Tokyo Notes

Still Hopeful

Japanese haven’t given up hope a compromise over the Futenma issue can be found.

In just a couple of days, the administration of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama will officially announce the content of its agreement with the United States government on the relocation of the ‘dangerous’ aerial operations from the increasingly controversial US Marine Corps Futenma Air Station in Okinawa Prefecture.

The move could also affect US plans to relocate 8,500 additional Marines and 9,000 dependents to Guam, in accordance with the existing agreement signed in 2006. Media reports, as well as the second visit to Okinawa by Hatoyama last Sunday, indicate that the potential new location of the US Marines would be in the ‘vicinity’ of the Henoko area of Nago City in the prefecture, where according to Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Sheila Smith, there’s not exactly ‘overwhelming support’ for the construction of a new base.

It was the follow-up interview to Smith’s official blog entry on the CFR website that captured the attention of many Japanese, with TV Asahi's news show Hodo Station reinvigorating hopes that Hatoyama and his counterpart in Washington were seeking to reach a compromise, one which in Smith's words would ‘allow US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to be shut down.’

Supporters of the Hatoyama government are still hopeful that the relatively young Democratic Party of Japan administration will somehow be able to re-negotiate with the US government a deal that would recapture a sense of national pride, as well as the local pride of Okinawans. Their hopes reside in the possibility that the government may be negotiating with the Obama administration on a future plan to relocate the entire Marine force out of Japanese territory.

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Recognising the clear changes in the political dynamic of Okinawa, Smith noted:

‘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.’

Although she’s clearly suggesting it will be Japan that needs to consider moving the operations off Okinawa, such a remark—coming from one of the influential and prominent policymaking brains behind the Obama administration—has rekindled optimism among some Japanese.

Meanwhile, a number of DPJ members and their coalition partners have been active in bringing this cause into clearer focus. Led by DPJ Representative Hiroshi Kawauchi, a multi-party group of policymakers recently made a trip to the US territory of the Marianas, as well as Guam, to seek possible acceptance of the relocation of US Marines now in Okinawa to their territories.

The governors of CNMI (Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands) and Guam reportedly accepted the offer and even embarked on their own attempt to meet Hatoyama in person, although the effort ended unsuccessfully. The governors certainly had some good reasons for supporting the Japanese policymakers’ initiative, including a desire to access the $6 billion that the Japanese government set aside as its contribution for relocating forces to Guam. The conviction of Guam Gov. Felix P. Camacho was highlighted by his letter to Hatoyama.

Last month, both houses of the CNMI legislature also showed their support by unanimously adopting a resolution that ‘encourages the US Department of Defence and Japanese officials to consider Tinian as the “best location” to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station at Futenma in Ginowan in the Okinawa Prefecture of Japan.’

Critics of these initiatives argue that neither Guam nor the Tinian islands have the capacity to accept in entirety the infusion of over 8000 US Marines and their 9000 dependants, and cite the now famous draft military report or Draft Environmental Impact Statement that points out that the Tinian islands in particular have been taken off the list of possible relocation sites over questions of capacity, poor infrastructure and inadequacy for anything except training purposes.

But despite these setbacks, inhabitants of both Okinawa and the Marianas still hold out some hope that the US and Japanese governments will agree that hosting the vast majority of US forces in Okinawa on a permanent or even semi-permanent basis is no longer a realistic policy option.

Smith is right that Japan and the US must come to terms with the changed reality. And as DPJ Sen. Kunioka Tanioka remarked on her recent visit to Washington, it’s now Washington's turn to come to terms with the reality that this is a US problem as well, not just a Japanese one. Indeed it’s time for both sides of the alliance to accept that this really is ‘our’ problem, because doing so will be essential for sustaining the alliance.

Meanwhile, the Japanese people still hold out hope for talks that are in reality not only about the Okinawans, but the future of a sovereign Japan as well.