The government is initiating formal procedures to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, located in the densely populated city of Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, to the Henoko district of Nago, a smaller city in the southernmost prefecture.
The Defense Ministry has asked the Nago fishermen’s cooperative for its consent on land reclamation work to build a new airfield to replace the Futenma base.
If the cooperative’s consent is obtained, the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to apply for Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima’s formal permission for reclamation of the seashore in Henoko. The Abe administration intends to take the step swiftly, possibly by the end of March.
The administration appears intent on proceeding quietly with the formalities necessary for the relocation.
By applying for the governor’s permission for the project when an overwhelming majority of people in Okinawa are opposed to it, the administration could further complicate the situation. Abe should think twice before making the risky move.
In his recent policy speech at the Diet, Abe stressed that the Futenma base must not be allowed to remain as it is. Given the danger posed by the Futenma base, located in the middle of a residential area, it is glaringly obvious that the government should seek to move it to a safer location.
As we have repeatedly pointed out, however, there can be no realistic plan to build a replacement air base within the prefecture.
The prefectural government and the prefectural assembly as well as all the mayors and the municipal assemblies within the prefecture are opposed to the plan to build a new Marine airfield in Henoko. They are demanding that the Futenma base be moved outside the prefecture and have submitted to the prime minister a petition for closing down and removing the Futenma base.
The government has incurred the distrust of people in Okinawa by badly mishandling the issue. The distrust has reached an extreme level partly due to the U.S. military’s deployment of MV-22 Osprey tilt-motor transport aircraft to the Futenma base in the face of strong protests and a recent series of crimes committed by U.S. servicemen in the prefecture.
Abe is aware of the situation, if his remarks concerning the issue made in front of the Diet on March 4 are any indication.
“I intend to listen to the voices of people in Okinawa and proceed with the relocation plan while trying to build mutual trust,” he said.
Abe would be acting in contravention of his own remarks if he applies for permission for land reclamation.
There is no doubt that Abe is trying to please Washington in rushing to carry out procedures to move the Futenma base to Henoko.
During his recent meeting with Abe in Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama reportedly expressed his desire to see progress on this issue as well as in negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement.
After his meeting with Obama, Abe declared, “The trust and the bond in our alliance are back.” He probably wants to remove the festering sore in the bilateral relationship as soon as possible.
But the current situation could ensure that the Abe administration’s steps will only create the impression that Japan is working on the problem and end up allowing the Futenma base to continue existing where it is now.
It is clear that moving the base off Okinawa would be very difficult. Just remember how the Democratic Party of Japan government of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama got into a hopeless political quandary by promising to relocate the base “out of the prefecture at the least.”
Even so, if the Japan-U.S. security alliance is really so important, both Tokyo and Washington should make fresh efforts to find an alternative to Henoko. They should also give serious consideration to the idea of transferring the functions of the Futenma base to various parts of the mainland Japan.
National security is impossible without support from the public.
The Abe administration should avoid making the mistake of starting an action on this formidable political challenge without being sure that it will be able to follow through with it.
--The Asahi Shimbun, March 5
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