Okinawa & Futenma: Deal Or No Deal?

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Okinawa & Futenma: Deal Or No Deal?

Tokyo appears to be on the verge of finally settling the controversial issue. Will it succeed?

Okinawa & Futenma: Deal Or No Deal?
Credit: REUTERS/Toru Yamanaka/Pool

By Okinawan standards, it may not have been the U-turn of the century: the island is well accustomed to politicians saying one thing and then doing the exact opposite. Rather, the decision of Governor Hirokazu Nakaima to approve the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma – after years of consistently opposing such a move – is but the latest surprising, yet somehow entirely predictable, development in Okinawa’s political history.

Nakaima must have known that he would be branded a traitor for approving a long-delayed U.S.-Japanese plan to move MCAS Futenma to a new site at Henoko village, some 30 miles to the northeast. For a long time, opinion polls have tracked opposition to Futenma’s relocation within Okinawa prefecture at 60-70 percent. In Nago City, of which Henoko is a part, opposition is probably even higher. And Nakaima won re-election as governor in 2010 partly due to his stance that Futenma should not be relocated within Okinawa. The relocation deal is the leading issue in the current Nago mayoral election campaign, with a pro-relocation candidate supported by Tokyo pitted against an opponent who, if he wins, could frustrate the relocation process.

Futenma itself, situated right in the middle of Ginowan City, is unloved: the 50 or so Marine Corps aircraft based there, which include the controversial MV-22 Osprey, are noisy, and the possibility that one might crash makes local residents nervous. So it is Futenma’s relocation, not its closure, which people oppose.

In the Governor’s Defence

Many Okinawans oppose the new base on principle, and that’s entirely understandable. There has been a large, and at times oppressive, U.S. military presence there since 1945; the island still hosts three quarters of all the U.S. installations in Japan; and if the Marines really need a new airbase, it seems reasonable to argue that Okinawa has already done its part and that some other place in Japan should now do the hosting.

However, if they are able to look unemotionally at Nakaima’s decision, some Okinawans may feel that he has negotiated a pretty good deal for the island. At a meeting with Prime Minister Abe Shinzo in late December, Nakaima handed Abe a list of demands. These included: the accelerated closure of Futenma within five years; the return of Camp Kinser, another U.S. Marine facility, within seven years; the long-overdue revision of the Status of Forces Agreement governing U.S. forces in Japan; and the redeployment of 12 of the Marines’ 24 Ospreys outside Okinawa.

Nakaima also secured a significant budget boost for Okinawa, which has now been allocated 340 billion yen ($3.2 billion), up from 300 billion yen, for 2014. Additionally, he asked Abe for 300 billion yen for a second runway at Naha airport, various tax breaks to help boost the local economy, and funds for a railway system, something the island currently lacks.

Though he opposes relocation within Okinawa, Nakaima’s top priority has always been the closure of Futenma. In truth, that may also be the top priority of many Okinawans as well. Nakaima may now have achieved that on a much-improved timetable than the airy pledge of closure “by 2022 or later” which Tokyo and Washington had made previously.

The economic stimulus measures are also important. Some Okinawans blame Tokyo – not unfairly – for the island’s economic malaise, but the fact is that investment from Tokyo remains the only realistic ticket out of that predicament. If the development funds Okinawa needs are dependent on Futenma’s relocation, then Futenma’s relocation may be a price worth paying.

There are also strong environmental arguments against building the new base, which will jut out into the sea off Henoko and potentially upset the local marine ecosystem. However, land reclamation projects are underway all over Okinawa. If the Henoko base were the prime threat to an otherwise pristine marine environment, then the environmental case against Futenma’s relocation would be extremely strong. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. The Henoko base may indeed be bad for the local environment, but it seems unfair to single out that one project when ugly, ill-conceived development programs are underway right across the island.

The Prime Minister and the Protesters

Nakaima’s part in this saga is now more or less over. He soon turns 75, and it is highly unlikely that he will seek re-election when his term ends later this year. The fate of the Futenma relocation plan – and the island’s stability – now rests with Abe, and with the Okinawans themselves.

In receiving Nakaima’s list of demands, Abe promised to make the “maximum effort” to reduce Okinawa’s burden; however, he did not specifically agree to the deliver the items on the governor’s list. It is imperative that he now does so – and not only to salvage the reputation of his colleague Nakaima, who more than met him halfway by green-lighting the Futenma relocation plan. Abe needs to demonstrate to Okinawa that there are benefits, as well as costs, to life within the Japanese state and as a host of the U.S. military.

The reaction of the Okinawan people is therefore key to whether Futenma finally closes, and whether the new base at Henoko is actually built. Some 2,000 people descended on the Okinawa Prefectural Government offices to denounce Nakaima after he announced his decision, but it will take many more than that to halt the relocation plan.

From afar, Okinawa may appear a hotbed of opposition and resentment, but up close it looks very different. While a number of protest groups constantly maintain the anti-U.S. drumbeat, mainstream society co-exists happily enough with the American presence – most of the time. So if they are to have any chance of nixing the relocation plan, the protesters will need to get Middle Okinawa out onto the streets.

When this has happened in the past, the trigger has been some particularly outrageous event, such as a sexual assault perpetrated by U.S. servicemen. Nakaima’s decision alone may not be enough to motivate mass protest, unless there is a second trigger. An Osprey crash would probably do it; another rape by American servicemen almost certainly would.

Barring such an incident, Abe has it within his gift to keep the peace. Nakaima has presented him with a blueprint for making Futenma’s relocation just about palatable to an island that does not like the idea. If he really wants to relocate Futenma without Okinawa descending into chaos, he should rapidly implement that blueprint, in every detail.