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Crisis Over US Bases Prompts Rare Unity In Japanese Rivalry

Nowhere is the old adage that politics makes strange bedfellows more true than in Japan. Here, politicians with radically different beliefs have no trouble belonging to the same party or coalition.

Now controversy over the US military role here has caused Japan's antagonistic conservative parties to try an unusual tactic: uniting on a matter of policy.

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If they continue to work together, Japan may see the reemergence of the Liberal Democratic Party as the country's paramount political force. In contrast to its earlier reign, from 1955 to 1993, this time there will be no organized opposition and the party may be more uniformly conservative.

"What I see ahead of us is [the] formation of policy-oriented politics," says former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, an LDP stalwart who is believed to have played a behind-the-scenes role in bringing about conservative unity.

The issue at hand is the US military's presence in Okinawa, a group of islands about 350 miles from the Japanese mainland. About 75 percent of its bases and facilities are concentrated in Okinawa.

This inequity has rankled Okinawans for decades, but the September 1995 rape of an Okinawan schoolgirl by three US servicemen initiated a period of noisy protests and calls for change. As part of this campaign, some Okinawan landowners are refusing to continue leasing land to the US. On May 14, about 3,000 leases held by such landowners will expire, meaning that the US military will be illegally occupying nearly 90 acres.

It is the responsibility of the government in Tokyo to provide the US with land for military use, so Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto has asked an expropriation committee to force the landowners to renew their leases. But the committee is moving too slowly to make the deadline.

Consequently Mr. Hashimoto has introduced a special law in parliament that would allow the central government to intervene and the US to continue using the land. But another problem is that Hashimoto's LDP is a minority government.

At the same time, Hashimoto is planning to meet President Clinton in Washington later this month, and by all accounts wants to resolve the lease issue before then.

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The LDP has had a loose coalition with the Social Democratic Party, but the Socialists have more or less refused to back the special law. Uncertain of their support, Hashimoto on April 3 struck a deal with the main opposition New Frontier Party, which means the law will pass this month without a hitch.

NFP President Ichiro Ozawa was once known - as was Hashimoto - as an LDP "young Turk," and his party is home to many conservative politicians who once belonged to the LDP. They defected from the party almost four years ago, motivated by political ambition and frustration with the party's corrupt practices.

But since mid-1993, when it lost its parliamentary majority for the first time in nearly four decades, the LDP has been down but not out. It has crept back into power, forming a coalition government with the Socialists in June 1994, and ruling on its own since late last year.

The deal with the NFP suggests that members of the two parties may have a future together. "The Hashimoto/Ozawa [agreement] can be seen as a first step for the minority LDP government to seek further cooperation with conservative elements in the NFP," says Minoru Morita, a political analyst.

Mr. Morita sees other causes behind the agreement: Many LDP members are tired of having to rely on Socialist support. And Ozawa, he says, may have seized the chance to strike a deal with the ruling party. Exactly what the NFP will get in exchange is unclear for the moment.

The Okinawan crisis may be a turning point in a years-long process of "realignment" in Japanese politics. If this month's cooperation evolves into like-minded politicians joining parties, then the LDP could pick up significant strength by bringing one-time defectors and others into its fold.

It's still difficult to imagine Ozawa doing so, since he has been a strident critic of LDP. "But even if it's not Ozawa, it's going to be some other constellations of the old LDP getting back together," says John Neuffer, a research fellow at Tokyo's Mitsui Marine Research Institute.

More than three years of political realignment have all but destroyed the credibility of Japan's Socialists. Japan's other parties are a fractious bunch of politicians who analysts say stand little chance of providing a strengthened LDP with much opposition.

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