Over the next two months, the battle in Okinawa will greatly intensify over whether and where to build a replacement facility for the US Marine Air Station Futenma. The struggle will culminate with the January 19 election for mayor of Nago, the municipality that is home to the picturesque Henoko Bay, where the US and Japanese governments want to build a Futenma Replacement Facility (FRF). Around the same time, Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima will decide whether to allow a landfill project in the bay to proceed. Construction of the proposed Henoko facility cannot proceed without the landfill, which Nakaima has the legal authority to block.
The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are putting enormous pressure on local conservatives in Okinawa to support the project. But Governor Nakaima has long voiced his opposition. The project is also opposed by the Okinawa prefectural assembly, all 41 of Okinawa’s municipal assemblies, the local chapter of the LDP, and three of the five LDP members from Okinawa in the national Diet.
The LDP has four members in the Lower House from Okinawa, and one in the Upper House. The three opponents of the Henoko project have publicly stated recently that they have been privately warned by the LDP leadership in Tokyo that they might be expelled from the party if they maintain their opposition.
The pressure is coming from, among others, LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba, party vice president Masahiko Komura (a former foreign minister), and Gen Nakatani, the only former defense minister to have served in the Self-Defense Forces.
The stance adopted by the Diet members from Okinawa could influence Nakaima’s final decision. Even though he has long, vehemently argued for an alternative location for the FRF, Nakaima is an LDP member with a lot of loyalty to the party, so he is susceptible to pressure from Tokyo. But Nakaima also faces reelection next October, and is vividly aware of the widespread opposition to the Henoko project throughout Okinawa, so he is carefully maneuvering before making a final decision.
In October, Nakaima held his first official joint meeting with Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera and publicly reiterated his opposition to the Henoko plan. But many believe the situation is more complicated. There are pockets of support for the Henoko project, especially from powerful construction companies that stand to greatly benefit from the project.
ON THE GROUND IN NAGO: In Nago, the municipal assembly has 27 members, 16 of whom recently appeared at an election campaign rally backing incumbent Nago mayor Susumu Inamine. The mayoral election is scheduled for January 19. Two additional assembly members are believed to back Inamine, for a total of 18 opposed and only 9 in favor.
A win by Inamine would influence Nakaima as he ponders whether to give is approval for the landfill operation required for construction of the new facility.
Further complicating matters is that the Okinawa prefectural chapter of the LDP is opposed to the project, and is also under intense pressure from LDP headquarters in Tokyo. The local chapter is scheduled to issue a statement of support or opposition by the end of this month.
The biggest complication for the Abe government and the central LDP is that two conservatives want to run, which could result in a split in the pro-Henoko vote, easing Inamine’s path to reelection.
One of the conservatives, former mayor Yoshikazu Shimabukuro, is an enthusiastic backer of the Henoko project, saying it will help the local economy. But Shimabukuro lost to Iinamine in the last election when he made the same argument, and the LDP headquarters is putting intense pressure on him to not run. Technically Shimabukuro is an independent but is in essence an LDP member.
The other conservative, former vice mayor Bunshin Suematsu, is believed to support the Henoko project, but has been reluctant to say so in public for fear of alienating anti-base voters. Komeito, which is strong in the area, is opposed to the project.
Shimabukuro has indicated that his intention is to force Suematsu to openly declare his support for the project.
On the other hand, Suematsu is hoping Nakaima will provide him political cover before the election by openly announcing his approval for the project to move forward. That would enable Suematsu to be clear, thus encouraging Shimabukuro to not run. But Nakaima is under no legal obligation to announce his decision prior to the election, and he is trying to balance his own opposition with the political pressure he is getting from the LDP headquarters.
LONG, LONG HISTORY: Most analysts believe the dispute over the Futenma base and the overall US military presence in Okinawa stems from the 1995 rape of a young Okinawan woman by 3 US servicemen. The outpouring of anger led the US and Japanese governments to, among other things, agree on the closure of the Futenma base, which is dangerously located in the center of Ginowan City. But the controversy goes back much further.
In the early 1970s, as the Vietnam War wound down and the US closed a good number of facilities on the main islands of Japan, the US presence in Japan came to be heavily concentrated in Okinawa. The State Department requested from the Pentagon a list of facilities that could be closed in Okinawa. A declassified memo from the State Department dated January 3, 1973 titled “Base Consolidation in Japan” had this to say about the Pentagon’s plan for Okinawa: “Although the number of facilities on the list for release or relocations appears impressive at first glance, most of them are very small or peripherally located. There also are some obvious omissions. The most notable omission is Futenma MCAS (Marine Corps Air Station). Futenma is apparently a political liability whose days are numbered. (emphasis added). Planes using this field fly low over populated areas and cause a noticeable disturbance.”
Now, fast forward to April 5 of this year, when the US and Japan announced a supposed “breakthrough” on plans for US base consolidation in Okinawa in the wake of the rape crisis. The “breakthrough” is remarkably similar in character to the 1972 Pentagon proposal: “impressive at first glance” but much less than meets the eye. As we’ve reported before, the main features of the April 5 “breakthrough” are:
- The area to be returned totals about 2,590 acres, which is a mere 4.5 percent of the total amount of land now utilized by American forces based on Okinawa;
- Of these 2,540 acres to be returned, only 6.2 percent would be returned relatively soon, without significant conditions. That is a mere 161 acres. Moreover, numerous Okinawan commentators have pointed out that many of those 161 acres are of little use economically;
- On other hand, 80.2 percent of the planned land returns (2,076 acres) are contingent on construction of replacement facilities in Okinawa. This includes the Futenma Replacement Facility envisioned for Henoko. The anticipated completion dates for these replacement facilities are all quite vague, specifically 2022-28 “or later.” The Okinawa Times referred to this “or later” caveat as “a love letter in the sand.”
Concerning the Futenma facility in particular, Pentagon officials acknowledge it will remain open past 2024, more than 50 years after the State Department said it is a “political liability whose days are numbered.”
Little wonder that Okinawans are upset.
WHAT WILL ABE DO? No matter what occurs in the January 19 Nago mayoral election, Prime Minister Abe will have a big decision to make. A victory by Inamine will be an unmistakable rejection of the central government that Abe would be very hard-pressed to ignore. Governor Nakaima would also find it hard to approve the Henoko project in the wake of an Inamine win (though Nakaima may make his decision before the election.) A victory by Suematsu or Shimabukuro, and/or approval of the project by Nakaima would be little more than a temporary win for the prime minister. Opposition to the Henoko project is so widespread in Okinawa that protesters will almost surely mobilize to stop the project, putting Abe in the position of having to use police measures to get construction underway.
An extensive round of interviews with American and Japanese officials and non-government experts found none – none – who thought the Henoko project will ever be built.
Abe is likely to find himself in the embarrassing position of having to acknowledge the project is not feasible politically, after having vehemently criticized the Democratic Party of Japan for having failed to push the project through when it was in office from 2010-2013.
It is only a matter of time before the US and Japanese governments consider alternatives to the Henoko project.