There has recently been some friction between Japan and the United States over the Futenma base in Okinawa and over the existence of secret Cold War-era agreements with Washington that, among other things, had allowed American nuclear-armed warships to sail into Japanese ports in violation of Japan’s non-nuclear policies. Martin Fackler for The New York Times summed the issue up succinctly:
"The existence of the pacts, known in Japan as the “secret treaties,” has long been known from declassified documents in the United States and the testimony of former American and Japanese diplomats. But successive prime ministers denied their existence, turning the agreements into a symbol for many Japanese of how Liberal Democratic governments had turned their country into a stunted democracy run without full consent by the public."
After ending the Liberal Democrats’ nearly unbroken 54-year grip on power last summer, the new Democratic Party government opened an investigation into the pacts as part of their promised housecleaning of Japan’s postwar order. Exposing the truth about their nation’s secret dealings with the United States was also part of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s pledges to put Tokyo on a more equal footing with Washington. This fed concerns among some in Washington, particularly conservatives, that revealing the treaties was part of an effort by Mr. Hatoyama’s administration to push away from the United States."
Tobias Harris contributed some much-needed perspective on both situations in his essay Japan: The importance of open diplomacy for East Asia Forum, which was posted today. Here is a snippet:
"The Hatoyama government deserves some blame for not being clearer about why it wanted a review in the first place, which enabled some to paint the government as anti-American. But those who see the Futenma dispute in the worst possible light have misinterpreted the Hatoyama government’s position. I think that the Hatoyama government is approaching Futenma less as a foreign policy issue than as a domestic policy issue, because a bilateral agreement as complicated the realignment plan involves too many actors within Japan to be simply a bilateral matter for governments in Tokyo and Washington. Indeed, if the 2006 agreement has a flaw it is that the Koizumi government acted without the full approval of Okinawan constituents, which explains at least in part why subsequent LDP governments did little but drag their feet on implementing the agreement."
According to The New York Times, by March 3rd the Japanese government had approached United States officials with a tentative proposal for resolving a festering dispute over the American air base in Okinawa. The proposal would relocate the Futenma Marine Corps air station, a busy helicopter base, from a crowded city in southern Okinawa to a less populated area in the island’s north, but would be smaller and have a diminished impact on local residents and the environment than previously agreed upon.
It is unclear whether the proposal is going to be acceptable to Washington, or indeed to members of Prime Minister Hatoyama’s own coalition, particularly the Social Democratic Party, a tiny leftist group that wants the base removed from Japan altogether. Harris concludes:
"But whether or not the Hatoyama government succeeds, it is important to recognise that it is acting on the basis of an old idea, that a democratic foreign policy must necessarily be conducted in the sight of the people in whose name it is being conducted. In its pursuit of this aim, the Hatoyama government has also implicitly suggested that an alliance conducted behind closed doors is inappropriate for a more democratic Japan, that the alliance will not endure if it continues to rest upon secret agreements and understandings."