan [for Futenma relocation on Okinawa].” But this month he visited Okinawa, for his first time since becoming prime minister, announcing, “We must maintain the Japan-U.S. alliance as a deterrent force, and . . . we must ask Okinawa to bear some of that burden. . . It has become clear from our negotiations with the Americans that we cannot ask them to relocate the base to too far-flung a location.” In other words: We must obey the Americans, just as the LDP did for 54 years.

Hatoyama’s popularity is now down to around 20%. The Asahi Shinbun runs headlines such as “Weak Leadership” and “Hatoyama Strikes Out Again” referring to the Okinawa base issue. Far from being a breath of fresh air, he is more of the same. The U.S.-Japan relationship is not the only issue affecting his popularity; charges of corruption and mishandling of campaign funds, staples of Japanese politics and the nemesis of the LDP, also contribute. But this is probably the biggest issue.

The moral of the story? A change of parties in a U.S. client-state is unlikely to affect the bilateral relationship with the U.S., notwithstanding the popular will. De Gaulle could boot out the U.S. bases from France in 1966, but he is the exception to prove the rule. (He took action after U.S. efforts to supplant or even assassinate him due to his decision to grant Algeria independence, something Washington bitterly opposed, and wrangling over the role of France within NATO.)

Hatoyama is no De Gaulle. Rather, in failing to stand up to Obama, he has become Japan’s Obama: a breaker of campaign promises, a capitulator, a pawn of the Pentagon, a tremendous disappointment to his supporters. But unlike the U.S. president, whose favorable ratings have only fallen from 68% in April 2009 to 44%, hovering around that figure all this year, Hatoyama’s appear to be in free-fall. Such is a lackey’s karma.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades. He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu





Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu