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Published: Monday, 6/7/2010

Ouster in Japan

The resignation of Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama may look like a triumph of American policy in obliging his government to retain a U.S. military base on Okinawa. But the impact on U.S.-Japanese relations of the heavy-handed tactics of the Obama administration is not so clear.

Mr. Hatoyama's party, the Democratic Party of Japan, won last August's elections, reflecting the popularity of its proposals as well as the electorate's fatigue with the rival Liberal Democratic Party after 55 years of virtually uninterrupted power. One of the promises of the DPJ was to require the United States to remove the Futenma Marine Corps Air Station from the southern island of Okinawa.

Futenma had alienated people of the island with a record of noise pollution and crimes against Japanese women. Some Japanese also resent the presence of 50,000 U.S. troops, 65 years after the end of World War II.

Mr. Hatoyama started out fine, making compromises to achieve change without undue shock after decades of unchallenged LDP rule. When he asked the United States to depart from the terms of a 2006 agreement with the Bush administration and move the Futenma base offshore, he ran into heavy U.S. opposition. The pushback was led by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and reinforced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama.

Mr. Hatoyama finally caved in and agreed last month that Futenma could stay on Okinawa, with minor modifications. The people of the island and many other Japanese were angry at what they saw as their prime minister's knuckling under to American dictates. His popularity rating dropped to about 20 percent. With elections for the upper house of the Japanese parliament on July 11, his party asked him to step down. Weeping, he did so.

From the point of view of U.S. interests, the question is: To what end was Mr. Hatoyama humiliated and toppled? Didn't he represent reform that America should welcome in Japan?

Other questions are worth asking. Why does the United States maintain an expensive, unpopular military presence in Japan? Who is calling the shots in Washington on such matters, Mr. Obama or the military?



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