It’s difficult to write about the events of this week in Japan. There are moments that are simply inexplicable, and this is such a moment. Offensive statements by Japanese government officials have exacerbated the tense relations between the national government and the Okinawa governor.
For more than fifteen years now, the effort to reduce the footprint of U.S. forces in Okinawa, and to build a better understanding between local communities and U.S. forces there has been at the top of the U.S.-Japan alliance agenda.
The U.S. and Japanese governments have agreed on a plan to relocate Futenma Marine Air Station, and a new runway is to be built in the northern region of Okinawa for the use of Marine helicopters. The local city mayor has rejected the plan, however, and the governor has suggested that more main island Japanese communities share in the hosting of the U.S. military in Japan.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
But officials in Tokyo are now embroiled in yet another controversy that has inflamed local sentiment, making it even less likely that the governor will be able—or willing—to work with the Defense Ministry. If badly handled, this latest controversy could significantly weaken the Noda Cabinet.
So what happened?
The Defense Ministry is preparing to initiate environmental assessment procedures that will call on Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima to make a decision to approve or reject the construction of a runway on Camp Schwab. In an off-the-record evening with reporters, the Ministry’s director general in Okinawa, Satoshi Tanaka, reportedly said that Tokyo was preparing to force itself on Okinawa if necessary. The story that ran the next day alleged that Tanaka had used the word “rape,” and while there’s some dispute over his choice of language, there seems to be little dispute over the import of his statement.
The allegation that he referred to Tokyo’s intent this way has added shock value because of the horrific incident in 1995, when three U.S. military personnel were sentenced for the rape of a 12-year-old school girl. But at the very least, at a time when the country’s ministers for foreign affairs and defense have repeatedly visited Okinawa to ask for their understanding of Japan’s need to move forward with the bilateral agreement, the callousness of Tanaka’s statements have now poisoned the effort to build trust between the Noda government and Okinawa prefecture.
On Tuesday, an obviously angered Gov. Nakaima refused to comment on the incident, claiming he would not lower himself to address the media report. On Wednesday, the minister of defense, Yasuo Ichikawa, announced that Tanaka had been removed from his post, and issued an apology. But he also added that the government would go forward with the submission of a request for an environmental assessment for the runway as planned. The vice minister of defense, Kimito Nakae, quickly flew to Okinawa to apologize to the governor and the people of Okinawa.