No. 4 — February 2, 1996

 

Weekly Review

HASHIMOTO TREADS FINE LINE ON OKINAWA BASE REDUCTIONS
--- by Barbara Wanner

Apparently anxious to quell further flare-ups on Okinawa concerning the U.S. military presence there, Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto promised Okinawa Governor Masahide Ota January 23 that he would deal "sincerely" with the prefectural leader's demands to reduce the number of American bases in the southernmost prefecture. The rape of a Japanese schoolgirl on Okinawa last fall allegedly by three U.S. servicemen brought to a boil a long-simmering disagreement between the Okinawa government and the central government concerning the former's nearly 50-year burden of hosting three-fourths of the 47,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan. Mr. Hashimoto reserved comment on Mr. Ota's specific proposals — such as his insistence that language spelling out comprehensive force reductions be included in a joint statement that will be issued during the prime minister's mid-April meeting with President Clinton. But the prime minister assured the Okinawa governor that this and other matters would be examined further in the weeks leading up to the American leader's visit. Insiders say that Mr. Hashimoto's goal in meeting with Mr. Ota was less to resolve the controversy than to ease concerns on Okinawa and elsewhere regarding perceptions that the unabashedly nationalist premier, who has said that he supports strong U.S.-Japan defense ties, is unsympathetic to the plight of local citizens.

Since assuming the helm January 11 of the tripartite ruling coalition — comprised of Mr. Hashimoto's conservative Liberal Democratic Party as well as the pacifist-leaning Social Democratic Party of Japan and the New Sakigake Party — the prime minister has sought to tread a fine line on the Okinawa base reduction controversy. Conservative elements within his government as well as the Department of Defense believe that U.S. and Japanese security interests are best served by maintaining the current 47,000 American troops on Japanese soil. The SDPJ and the NSP, however, have rallied behind Okinawa residents.

SDPJ chief Tomiichi Murayama, who passed the premier's leadership baton to Mr. Hashimoto in January, ironically found himself late last year in the awkward position of having to override Mr. Ota's late October refusal to sign documents that would compel unwilling Okinawa landowners to continue leasing property to the U.S. military (see JEI Report No. 42B, November 10, 1995). Although obviously displeased with the ensuing litigation that ultimately will ensure the renewal of these leases, Mr. Ota could attribute Mr. Murayama's "betrayal" to the requisites of alliance politics. The Okinawa governor nevertheless remained hopeful that the pacifist premier would carry his prefecture's banner in negotiations with the United States on base reallocation. With Mr. Hashimoto at the helm, however, Mr. Ota apparently was much less confident of further action on the issue. That is why, according to news reports, he appeared relieved following his nearly hour-long meeting with the newly elected premier. The Okinawa governor told reporters that Mr. Hashimoto suggested that he would tackle the military base issue "in line with the policies of the Murayama government."

Mr. Ota presented to Mr. Hashimoto the outlines of his prefecture's "future vision" for the southernmost islands in the Japanese archipelago. Included were five requests to: reduce U.S. base facilities; review the Status of Forces Agreement governing the conduct of U.S. armed forces in Japan, especially "in areas where the day-to-day life of Okinawans is directly affected;" negotiate an agreement with the United States to reduce aircraft noise; take steps to prevent accidents involving U.S. military operations and crimes by American service members; and utilize better for addressing day-to-day problems the existing three-way forum comprised of the Okinawa prefectural government, the Japan Defense Agency's Defense Facilities Administration Agency and the U.S. military command. In urging Mr. Hashimoto to ensure that the joint statement with Mr. Clinton stipulates a "reduction" of U.S. military facilities Mr. Ota indicated that he wanted no specific mention of the current level of 47,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan; in that way the current level would not be considered "fixed," he said.

The Okinawa governor also called on the prime minister to state in the joint declaration that the area covered by the U.S.-Japan Mutual Security Treaty will not be expanded. The latter request stems from concerns generated by the remarks last spring of Joseph S. Nye, Jr., then assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. Mr. Nye said that U.S. bases in Japan are important for the deployment of American troops not only within Asia but to conflict areas outside of the region, such as the Persian Gulf (see JEI Report No. 11A, March 24, 1995). Okinawa residents construed these remarks as meaning that Washington regards its military facilities on the southern Japanese islands as permanent staging areas for military actions far from Japan. Residents of this prefecture long have been under the impression that an improvement in the regional security situation, per force, would prompt a scaling back of U.S. military installations in their backyards.

Mr. Hashimoto told the Okinawa governor that he "took [his] requests seriously" and opened the door to further one-on-one discussions. Recent remarks by cabinet officials, however, have suggested that the prime minister in his meeting with Mr. Clinton might opt for a troop reallocation plan that does not quite match Mr. Ota's demands (see JEI Report No. 3B, January 26, 1996).

With a verdict expected in February in the trial of the three U.S. servicemen accused of raping the Okinawan 12-year-old, media attention on the courtroom proceedings not only will continue to remind people of the heinous crime but is likely to help keep anti-U.S. military sentiments stirred up. On January 29 Japanese prosecutors requested 10-year prison sentences with forced labor for each of the three accused men. That event followed within four days allegations of a second rape of a minor by a U.S. serviceman on Okinawa. Even though the victim is a 14-year-old American girl and the alleged attack occurred on a U.S. base — which means that the case is being handled entirely by U.S. authorities — some Japanese citizen groups seized on the new case as further evidence that the American military "culture" nurtures and condones sexual crimes.

In terms of the Hashimoto government's presummit dealings with Washington some insiders contend that a stay-the-course approach to base reallocation now may be politically untenable in Japan. Mr. Hashimoto — whose savvy political eye is trained on upcoming elections for the Diet lower house — may find that for domestic political reasons he must drive a harder bargain with Washington on base reallocation than he would have preferred.

The views expressed in this report are those of the author
and do not necessarily represent those of the Japan Economic Institute

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