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.
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.
But it got worse. On Thursday, in the Upper House, opposition lawmaker Masahisa Sato confronted the defense minister about the use of sexually offensive language. When Sato referred to the shocking 1995 rape that prompted island-wide demonstrations, Ichikawa looked confused and uncertain, prompting even further opposition questioning about his knowledge of the rape incident. In the end, Japan’s defense minister had to confess that he didn’t know all that much about it.
Ichikawa then flew to Okinawa to meet with Nakaima. After listening to his apology for about eight minutes, Nakaima abruptly ended the conversation.
For now, the Okinawa public simply seems stunned. Outrage is likely to come in the days ahead, however. In Tokyo, opposition lawmakers across various parties are gearing up for a censure motion against the defense minister. If passed, this will effectively end Ichikawa’s ability to work on the Futenma relocation plan.
For more than a decade, officials on both sides of the U.S. and Japanese governments have worked hard to develop a plan to remove the irritants to Okinawa residents associated with the operations of U.S. forces there. The current plan in its broad conception reduces the number of U.S. Marines on the island by almost half, and would return more than 850 hectares of base land in the congested urban central region of the island to civilian use. Up until last week, the Japanese and U.S. governments were trying hard to persuade Okinawans that this would in the end dramatically reduce the U.S. military footprint, and ameliorate many of the issues that have confounded local governments.
Today, I doubt that anyone in Okinawa is willing to listen. The days and weeks ahead will provide a better sense of whether the policy conversation between the Noda Cabinet and the governor can be restored.
Ultimately, the prime minister will need to be decisive. These next few days are likely to determine the future of the U.S.-Japan effort to relocate Futenma.
Sheila A. Smith is a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), where she directed the New Regional Security Architecture for Asia project and currently leads a project on China and India as Emerging Powers: Challenge or Opportunity for the United States and Japan? She blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared.