The victory, if one might call it that, came far away on the island of Okinawa over the vociferous protests of local residents and a humiliating disgrace for Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.
Hatoyama visited the island Sunday after the Tokyo government announced its decision to relocate a U.S. Marine helicopter base from the populated downtown area of a large city, Ginowan, to a more remote, lightly populated town on the northern reach of the island. That is, if protesters at Camp Schwab in Nago, near the northern Okinawan fishing village of Henoko, don't indefinitely stand in the way of construction.
The Prime minister and his party were swept into office last year with a campaign promise to relocate the Marine base completely off the island. But Washington refused to back down from an agreement signed in 2006 to relocate the Futenma base somewhere else on the island. Camp Schwab was selected at the time the local mayor favored it. Since then a new mayor was elected, rallying the locals against construction.
Washington insists the base is a strategic military asset in its alliance with Japan's defense, a position Hatoyama conceded in making the final decision.
Relations between the Marines and Ginowan residents have been strained since 1995 when three servicemen raped a 12-year-old school girl and continually aggravated since then by fly-over helicopter accidents and noise. About 50,000 Marines and UN troops are stationed at the base.
On his Sunday visit in a futile attempt to mend fences, Hatoyama was greeted by jeers and chants and signs that read "Anger" and "Go Home." Members of his own party chastised the Prime Minister for making the Marine base an issue and then reneging on his campaign promise.
Hatoyama conceded that it was “heartbreaking,” and offered the islanders his “heartfelt apology for causing much confusion.” After his meeting with island officials, Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima said only, “It is regrettable that he built up our expectations over the past half year.”
Nago’s new mayor, Susumu Inamine, told a grim-faced Hatoyama that he was not welcome. After the meeting, the mayor denounced Hatoyama for “betraying” his city and Okinawa. He warned that local opposition meant that “there is zero chance” of the base being built. “I cannot hide my rage,”. Inamine said. “Nago needs no new base.”
Okinawa was a strategic fortress for the Japanese in World War II when after one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific campaign was taken over by U.S. forces in 1945.