Hatoyama Resigns — Is Japan Falling Apart?

Japan’s next leader, whoever he is, will be leery of supporting the transfer of the air station from Futenma to Henoko. Now, there are only two politically acceptable arrangements, at least as far as the Okinawans are concerned. They are either moving the Marines at Futenma to another American military facility, such as the U.S. Air Force’s Kadena Air Base, or transferring them from the island, presumably to Guam.

But circumstances are changing in Japan. Left on their own, the Japanese could take another decade to decide what to do with Futenma — and decades more to decide on their nation’s next direction. But Japan has adversaries. In the prosperous times after the Cold War, the Japanese people could either take their nation’s half-century alliance with the United States for granted or think it was unneeded.  Yet with a resurgent China and an increasingly dangerous North Korea, the alliance is taking on new meaning.

The March sinking of the Cheonan, the South Korean frigate, evidently helped Hatoyama decide on endorsing the Henoko plan, despite the fierce opposition of local residents. Why?  The Marines now at Futenma are considered backup for the 28,500 American service personnel in nearby South Korea.

Moreover, the encroachment of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy in Japanese waters this decade was also a factor in Hatoyama’s Henoko decision. In April, for instance, Chinese surface combatants and submarines exercised 90 miles southwest of ... Okinawa, and a Chinese helicopter came within 300 feet of a Japanese destroyer monitoring Beijing’s fleet. In the past, Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force had tracked Chinese subs slinking across the bottom of waters adjacent to Japan in violation of international conventions on innocent passage. China wants islands that are generally recognized as Japan’s and disputes the extent of the Exclusive Economic Zone claimed by Tokyo.

China, in short, can be the catalyst, the straw that stirs the Japanese drink. Beijing, by making Japan’s people feel insecure in their own homeland, can give Hatoyama’s successor more leeway to come up with a reasonable arrangement with the Pentagon over Futenma — and help the Japanese find a common purpose. In other words, if the Chinese continue to challenge Japan, Tokyo’s next leader could be the one to define his nation for the next generation.