In a startling revelation, the US cables posted on the whistleblower website WikiLeaks said that, in 2009, the US had warned the then Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio about Japan’s wavering policies on bilateral ties. This was quoted in the May 4, 2011 edition of the New York Times. Confidential government documents, which normally remain inaccessible for as long as 25 years before being released after careful screening, are now available in the public domain because of WikiLeaks. After releasing classified government documents that disclosed shocking facts about the US-led war in Afghanistan, the WikiLeaks wave has hit Japanese diplomacy now. As many as 7,000 US diplomatic cables posted in the site shed light on the unknown side of diplomacy between Japan and the United States. The information regarding the period between 2006 and early 2010 reveals how Japan’s internal politics function and how the transition of power from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) could happen.
When Hatoyama took office in September 2009, Japanese people believed that he was a sincere but helpless politician who was unable to fight the influence of the US. The revealed documents now show that Hatoyama and the DPJ had lied to the Japanese people during the 2009 election campaign. The DPJ and the Japanese government officials were never committed to relocating the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma outside of Okinawa Prefecture, as the revealed documents indicate. Between 2009 and early 2010, Hatoyama and his officials conveyed to their US counterparts that Japan would seek alternatives to the 2006 Agreement to relocate Futenma to the Henoko district of Nago in Okinawa Prefecture. However, in a secret pact, they said that Japan will honour the 2006 Agreement if the US rejected the proposed alternative.
Hatoyama was cornered and his political immaturity exposed when coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party, insisted that the DPJ must follow through on its campaign promises. When information on the secret understanding with the US leaked, the Japanese people felt betrayed. The Obama administration knew early on that the Hatoyama administration would go along with the 2006 Agreement as long as the US continued to reject any alternative.1 Hatoyama had secretly said this to the US six months before he decided to break his promise to the people to relocate the base outside Okinawa.
The US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific affairs, Kurt Campbell, complained in October 2009 that Hatoyama told his Chinese and South Korean counterparts in Beijing that Japan depended on the US too much. Campbell told Japanese Parliamentary Defence Secretary Akihisa Nagashima that such remarks “would create a crisis in US-Japan relations… Imagine the Japanese response if the US government were to say publicly that it wished to devote more attention to China than Japan.”2
It is accepted that certain aspects of diplomatic negotiations should be kept secret from the public in any country. However, when the Hatoyama administration lied about its basic policy on the Futenma issue, it amounted to an unpardonable betrayal of the people.
A cable dated December 10, 2010 shows that the US Ambassador to Japan, John V. Roos, told the then Japanese Land Minister Seiji Maehara that the US had “a problem” with Hatoyama telling Obama to trust him over the relocation of the Futenma Air Station “but not follow through”. Maehara, a conservative and known for his pro-US stance, was quoted telling Roos, “There were only two countries who enjoyed watching what was currently happening to the US-Japan alliance – China and the DPRK.”3 Hatoyama pledged to find a solution to the base relocation issue in a summit meeting with President Obama but failed to make a breakthrough on the matter and resigned in May 2010.
The Japanese people now feel that Hatoyama’s US policy was fraught with duplicity and backroom deals. Being the Land Minister, Maehara was dabbling with foreign affairs and was playing a crucial role in handling Japan’s US policy. Maehara is well-known to have contacts at high levels in the US. The US saw Maehara as an asset for the US Ambassador discussed foreign policy and defence matters with him. The leaked documents show that there were not many politicians in Japan who were dealing with the Okinawa issue honestly and that a majority of them were lying to the Japanese people, while assuring the US that its demands would be met.
The Obama administration was aware that there was a section of politicians in Japan who sought distance from Washington. Even many Japanese people started to view Japan’s policies as being dictated by the US and described their own country as “America’s baby”. In particular, right-wing nationalists vouched for reducing reliance on the US and argued that Japan must not be afraid to take a confrontational position in foreign policy. Hatoyama was probably articulating his foreign policy in conformity with the national mood but at the end it proved disastrous.
The Obama administration is believed to be instrumental in Hatoyama’s ouster from office because of the latter’s inept handling of the Futenma base relocation issue. Besides, Campbell complained in October 2009 about Hatoyama’s policy towards China and South Korea. At the Nuclear Summit in April 2010 held at Washington, Obama snubbed Hatoyama and weeks later Hatoyama resigned and was replaced by the more US acceptable Kan Naoto. Kan immediately confirmed that the Futenma base issue would proceed according to the US desire. No wonder, when the leaks surfaced, he declined to comment and said that the announcement of information was “not legitimate”.
It is too soon to assess how the public will digest the dishonesty of the DPJ and how the Japanese government succumbed to the US pressure to follow its line of thinking. The opposition is likely to mount a campaign again calling for Kan’s resignation. Maehara was seen as an agent of the US and the Japanese people are unlikely to forgive him. The triple disasters had given a lease of life to the Kan administration. That seems to be dissipating quickly again. Okinawa may be a problem for Japan but getting out of this imbroglio is likely to be messy. Japan can ill afford to hurt itself by straining ties with the US. Maehara is justified in taking the position that if Japan ever strained its ties with the US, the main beneficiaries would be China and North Korea.
Japan-US ties are too complex and its real value cannot be evaluated from this single incident. The Asahi Shimbun observed in its editorial: “What do the DPJ government, Japanese diplomats and the LDP really think about Japan’s diplomacy as revealed by these cables? Their answers to this question should be seen as a starting point to debate.”4 But, the debate must be based on a realistic assessment of the current situation, which suggests that Japan has no alternative than to preserve its alliance relationship with the US for the foreseeable future.
1. “Wikileaks: Hatoyama/DPJ lied to Japanese, Obama threatened Japan,” May 5, 2011, http://seetell.jp/2011/05/wikileaks-hatoyamadpj-lied-to-japanese-obama-t… (accessed on May 6, 2011).
2. Dustin Dye, “US Warned Japan about Foreign Policy,” May 5, 2011, http://japan.foreignpolicyblogs.com/2011/05/05/us-warned-japan-about-for… (accessed on May 6, 2011).
3. “US Warned Japan about Hatoyama’s Foreign Policies: NYT,” May 6, 2011, http://search.japantimes.co.jp/print/nn20110506a6.html (accessed on 6 May 2011).
4. “Leaked Documents Reveal Shocking Japan-US Diplomacy”, The Asahi Shimbun, May 5, 2011, editorial, http://www.asahi.com/english/TKY201105050102.html (accessed on May 6, 2011)
“Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/DPJsDuplicityonFutenmaBaseRelocationin2009_rpanda_090511