More than 90,000 people took to the streets in Okinawa, Japan, on April 25 to demand that a controversial U.S. military base be closed. The base named Futenma has become a huge political issue for Japan's Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio, and may cost him his position.
The fight centers around a U.S. Marine air base currently housed in crowded city on the Okinawa island chain. In a 2006 agreement between the United States and Japan, then headed by the long-time ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Futenma would be relocated to another part of Okinawa. Since then, the anger at relocation and the demand to close the base have grown. The prime minister's popularity has fallen 12 points, to 24 percent, in recent polls.
Futenma is just one of 14 U.S. military bases located on Okinawa. The island chain also hosts half of the 50,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan.
The extraordinarily large demonstration in Okinawa led Prime Minister Hatoyama to say he would work "to ease the burden" of the people of Okinawa. But he is walking an almost impossible political tightrope, because he campaigned on the promise that Futenma would not be relocated to somewhere else on Okinawa.
Hatoyama's party, the Democratic Party of Japan, won a historic election in 2009. Now some in his party say Hatoyama will have to resign if a solution isn't found by the end of May.
In the January 2010 municipal elections, an anti-base mayoral candidate from an Okinawan town considered for relocation won. There have been ongoing demonstrations and sit-ins demanding the base be closed. On April 14, more than 5,000 people rallied in Tokyo calling for the base to be closed.
The Obama administration has refused to negotiate on the 2006 agreement. U.S.-based peace groups have called on the Obama administration to "respect democracy in Japan" and close, not relocate, the Futenma base.
"Such a move would not endanger U.S. security. It would enhance it by showing that the U.S. respects Japan. It would also save billions of dollars a year - for both U.S. and Japanese taxpayers - that could be put to human and environmental needs," said a People's World editorial.
The Japanese Communist Party, which has members elected to Japan's parliament (Diet) and to local governments (assemblies), is demanding the government negotiate with the U.S. to close, and not relocate, the base.
In a meeting with Hatoyama in December 2009, Japanese Communist Party Chair Shii Kazuo reported on his meetings with Okinawa municipal leaders who spoke about urgent safety, land use and pollution issues that affect their constituents.
For example, since 1972, Okinawans have been subjected to 26,413 crimes and 456 accidents caused by U.S. military personnel.
"These are demands representing the general will of the majority of Okinawans. I am sure that you share the same view, don't you, Mr. Prime Minister?" Shii asked.
Hatoyama replied that he understood, but he could not "ignore the agreement with the United States." He challenged the JCP to help. "I am having a hard time trying to find a solution that can satisfy both positions. I would be glad if the JCP could provide us with a good idea."
Shii then suggested, "It may be the case that a 10-year agreement may not be terminated after a change in government before the expiration, but the new Japanese government has the right to review the agreement and start again from scratch on the issue."
The JCP chair then said U.S. troops are being deployed from Okinawa to Iraq, which is "by no means a deterrent necessary for peace," alluding to the Cold War reasons for so many U.S. bases and troops stationed in Japan.
"Pursuing the unconditional removal of the Futenma base is the only and quickest way to settle the Futenma base issue," Shii told the prime minister.
Photo: Residents protest April 25 against a plan to relocate the Futenma air base. Takaki Yajima/AP