Foreign Policy Blogs

Making Sense of Futenma


Recent developments regarding the contentious issue of relocating the Marine Corps Air Station in Futenma, Okinawa have elicited a heated exchange of ideas and much speculation on the future of the US-Japan alliance. Indeed, since the recently elected administration of Yukio Hatoyama first announced that it would seek a renegotiation of the treaty guiding the relocation effort – the Roadmap for Realignment Implementation – Japan watchers have been scrambling to diagnose an “illness” in the bilateral relationship.  In the process, the commentariat has identified a litany of problems that beset the now allegedly “wavering” US-Japan Alliance. Below are a few of the more prominent diagnoses.

The more IR-minded of the bunch point to the shifting tectonics of the East Asian security landscape, particularly China’s rise, as the driving dynamic behind Japan’s “new realism.” These thinkers highlight the Democratic Party of Japan’s (DPJ) desire to re-assert itself into the East Asian Community and recent gestures like Party Chief Ozawa Ichiro’s mission to China (with 143 DPJ lawmakers in tow) as potent symbols of Japan’s changing regional priorities. While some of these accounts are thoughtful, most of them mistakenly conceive of international relations as a zero-sum game – asserting, essentially, that even the slightest engagement with China spells drift with the US.

Other policy analysts rightly point out that the DPJ’s desire to renegotiate the treaty isn’t so much a reflection of the DPJ’s policies as it is a welcome repudiation of the failed governance of their now fledgling predecessors, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).  Michael Cucek, for one, has aptly applied the notion of an “onerous debt” to the DPJ’s current travails: he asserts that the DPJ is prisoner to a set of misguided policies that the Hatoyama administration inherited, and, given the circumstances, they should be allowed to at the very least reconsider the roadmap. Tobias Harris has also vociferously defended the DPJ, arguing that the current perceived drift in the US-Japan Alliance is not a result of the DPJ’s desire to find new friends as much as it is a by-product of the systemic failures of government that the LDP handed over to Hatoyama and his party.

And still others point to the historical legacy of the US military presence in Japan. The recent protests of Okinawans have prompted many, in both the US and Japan, to reconsider the history of occupation, security, and alliance between both countries in order to better understand the consternation of the present. These analyses dig into the past, looking at conflicts between marines and Okinawan citizens, the now widely cited idea of “Japan as America’s unsinkable aircraft carrier,” and other historical narratives to argue that the present conflict was nothing short of foreseeable. (The best, most comprehensive of these is Gavan McCormack’s article here.)

While all of this analysis is welcome, and, to a certain extent has contributed to a healthy exchange among policy analysts in Tokyo and Washington, a few smaller explanations have been drowned out in the din.

One is worth at least brief mention. Indeed, it is so seemingly simple that few have thought to address it thoroughly: the swift ascendancy of two new liberal(ish) governments, and the tumult that propelled them into office, have displaced the old guard “Alliance Managers,” leaving a gaping hole in communication between diplomats, policymakers, and analysts. In other words, American’s don’t know where to tap into the brain of the DPJ and vice versa for the Japanese with the Dems. What we have on our hands is a simple case of new neighbors syndrome.

This should come as no surprise. Under the LDP, the US-Japan Alliance was lubricated by a cadre of Japan hands on both sides of the Pacific (Richard Armitage, Michael Green, and Michael Auslin come to mind for the Americans; former PM Shinzo Abe for one on the Japanese side). This team had easy access into the chambers of LDP lawmakers and were familiar faces throughout Nagata-cho and Kasumigaseki – their popularity among lawmakers, the media, and the Cabinet is well known. (These connections to the Japanese government have been expertly documented at Armchair Asia here.)

But with the election of Hatoyama, as with that of Barack Obama, came a wave of new lawmakers and analysts. The Alliance Managers under the LDP were suddenly sent out to pasture, and serious issues – Futenma foremost among them – were left to a team of unfamiliar counterparts (Campbell, Roos, and others). Frazzled nerves and failures of communication were only to be expected.

The media, too, doesn’t know where to turn for their sound bytes and as such has only exacerbated the conflict with shoddy coverage and half-baked analysis. The same arguably holds true for lobbyists in Washington, think tanks in Tokyo and DC, and academics across the globe.

This gives further credence to the argument that it is too early to tell. Communication between both teams will only get better, and, as we are only 100 days into Hatoyama administration, analysts would be apt to give it some time.

Promisingly, the Hatoyama administration has recently indicated that it is indeed flexible on the relocation issue – that is, after it takes stock of its domestic problems and priorities (which are by no means slight). This is concrete evidence of the DPJ’s commitment to the US-Japan Alliance and should assuage fears that the once “bar-none” era of the alliance in no more. In the words of Kan Naoto, the deputy prime minister, the alliance is still “the most important relationship” for stability in Asia.

Perhaps Roger Cohen, a somewhat unfamiliar face in the world of East Asian political analysts, put it best in The New York Times by urging policymakers on both sides of the Pacific to take a deep breath: “Be flexible on Futenma but unyielding on the strategic imperative binding America and Japan.”



David Fedman

David Fedman is a PhD student in the History Department of Stanford University where he focuses on modern Japanese and Korean history. He lives in San Francisco, California.