from Asia Unbound

Okinawa and Tokyo Today

July 24, 2013

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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My visit to Okinawa two weeks ago provided the opportunity to think about what has happened there over the past seventeen years, as the U.S. and Japanese governments have struggled to find a replacement facility for the Futenma Marine Air Station. Yet is it also important to recognize that national politics have changed considerably over this time, as have regional security dynamics. Today, the government in Okinawa faces new decisions, with as yet uncertain consequences for the effort to close Futenma.

Two policy challenges shape decision-making in Tokyo on the base relocation effort. The first is directly related to the Futenma relocation effort. Since the late 1990s, three plans have been put forward for consideration. The first plan was to construct an offshore facility in the vicinity of Nago City. This idea was developed by contractors and engineers in the United States and Japan, but had few advantages for businesses in Okinawa. Moreover, doubts as to whether a floating runway was really the most practical solution—especially given Okinawa’s annual typhoon season—were difficult to dispel.

The second plan was thus scaled down and revised to meet both the goal of involving businesses in Okinawa and anchoring the runway for the Marines on more solid footing. The V-shaped runway emerged as the best option for managing the incoming Osprey as well as the wind conditions on the eastern shore. Landfill was thought to offer better grounding than pylons, and would also be a construction project that would create jobs and profits for local Okinawan businesses.

A third plan, less fully developed, was put forward by the cabinet of Yukio Hatoyama, and abandoned the Nago City locale. This plan envisaged moving the Marine runway to Tokunoshima, which is closer to Kyushu, thereby meeting the Okinawa resident’s call for relocation out of prefecture. This idea, however, fell short of implementation in large part because of poor planning and the Hatoyama government’s inability to gain consent from Tokunoshima residents. Pressures both within the newly elected Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government and its ruling coalition, as well as from the opposing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), led to the abandonment of this idea and ultimately contributed to the resignation of the prime minister.

Restoring Okinawan confidence in the second plan has been difficult, and the current Henoko relocation plan depends heavily on local support. Specifically, the landfill permit needed to proceed with building a runway off of Marine Camp Schwab requires the approval of Okinawa’s governor, Hirokazu Nakaima. The Ministry of Defense presented its environmental assessment to the government last summer, but his environmental review committee found more than 400 discrepancies in the Ministry’s request. A revised request, including responses to those problems, was resubmitted on December 18. The Okinawa Prefectural Government is currently reviewing this revised request, and will present its findings to the governor.

Governor Nakaima must make his decision after reviewing his government’s findings as well as the opinions of local stakeholders. Two important issues will undoubtedly shape the governor’s thinking. The first, of course, will be the views of Nago City residents, and Mayor Susumu Inamine was completing his own process of local consultations during my visit. The Nago mayor and city assembly must approve the Nago City opinion that will be sent to the governor shortly.

A second issue will be the prefectural government review of the landfill permit request. Legal and environmental provisions will be considered, and two weeks ago I visited the team that works 24/7 on the process of fact-checking and collecting opinions from various national government agencies working in the prefecture. The Okinawa Prefectural Government has also made the contents of the landfill permit request available to the public in the prefectural library; visitors can read the report and offer their opinions on the proposed landfill.

But it is the governor who has sole authority to make the decision. Moreover, he also can choose when that decision is made. At the earliest, the Okinawa Prefectural Government expects its painstaking review to be completed by year end, but that may prove difficult given the variety of voices that want to weigh in on this choice.

Beyond the procedural steps of the landfill permit review, there are other factors that will shape the governor’s calculation of how best to respond. Another cycle of elections will be upon Okinawa next year. The Nago City mayoral election will be held in January 2014, and another gubernatorial election is on the calendar for the following November. As noted in my last blog, there is no apparent contender yet to challenge Mayor Inamine. No doubt the complexity of this moment in municipal politics is a deterrent rather than an incentive. The gubernatorial election also hangs over local politics. Conservatives in Okinawa will be eyeing their chances next year, and potential contenders to succeed Governor Nakaima have come out strongly against the Henoko relocation plan.

Many look beyond Okinawa to wonder aloud about how the Abe cabinet will manage the Futenma relocation issue. Last week the prime minister chose not to address the base issue in his stump speeches in Okinawa leading to the Upper House electio. Rather he went to the islands of Ishigaki and Miyako, and talked about his commitment to the defense of the Senkaku Islands. He met with the Japan Coast Guard in Ishigaki and the Air Self-Defense Force in Miyako, praising their efforts. It was the first time since the reversion of Okinawa that a Japanese prime minister visited Ishigaki City—the local municipality that includes the Senkaku Islands.

The prime minister’s decision not to visit the main island of Okinawa suggests that difficulties remain between Tokyo and Okinawa over the landfill permit, and the LDP’s national and local chapters are still at odds over relocation. It also suggests that the prime minister’s interests in defending the Senkakus may be shaping his national defense plan, and thus that the relocation issue factors less prominently in his agenda. Or perhaps the prime minister was simply waiting until after the election to determine how to proceed once the governor has made his choice.

Governor Nakaima too must measure the assessments of his constituents on the landfill permit over the coming months over his sense of how best to end the stalemate over Futenma closure. Either decision will produce dissatisfaction. A "yes" will exacerbate the political differences already obvious in Okinawa, and could trigger anew a broader protest effort. A "no" will pit the prefecture against Tokyo under Japanese law, and stir antagonism against the national government at a time when diplomatic tensions in the region are high.

But then, this is exactly what the governor has been telling the national government and observers in Washington for years. There seems to be no more room for negotiation or new options. Nakaima’s hand has been dealt, and it is now time for him to play out that hand.

Tokyo and Washington will undoubtedly be waiting anxiously for that moment. It should not go unnoticed that Okinawa was one of only two LDP losses in last Sunday’s sweep in the Upper House elections.

Until local views have been fully digested, and Nakaima makes his determination on the landfill permit request, we should expect an enigmatic poker face from Okinawa’s governor.

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