from Asia Unbound

Okinawa, Then and Now

July 16, 2013

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For seventeen years, the U.S. and Japanese governments have sought to relocate the U.S. Marines from a heavily congested municipality to a more remote, rural one in northern Okinawa. Futenma Marine Air Station, however, remains open, and the prospects for relocation seem as unfathomable as ever. This past week, I revisited Okinawa, and these are my impressions of what has changed over the many years since I first came here to do research on the base protest movement in the late 1990s.

On the surface, so much seems new. There has been much building and upgrading of infrastructure. A brand new airport, lots of new roads, and fancy resorts have been built, and even in some of the more remote towns and villages there are modern new homes—all suggesting that much money has been invested in Okinawa. The vibrant development in Naha’s Omoromachi, a former U.S. military housing facility, is particularly impressive, and a sign of what the prefecture could look like once more U.S. base land in Okinawa is returned to civilian use.

In the two base towns where national attention has been focused for almost two decades, however, much seems the same. In Ginowan, home to the Futenma Marine Air Station, the city government has changed hands many times—from conservative to progressive and back to conservative mayors. Yet the challenges of trying to close this huge base that occupies 4.8 square kilometers in the center of the city persist. The city’s new mayor, Atsushi Sakima, continues to remind national leaders of the reason for their decision to close the base. The noise level has only increased as the Marines deployed the first twelve Osprey aircraft (another twelve arrive next month), and the fear of another crash like the one that happened on a university campus in 2004 has not decreased.

In Nago City, the designated site for construction of a replacement runway for the Marine helicopters, mayors have also come and gone. Today it is Mayor Susumu Inamine who represents the residents of Nago, and he campaigned against accepting the Japanese Ministry of Defense’s request for a landfill permit to build a new runway for the Osprey.

Local governments in Okinawa find themselves caught between the national government, the prefectural government, and the U.S. military. Indeed, at least three of Mayor Inamine’s predecessors sought to navigate the difficult politics of trying to find a compromise that would suit the interests of governments in Tokyo and Naha as well as those of Nago residents. Yet compromise was hard to come by, and the prospect of environmental damage to the waters on Nago’s eastern coast comes first and foremost to Mayor Inamine’s explanation of his community’s concerns. Local political experts suggest that while there may be hopes in Tokyo for a different perspective from the mayor’s office, Mayor Inamine remains very popular in Nago, and few expect him to have a strong competitor when he is up for re-election in January 2014.

What seems to have changed most here in Okinawa are the political trends on the island. Opposition to the relocation plan, or more recently to the deployment of the Osprey, is expressed through periodic demonstrations, but gone are the island-wide protests of the mid-1990s. Instead a quieter, but broader, sentiment of frustration and disappointment permeated my conversations over the bases. After seventeen years, perhaps this should not be surprising. Skepticism about the offer to return base land to civilian use is high, despite recent efforts by the United States and Japan to clarify a timeline and process for land returns south of Kadena Air Base.

For some, the new government in Tokyo suggests the possibility of change, but it is not clear that this would be change the Okinawans can believe in. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrived here today to campaign for the Upper House election. He will have a tough sell. It is not the progressive critics of the U.S.-Japan alliance or the bases here that he will need to persuade. Rather it will be his politiical base, the prefecture’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) chapter, that poses the biggest challenge. The LDP in Okinawa remains divided over the relocation plan. Future leadership of the prefecture seems likely to remain in conservative hands, and the question is whether compromise with Tokyo can really lead what most Okinawans want—fewer U.S. bases on their small island.

Governor Hirokazu Nakaima must decide in the coming months whether to approve Tokyo’s landfill permit request, a request that will have broad environmental impact on the pristine waters of Oura Bay off Nago City’s eastern coast. The prefectural government and Ministry of Defense have already been at odds over their differing environmental assessments. At risk are the endangered manatees that make the northeastern waters of Okinawa their home. On the day I traveled north to visit Nago and the proposed site for construction, a manatee was sighted in the waters offshore. An omen perhaps? My guides in the prefectural office certainly thought so. Sea turtles also breed there, and the fishermen in this sparsely populated region worry that their livelihood will suffer, despite the offer of compensation from the national government.

The NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) dynamics that have long framed the policy quandary over relocating Futenma continue, but the shared sentiment here is not the competition implicit in the NIMBY dilemma. Rather it is the idea that they should participate in approving the construction of a new base that bothers most Okinawans. For half a century, they have had no option but to live alongside U.S. bases, bases that were built as a result of World War II and the Korean War. Today, the government in Tokyo sees the new base as a consolidation of U.S. forces, but the request sits badly on the conscience of even the most ardent supporters of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Instead, Okinawans would prefer that others in Japan take on more of the responsibility for hosting the U.S. military.

As Governor Nakaima repeatedly asserts, it would be faster and more productive to find alternative sites on some of the other larger Japanese islands. Yet Prime Minister Abe is asking the governor to make a decision on the landfill permit. Whether at year end or in the early months of next year, Okinawa’s governor will need to make a critical decision about his prefecture’s future.

Tomorrow, I will write more about the landfill permit, the process of the Okinawa prefecture’s review of the Ministry of Defense’s proposed construction plan for a new runway, and on the political reaction to the prime minister’s visit to Okinawa.