from Asia Unbound

Reality Check on Futenma Relocation

April 27, 2010

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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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Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

Government officials in Washington and Tokyo are working to come up with a new package of options that would allow U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to be shut down. Many thought that a compromise package reached in 2006 after years of deliberation would be implemented. Yet last fall, in the final stages of negotiation with the government in Okinawa, Japan’s new national government sought to review the decision making.

Ever since, the U.S. government has argued strongly for the “current option” – the plan to build two V-shaped runways in a land reclamation project off the shore of Camp Schwab in Nago City in northern Okinawa. Today, Okinawans are no longer receptive to that package. A prefectural rally held this past Sunday made it clear that efforts to build a major new base within the prefecture has stimulated serious opposition there.

Granted, there is interest in having a major construction project and an infusion of central government spending within Okinawa. Construction companies and other related business interests are key advocates of a reclamation project, and argue for the employment stimulus such a project would bring.

Yet, sentiment within Nago City, where the new facility would be constructed, is best perhaps described as “fed up”. Those who might have accepted the plan, some of whom gathered at a town hall meeting held at the same time as the rally to discuss the details of the plan, are quoted by the press as saying they didn’t like it but didn’t feel they could stop it. Financial incentives such as tax breaks and subsidy payments suggest a sweetener that isn’t entirely rejected by Nago residents. But Nago has been here before. The quiet and sprawling municipality on the northern shore of Okinawa has been torn asunder by the central government’s plans to relocate to Nago the U.S. marines from Futenma. This has gone on since 1997 when the central government began to scout for spots suitable for helicopters and their support groups. Three mayors have come and gone. A referendum was held in 1998 that yielded a similar “no, thanks,” and because of their role in approving coastal development projects of any kind, Okinawa’s governors have given Nago due deference in making their own decisions.

Two things are different today than in 1998, however. First, in Nago City, the residents finally elected a man who was adamantly opposed to the idea of relocating Futenma to his city. Prior to this, those elected to the mayor’s office were willing to discuss the issue. Like his predecessors, Susumu Inamine has had a career in local government rather than coming from anti – base citizen’s groups. But he ran on a “no, thank you” platform against a seasoned and popular incumbent who represented the “let’s talk about it” school.  Nago residents, fed up with the relocation conversation, seem to have won the day.

The second difference is the broader sentiments in Okinawa. People are frustrated with Japan’s new government – led by the Democratic Party of Japan – for getting their hopes up during its campaign for office, and then now that they are in power, they seem to be going back on their word. The prefectural rally last weekend brought that point home.

A little recent history is helpful here. The last major prefectural rally in Okinawa on the base issue reflected broad Okinawan outrage in 1995 after three U.S. military personnel were jailed for raping a 12-year-old child. Anger then was focused against the U.S. military. But sentiments within the prefecture divided over how best to proceed in articulating Okinawan sentiment to the national government in Tokyo. Attendance at that prefectural rally was reported at 85,000, and the attendees were largely described by the press as those more sympathetic to a progressive left agenda. Governor Masahide Ota took up the mantle of leadership of what emerged as a broad social movement that was anti-base and critical of Tokyo’s discriminatory treatment of the residents of Okinawa.

Likewise, this Sunday, attendance was high – this time 90,000 Okinawans reportedly came out to be counted as the “voice of Okinawa.” The organizers this time, however, reflected a broad spectrum of Okinawan opinion. Nine political parties and 281 economic and citizen groups of Okinawa were represented in the organizing committee. On the stage this time were conservative politicians – the LDP associated mayor of Naha City, Mr.  Takeshi Onaga and the conservative business leader turned politician, Governor Hirokazu Nakaima.

The mood of the day is captured well in a video put together by the Okinawa Times newspaper. Significantly, the rally was held in Yomitan Village – a particularly motivated center for the post-war anti-base movement in Okinawa. Signs reflected some intense sentiments directed at the United States – “Take your nuclear weapons and your bases, and go back to America!” Others held by younger Okinawans echoed the call for the protection of “human life as our treasure” – a slogan associated with the Okinawans of the immediate post World War II era who rejected the presence of military bases on their land.

Activism against relocating the U.S. Marines within Okinawa will likely intensify this year. Yesterday, after delivering a petition of protest to the Minister of Defense, the mayors of Nago City – the candidate relocation site – and Ginowan City – the current location of Futenma – led a protest in front of the Japanese parliament against their government’s efforts to build a new base within Okinawa. The event that looms large in the politics of Okinawa and that will ultimately shape the outcome of any effort to relocate U.S. forces in prefecture will be the gubernatorial election there in November.

Our two governments are still looking for options that might reflect a new approach to relocating the U.S. Marines currently assigned to Futenma Marine Air Station. As they work on the specifics, and weigh the operational and political sustainability of each, they will need to remember a 13-year old binational promise to close Futenma while searching for new approaches to reduce the impact of U.S. Marine Corps operations on the local population.

A tall order, and one that will succeed or fail based on the ability of our two governments  to find a way of reducing the US military presence on a long-patient but increasingly intolerant Okinawan community. Governor Nakaima called on his government to honor its public pledge to the people of Okinawa: to remove the danger from the U.S. Marine helicopters operating at Futenma and reduce the concentration of U.S. military bases that present an unfair burden to the citizens of Okinawa.

It is time to recognize the need for Tokyo and Washington to make some very hard choices. Okinawa should not be asked to bear the full burden of the U.S.-Japan alliance, and Japan’s Prime Minister will need to move operations of U.S. forces off-island.

But this cannot be done by Japan alone. For 13 years, the solution chosen by the U.S. and Japan has been to focus on relocation within Okinawa. For 13 years, this solution has been frustrated locally. Perhaps the problem is not Okinawa, but the solution itself.

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