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100,000 Okinawans Can't Be Wrong

Earth Day was a big event this year. Sting sang on the Mall here in Washington. The citizens of Qatar turned off their power for an hour. The U.S. Navy rolled out its new biodiesel-fueled Green Hornet fighter jet.

Okay, maybe the Earth was not so impressed with all the events held in its honor.

But one place where the original spirit of Earth Day prevailed was Okinawa. This past Sunday, 10 percent of all Okinawans gathered to protest the building of another U.S. military base on their island. The proposed base construction would further damage Okinawa's fragile ecosystem and serve as a death sentence for the Japanese dugong, a cousin of the manatee. To save the dugong and assert their right of self-determination, nearly 100,000 people crammed into the town of Yomitan, which is near the largest U.S. military facility in the region, Kadena Air Force Base. They demanded what 90 percent of their fellow Okinawans support: no new U.S. bases.

So far, the Listener-in-Chief has not paid any attention to the democratic wishes of Okinawans, or the rest of Japan for that matter. The Obama administration has put enormous pressure on Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama to abide by a 2006 agreement that would close the Futenma air base (a good thing) and open a new base in another part of Okinawa (a bad thing). Hatoyama ran on a platform that opposed base relocation within Okinawa.

On Saturday, just before the mass rally, The Washington Post published an unusual article claiming that Japan had decided to settle the base dispute by agreeing to U.S. conditions. This was, the Post writer observed in an editorial aside, "the first significant good news in a relationship that has been marked by strain, mistrust and befuddlement on both sides."

Good news? For whom?

Good news for nobody, it turns out. The Japanese government immediately denied the report."It must never happen that we accept the existing plan," Hatoyama told reporters in articles published the following day. The proposed relocation site, he continued, would be a "blasphemy against nature."

So, what's up with the Obama administration and its hardball approach to Hatoyama? The president granted the Japanese prime minister a mere 10 minutes of private face-time at the recent nuclear summit, and "Japanese officials were so taken aback by the toughness of Obama's tone that they did not draw up a written record of the words exchanged between the two leaders." Washington has refused to budge from its position on the base. It has gone so far as to leak material to the press (the most likely source of the misinformation in the Post story). The United States has shown greater flexibility in dealing with North Korea, an adversary, than with Japan, an ally for more than six decades.

The uncomfortable truth may be that the Obama administration wants a regime change in Tokyo. It doesn't matter that Hatoyama is the Japanese version of Obama: a new face with a message of change. It doesn't matter that Hatoyama's rebellion is but a tiny squeak: the renegotiation of the 2006 agreement, the closure of the refueling mission for the Afghan War, a plea for greater equality in alliance relations. What matters is the emergence of a Japan that can say no.

Let's be clear: this is not anti-Americanism. There are few voices in Japan that call for an end to the U.S.-Japan alliance. The Hatoyama government sensibly wants to focus a little more on regional relations, particularly with China, and reduce the heavy burden on the Japanese economy of laying out billions of dollars every year to support U.S. military bases.

Hatoyama's approval ratings have plummeted during this face-off with the United States. Washington has pushed the prime minister up against the wall and, frankly, made him look weak and indecisive. The hardball strategy from Washington was clearly designed at first to change the opinion of the Japanese government. Now it seems as though Washington wants to change the Japanese government altogether. Some lawmakers in Hatoyama's government are calling on him to resign if he doesn't resolve the base issue by the end-of-May deadline.

Memo to the president: Don't hold your breath.

The popularity of Hatoyama's party may well hover around 25 percent. But the opposition Liberal Democratic Party's popularity has dropped to 14 percent. The era of blind compliance with U.S. wishes is over. A regime change in Tokyo, facilitated by U.S. intransigence, might still be in the offing. But Washington will still have to deal with a new Japanese foreign policy and certain unavoidable trends in the Japanese economy.

Most importantly, however, Washington will have to deal with the Okinawans, who chose Earth Day to demonstrate how democracy can trump government fiat, ploughshares can trump swords, and green can trump camouflage.

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