Tokyo Notes

Here We Go Again?

Is the latest government apology over the Futenma Air Station just more of the same?

This is the first entry by new regular Tokyo Notes blogger Andy Sharp

The Okinawan people must feel the needle is stuck in a groove.

On Saturday, yet another government minister perspired in a kariyushi shirt as he apologised to the people of Japan’s southernmost prefecture for forcing it to bear the burden of hosting a disproportionate number of US military bases.

Seiji Maehara, transport minister and minister for Okinawan affairs, also gave local residents what could once more turn out to be an empty promise. He told reporters in Nago – location of the planned relocation of the Futenma Air Station – that the government should carefully listen to the views of local authorities on the islands, saying, 'We must have the flexibility to allow us to say we cannot move things forward without Okinawa's acceptance.'

But is the government listening? Didn’t it play the same tune when former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama paid them a fleeting visit to the prefecture in late May – days before he became the latest leader to fall off the prime-ministerial conveyer belt?

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At the height of his tribulations over the government’s clumsy handling of the relocation issue, and on his second visit to the prefecture that month, Hatoyama offered a 'heartfelt' apology for going back on an election pledge to move the Futenma base out of the prefecture, or even out of the country.

The people of Okinawa – which was under US administration from 1945 to 1972, the legacy of which has left the prefecture with the dubious distinction of having 14 US bases occupy about 18 percent of its territory – probably have every right to feel the government is paying them scant attention.

But the government does now seem to be giving some consideration to events in the south. It reportedly has delayed making a final decision on the relocation of the Futenma base until after the Okinawa gubernatorial election in November.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan and Cabinet members such as Maehara must be praying the poll winner isn’t a demagogue capable of rousing the passions of the people and leaving the government with more egg on its face.

To avoid this, the government has to come up with proposals that will at least appease the Okinawan people and politicians to some extent. For example, it could find a way to have the US military perform certain drills outside the prefecture – a move that would lessen the noise pollution for local residents, and be more in tune with the feelings of the people.

Removal of the US military presence from the prefecture altogether would be like the sweetest Okinawan melody for many residents. But given that this is unlikely to happen any time soon, perhaps just a little less lip-service from the residents of Nagatacho would help stop them sounding like a broken record.