GUAM – In a political move that some expect will weaken Prime Minister Yoshiko Noda’s leadership and further complicate progress on a controversial plan to build a U.S. air base on Okinawa’s remote eastern coast, Japan’s Upper House approved censure motions against two members of his cabinet.

Even though it carries no legal weight, the censure vote by the opposition-controlled Upper House against Consumer Affairs Minister Kenji Yamaoka and Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa, is a serious political setback for Mr. Noda, who has repeatedly said he will retain the two ministers.

The Defense Minister has been under fire for a series of blunders by himself and a subordinate, who last month, was removed for using the Japanese word for “rape” to describe the government’s environmental study at the site of the new air base.

The incident was a setback for Mr. Noda’s administration, which has labored to gain Okinawan understanding for the U.S.-Japan plan to replace Marine Corps Air Station Futenma with a new air base on their island’s fragile coastline. Mr. Noda still plans to submit the final environmental assessment for the new facility before the end of the year to Okinawa’s governor who remains adamantly opposed to the plan and whose approval for coastal land reclamation is required before construction can proceed.

Adding fuel to the fire and stirring up momentum for censure, Mr. Ichikawa admitted in a Parliament session last week that he “did not know the details” of the 1995 rape of a girl in Okinawa by three U.S. servicemen. The gaffe underscored what Okinawans view as Tokyo’s insensitivity to their situation, where the decades-long impact of hosting the majority of U.S. troops based in Japan has been a major concern.

Proving tangible progress on a Futenma replacement facility to the United States has been tough enough without this latest stumbling block. Mr. Noda finds himself between a rock and a hard place now — right where his political opponents want him, according to a recent story in The Japan Times.

On the one hand, he needs opposition support to avoid gridlock on some key policy legislation, including a new consumption tax hike to raise revenue. On the other hand, replacing the two ministers will defy a major bloc in his own party. Either way, the censure weakens him politically, pundits say.

Bungling on the replacement facility issue has toppled a line of prime ministers before Mr. Noda in recent years.

The planned facility underpins a massive U.S.-Japan troop realignment agreement that includes transferring some Okinawa-based Marines to Guam. The facility and the dispersal of some troops to Guam would allow the U.S. to close a controversial Marine base in Okinawa’s crowded Futenma region.

But while the plan would mean a smaller military footprint in the prefecture, many Okinawans want the base removed entirely. The Pentagon, however, has said that the new base must be built on Okinawa if the Marines are to move to Guam and the footprint on Okinawa is to shrink.


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Image used in this article courtesy U.S. Department of Defense. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Jacob N. Bailey, U.S. Air Force.