EDITORIAL: Government should stop twisting Okinawa’s arm to relocate U.S. Futenma base

December 23, 2013

Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima is expected to decide shortly on whether to accept the central government’s application to reclaim a sea area off the Henoko district in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, for the proposed relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.

Over the past one month, the Abe administration and the Liberal Democratic Party have used every trick in the book to put political pressure on Okinawa to accept the application. The way the ruling camp has tried to tighten the noose around Nakaima has been anything but a gesture of sincerity.

First, the LDP strong-armed five Diet members of the party elected from Okinawa Prefecture into withdrawing their campaign promises to work for the relocation of the base out of the prefecture. With the threat of virtual expulsion from the party, the LDP put pressure on them into withdrawing their opposition to the proposal to move the base to the Henoko district. The ruling party also coerced its prefectural chapter into toeing the party line.

The decision by the five LDP members to drop their dissent from party policy over the matter was announced at a Nov. 25 news conference presided by LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba, who was accompanied by the five lawmakers, all looking crestfallen. The news conference infuriated many Okinawans, provoking howls of protest against what they described as “Ryuku shobun in the 21st century.” Ryukyu shobun literally means disposal of Ryukyu (current Okinawa). At a prefectural assembly session soon afterward, members denounced the LDP’s humiliating treatment of their prefecture.

For people in Okinawa, the scene was painfully reminiscent of the process leading to the forced dismantlement of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which had controlled the Ryukyu Islands, in 1879 by the Japanese government of the Meiji Era (1868-1912) to annex Ryukyu to Japan.

Next, the government tried to placate Okinawa by announcing policy efforts to boost the local economy, including a plan to grant all budget requests for measures to revitalize Okinawa. The government also came up with measures to reduce the burden on the prefecture, including environmental surveys on U.S. military bases.

The government’s rush reflects its concern about the scheduled Nago mayoral election in January. The administration’s fear is that if the incumbent Nago mayor, who is opposed to the relocation of the Futenma base to the city, is re-elected, the relocation plan will be deadlocked. The government wants to put the relocation plan on track before the poll by obtaining the governor’s approval of land reclamation to build a new facility to take over Futenma’s functions.

In a government meeting to discuss Okinawa policy issues, Nakaima presented his wish list. The list includes an end to operations at the Futenma base within five years and a revision to the status of forces agreement between Japan and the United States.

Both are tough demands that are hard to accept for Washington. They will test the government’s commitment to reducing Okinawa’s burden.

There is one question that is demanding a clear answer from the government.

The government and the LDP put pressure on Okinawa to accept the plan to move the Futenma facility to a location within the prefecture on grounds it is impossible to relocate the base out of Okinawa. They warned that the Futenma base will remain where it is now, in a densely populated residential area of Ginowan, if Okinawa rejects the Henoko plan.

But why is it impossible to build a Futenma replacement facility outside the prefecture? Has the government made serious efforts to find an alternative location? The Okinawa prefectural government has put the question to the central government time and again, but has yet to receive a convincing answer.

Seventeen years have passed since Tokyo and Washington struck a deal in 1996 to return to Japan the land being used for Futenma operations. The Futenma problem has already become entrenched.

Even if the final decision is made on the relocation of the base to Henoko, it will be nine more years, at the earliest, before the land is actually returned under the bilateral agreement. Even if the government promises to ensure the return ahead of the schedule, people in the prefecture will likely find it hard to believe after all the years of unfair treatment.

The LDP’s prefectural chapter and some local government chiefs have dropped their opposition to the relocation plan. But the municipal assembly of Naha, the prefecture’s capital, and the prefectural chapter of New Komeito, which is part of the ruling bloc in the prefectural assembly, keep demanding that the base be moved off Okinawa.

In a recent survey of local residents by The Asahi Shimbun and other organizations, 64 percent of the respondents voiced opposition to Nakaima giving his approval to the central government’s application for land reclamation. With regard to the administration’s proposals to reduce Okinawa’s burden, 63 percent of those polled expressed skepticism about whether the plans would actually be implemented.

There is now deep-rooted distrust of the government among people in Okinawa, as indicated by the loud howls of protest against “Ryukyu shobun.” The only possible way for the government to improve the situation surrounding the Futenma base issue is to offer truly sincere explanations to local residents to win back their trust. Such efforts alone can be a useful starting point for progress toward solving this intractable problem.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 21

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LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba talks in a news conference in Tokyo on Nov. 25. Those sitting next to him are lawmakers from Okinawa Prefecture. (Shogo Koshida)

LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba talks in a news conference in Tokyo on Nov. 25. Those sitting next to him are lawmakers from Okinawa Prefecture. (Shogo Koshida)

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  • LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba talks in a news conference in Tokyo on Nov. 25. Those sitting next to him are lawmakers from Okinawa Prefecture. (Shogo Koshida)

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