Tokyo Notes

Another Okinawa Battle

Renewed construction in Okinawa has reignited debate over the US military. But is the time for talk over?

In June 2009, Okinawa Prefecture became the unexpected political graveyard of Yukio Hatoyama, who quit after months of struggling to bear the weight of a pledge he made to its citizens.  

Hatoyama had come to power the previous September promising to tackle one of the great Cold War anomalies. For over half a century, constitutionally pacifist and neutral Japan had sheltered beneath the US military umbrella as a loyal (and in recent years increasingly proactive) ally. ‘We're still in Cold War mode,’ he lamented to me before he took power.

Two years later, the former prime minister appears to still recognise the long-term unsustainability of that arrangement. ‘The idea of having one nation’s military based on another’s soil and depending on its military is not something seen anywhere else in the world,’ he told the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on February 2. ‘I felt that this was something the Japanese people couldn't avoid confronting.’

Today in Okinawa, reality is sharply at odds with Hatoyama’s good intentions. Activists there say the Japanese and US authorities have begun a new push to break the 15-year-old stalemate over replacing old US military facilities.

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At Henoko, site of a proposed US military seaport that includes an 1,800-metre runway to replace the Futenma Marine Air Station in the middle of Ginowan City, a concrete wall is being erected to separate civilian and military land on the beach. That’s likely the first move toward construction. 

Meanwhile, the citizens of Takae, a 160-household village in Yanbaru Forest, have been protesting round-the-clock against the renewed construction (since December 22) of six US helipads to accommodate the V-22 Osprey aircraft. The villagers say that forcible construction would pave the way for a similar strategy on Henoko. They’ve accused the authorities of harassment.

If anything has changed since 2009 it’s this: Democratic Party of Japan politicians are, perhaps, more vocal about Okinawa’s burden than their Liberal Democratic Party predecessors. ‘It doesn’t make sense’ to put 75 percent of US military facilities on 0.6 percent of Japan’s land, admits DPJ rising lawmaker Taketane Kiuchi. But there the hand wringing ends and the realpolitik begins: ‘We have already made a promise, country-to-country, so we have to go ahead with moving the base to Henoko,’ he adds.

Hatoyama agrees. ‘If the Henoko facility can't be built, the airbase in Futenma will be made permanent, and this is an option that we should avoid at all costs,’ he told the FCCJ audience.

The mainland press has been quick to back this scenario, and warn of a huge spike in military spending—held at 0.9 percent to 1.0 percent of Japan’s GDP for decades—if it begins uncoupling from the security alliance with the United States. Opting for the Hatoyama route meant that Japan ‘would have to increase its 5-trillion-yen defence budget by 10 percent annually for the next 10 years,’ warned Sentaku political magazine in February 2010.

The latest push on Okinawa also follows last year’s spat between Japan’s coastguard and a Chinese trawler, which badly mauled bilateral relations and added to Japanese conservative paranoia about Beijing’s strategic aims in Asia. Conservatives in Japan are now increasingly vocal about China’s growing military clout, with some speculating that it is operating spies and provocateurs in Okinawa, the prelude to an eventual claim on the islands.

Hideshi Takesada, executive director of the National Institute for Defence Studies, recently told the Shingetsu Institute that Chinese professors in Japan have been ‘spreading Chinese government propaganda’ to their students, in line with Beijing’s interests. Takesada is apparently concerned that China will soon make a formal claim to Okinawa by citing old manuscripts of the Qing dynasty showing these territories as being tributary.

Such views may be taken as the inevitable if troubling by-product of Japanese anxiety as it accommodates uneasily to the growing Chinese bulk—or as something more foreboding. There are few peaceful historical precedents for such a huge transition of power and influence from one nation to another. But whatever happens, there seems little doubt that Okinawans will be asked keep bearing the weight of the US-Japan military pact—and may in fact be forced to shoulder more.

The pact keeps Okinawa largely out of sight and mind of the mainland, until a protest or particularly heinous crime on the prefecture pushes it back onto the nation’s front pages. It remains to be seen how Okinawans will react to the latest initiative; in his FCCJ speech, Hatoyama appeared to offer a coded warning to the administration of Naoto Kan. While advising the government to push ahead with the relocation, he added: ‘We can't be too optimistic about the government’s prospects (about the base on Henoko).’

‘Many things will depend on the construction methods—it should be made in such a way that is friendly to the environment, and it shouldn’t be permanent. The land needs to be returned to the people of Okinawa. What’s needed before then is frank and fair discussion,’ he said.  

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But the time for talking may have ended.