Abe’s Botched Handling of Henoko


The Abe administration has resorted to high-handed measures in resuming a seabed-drilling survey as part of the move to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within Okinawa prefecture to Henoko in Nago city. The Japan Coast Guard has used exceedingly rough tactics to remove local residents, and there have been cases of security guards working at Camp Schwab detaining citizens protesting the relocation. The Abe administration’s repeated use of heavy-handed political tactics with regard to this important political issue is extremely dangerous.

Respecting the will of the people, and basing policy on their wishes is a fundamental principle of democracy. Of course, public opinion is not always the best guide to what is right for the people and for the nation; politicians may sometimes have to go against the majority opinion for the sake of the people and of the nation. That is part of parliamentary democracy.

So it is impossible to state categorically that politicians should always take a particular action just because it has majority support. Despite this caveat, it is hard to see how the heavy-handed methods used by Abe and his administration in this case are in the interests of the Japanese people. Forcing through the relocation of facilities at Futenma to Henoko will not benefit the citizens of Okinawa, or the nation as a whole. But it will leave a huge stain on the reputation of Japan and the Japanese people.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

The Japanese government insists that problems with the relocation of the facilities at Futenma to Henoko will have a negative impact on the Japan-U.S. relationship. I believe this to be false. Of course, the reservations felt by the United States regarding China’s military expansion are shared by Japan and neighboring countries. It goes without saying that the U.S. military presence in Okinawa is necessary for this reason.

However, the United States is currently withdrawing its front-line forces not only from Asia but from Europe as well. This is because the U.S. has shifted its military strategy from permanent deployments to an approach that uses rapid-reaction forces to respond to emergency situations. The redeployment of the Marines stationed on Okinawa to Guam and elsewhere is one part of this strategy, and is not being undertaken purely out of consideration for Japan or for Okinawa.

Given this shift in U.S. military strategy, I do not believe it is necessary to build an alternative facility for Futenma at Henoko, or to construct a runway there. However, if a runway truly is required, then there are adequate locations in Okinawa or Honshu that could serve as an alternative. Therefore, I cannot agree with either the shape or form of Abe’s actions in forcing through land reclamation and construction preparations at Henoko.

Nor do I believe that the U.S. will benefit by pushing ahead with building a runway at Henoko, riding roughshod over the opposition of the residents’ of Okinawa, which hosts 74 percent of U.S. bases in Japan. Even if a runway is militarily justified, it would entail nothing less than turning into a landfill site a crystal-clear ocean that is home to beautiful corals and is the most-northerly natural habitat for the rare species of dugong, a manatee-like marine mammal. We should all strive to protect Okinawa’s precious natural environment.

If the Abe administration is still determined to relocate to Henoko in spite of this, then it should first consult fully with the local authorities. The prefectural governor, who has been duly elected by the residents of Okinawa, has requested a meeting with the prime minister. For Abe to refuse to meet him simply because he has a different opinion on the issue is exceedingly childish. It is behavior unbefitting a prime minister, and infantile conduct that makes it difficult to think that any rational discourse can ever take place.

Former Governor Hirokazu Nakaima may have given his approval for the relocation, but the residents of Okinawa have delivered a resounding “No” to the plan with the result of the subsequent gubernatorial. The current governor, Takeshi Onaga is acting in line with the will of the people of Okinawa by attempting to reopen discussions with Tokyo. For Abe to refuse to engage with him is to deny the democratic political process. What the Japanese government ought to be doing now is first to listen to the people of Okinawa, and then to enter into discussions with the U.S. to resolve the issue.

If, as a result of these negotiations, U.S. forces end up withdrawing from Okinawa, Japan itself must take responsibility for its own defense and decide how to fill the gap. The Abe administration wants to avoid this debate, and prefers to simply go along with what Washington wants. Again, that is an abandonment of the political process.

Okinawa is extremely important both strategically and geopolitically. All Japanese should think seriously as to how Japan should shoulder the burden, if U.S. forces depart. Rather than expecting the United States to do the work, Japanese should be resolved to share the burden and take responsibility.

I believe that we should reduce the U.S. military presence on Okinawa to the minimum possible. If Japan demonstrates a strong resolve to engage in burden-sharing, I believe that the United States will be responsive to discussions. I am not of the opinion that the failure of the relocation to Henoko to take place as planned will have any immediate, grave impact on the Japan-U.S. Alliance.

Rather, the use of heavy-handed tactics by the central government with regard to the relocation of Futenma will merely create antagonism and mistrust, and harden the opposition. The old adage “more haste, less speed” surely applies here. Abe should engage in exhaustive discussions, even if they do take more time. Attempting to forge ahead regardless will only end in failure and the impact on the Japan-U.S. relationship will only be worse. The prime minister and his office should take a more conscientious approach, and consider the broader perspective.

Ichiro Ozawa is a Japanese politician and president of the People’s Life Party & Taro Yamamoto and Friends.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief