Prime Minister Shinzo Abe continues to struggle with widespread public opposition to his push to overhaul Japan’s pacifist, “self-defense only” security policy. But that is not Abe’s only headache on defense issues.
Okinawa governor Takeshi Onaga is escalating his fierce resistance to a US-Japan plan to build a new US Marine facility in Japan’s southern-most, and poorest, prefecture. (See interview, below.)
A stalemate causing long construction delays would be a severe embarrassment for Abe, who has pledged to swiftly implement the plan. Abe was warmly welcomed in Washington in late April in part because of the widespread belief that he can deliver on that promise.
But Washington is sufficiently concerned that, following an early-June visit to the US capital by Onaga, US officials inquired as to whether there would be significant constructions delays on the new facility, planned for the coastal district of Henoko, part of Nago city. Japanese officials reassured their American counterparts that the project would proceed as scheduled. But the reassurances had a hollow ring.
Onaga was swept into office last November on a wave of anger over the 2013 decision by his predecessor, Hirokazu Nakaima, to approve a massive landfill project necessary for construction of the new base. The Henoko facility is supposed to replace the existing Marine Air Station Futenma, which the US and Japan agreed to close almost twenty years ago – contingent upon construction of an alternative base. Futenma is dangerously located in the center of the city of Ginowan, and has long been seen as a disaster waiting to happen.
Onaga insists that a prospective ‘Futenma Replacement Facility’ (FRF) be located outside of Okinawa, as the prefecture already makes available over 70 percent of the land in Japan utilized by US military facilities. Okinawa prefecture makes up less than one percent of all of Japan’s territory. Tokyo and Washington over the years have outwardly acknowledged the huge imbalance in the burden of hosting of US bases in Japan, but little has changed on the ground. US and Japanese officials insist there is “no viable alternative” to placing the FRF in Henoko, but Onaga says this is just a continuation of long-standing exploitation of Okinawa.
Onaga is a conservative at heart, and a strong supporter of the US-Japan security alliance. He used to head up the Okinawa chapter of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and was the campaign manager for Nakaima’s successful 2010 reelection campaign, during which Nakaima pledged to keep the FRF out of Okinawa. Onaga was furious when Nakaima broke his pledge, and has been campaigning against the Henoko project ever since.
Shortly after taking office in December of last year, Onaga pledged to look for legal flaws in Nakaima’s approval of the landfill project, as a means to cancel the permit, as part of his commitment to use every means available to stop the project. He subsequently established a 6-person panel to investigate Nakaima’s decision-making process. The panel initially said it would issue its report at the end of June, but the release will likely not take place until the end of this month.
Numerous media reports indicate the 6-person panel has already decided to state in its review that Nakaima failed to sufficiently consider, and put into to place to counter, likely environmental problems associated with the Henoko project. The framework of the decision is reportedly already in place, and the panel is now working on the final language. At the time of his decision, Nakaima said that concerns about the environment were fully taken into account, but officials from the Okinawa environment and life department say that Onaga’s predecessor ignored their remaining concerns.
Based on the panel’s likely finding, Onaga could withdraw the landfill permit, putting a major obstacle in front of Abe’s commitment to Washington. Indeed, numerous Japanese media organs report that Onaga has already decided to withdraw the permit, but his office will not confirm that.
Legal specialists say that Onaga has authority over at least 10 areas related to the Henoko project, including: rescinding of the landfill decision; cancel permits to crush coral reefs that now lie below areas where an envisioned V-shaped runway will jut out into Henoko Bay; rescind permits to alter roads leading to the construction site.
By contrast, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, whom Abe has put in charge of pushing the Henoko project forward, insists that Nakaima’s decision-making process was “flawless.”
ONAGA TO WASHINGTON: Onaga, along with a large delegation of Okinawa Prefectural Assembly members, brought their case to Washington, hoping to meet influential Americans who might press the Obama administration and Congress for a change in policy. The Obama administration only made available two mid-level officials from the State and Defense departments. The State Department issued a statement reiterating US policy that there was “no viable alternative” to the Henoko project. Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee was the most senior member of Congress to agree to meet Onaga. His office issued a statement echoing that of the State Department. In the past, McCain had seemed to be a skeptic of the Henoko project, but that was largely motivated by his concerns about the costs of related US plans to relocate upwards of 8,000 Marines to Guam.
Former Senator Jim Webb, a decorated former Marine and former secretary of the Navy, told Dispatch Japan that he reluctantly turned down a request from Onaga for a meeting. Webb has declared his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. While in the Senate, Webb worked hard to stop the Henoko project, and devise a new deployment strategy for the Marines in East Asia.
Subsequent to the visit, the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly adopted an ordinance that would virtually block the importation of soil from outside of Okinawa for use in the landfill project that must precede construction of the facility itself.
Overall, Onaga demonstrated an unusually pugnacious, if polite, willingness to speak directly to US officials. He denied at a June 3 press conference that the trip had been a failure, saying he never expected the US government to easily change its view. Onaga has established an official prefectural office in Washington to continue lobbying Congress and the administration.
ONAGA-SUGA TALKS: Meanwhile, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, whom Abe has charged with resolving the Henoko stalemate, met with Onaga for two hours over dinner at the Okura Hotel on July 4th. Onaga deeply dislikes Suga, whom he humorously derides in talks with reporters.
Onaga told reporters upon leaving the meeting that Suga had agreed to engage in “serious” talks on the Hekono issue. Suga is scheduled to visit Okinawa at the end of this month. The dinner did include talk of the national budget for FY2016, which starts next April, with an eye on the amount of aid to be provided to Okinawa.
At least part of the dinner was taken up with Suga apologizing for the June 25th proceedings of an LDP Diet member study group consisting mostly of young, haughty nationalists who rode Abe’s coattails into office. The study group hosted ultra-nationalist novelist Naoki Hyakuta, a friend of Abe, who urged that Okinawa’s two leading newspapers – both oppose the Henoko project – be punished for their respective stances, and ultimately shut down. Hyakuta is one of Japan’s most vitriolic deniers of the Nanjing Massacre. Several Diet members echoed views on Okinawa, with one saying that public opinion in Okinawa is “contorted.”
In questioning before the Diet, Abe initially declined to apologize to Okinawans, but recanted and issued an apology, saying the remarks were “thoughtless.”
Suga has reminded Abe that it works against the Abe administration to unnecessarily antagonize Okinawans, and let the Henoko issue fester, with no sign of any effort to accommodate Okinawan concerns. Abe and Suga both felt that danger on June 23, at an annual solemn commemoration marking the end of the 3-month Battle of Okinawa in 1945. It’s customary for the prime minister to attend. Abe was met with heckles and jeers, in a public display of disdain that is highly unusual in Japan.
Abe desperately wants to avoid a showdown that would require the use of force to dislodge protesters to enable construction to proceed. Onaga knows this, and is using it to his advantage.
At the same time, Onaga knows that in the long-run, he cannot win a legal or violent showdown with a Tokyo determined to proceed. Onaga’s plan is to demonstrate so much opposition among Okinawans to the Henoko project that Washington and Tokyo will be shamed into devising a new plan.
Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga
'Henoko project would damage US-Japan relations'
DISPATCH JAPAN: The conflict between Okinawa and the central government has become so intense that it raises the question: do you think of yourself primarily as Okinawan or Japanese?
ONAGA: Fundamentally, I believe I am Japanese. However, sometimes, when I consider our historical development and the status quo, I have some doubts about this. But, fundamentally, I am Japanese.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Do you harbor any desire for Okinawa to break away from Japan?
ONAGA: I have no intention of trying to achieve independence of Okinawa from Japan. However, looking at the status quo, it is clear that Okinawa bears an excessive burden of the US military base presence in Japan. Okinawa accounts for only 0.6 percent of Japan’s national territory, but US facilities in Okinawa are located on land that amounts to 73.8 percent of all land in Japan utilized by US facilities in all of Japan. Seventy years ago, at the time of the grand battle in Okinawa, more than 200,000 people died, including at least 100,000 Okinawan people. At the San Francisco peace treaty conference, Okinawa was separated from Japan. That means that when I was growing up, I was neither a Japanese citizen nor an American citizen. This fact remains in the back of my mind. But I feel responsible to play my role as a Japanese person.
Meanwhile, the issue of US military bases in Okinawa remains. The central government continues to impose the heavy burden on Okinawa to host such a big portion of US military facilities. It is unfair. The dignity and human rights of Okinawans have not been defended.
In last year’s elections, all four candidates for the national Diet endorsed by the Liberal Democrats (LDP) were defeated. And the LDP candidates for mayor of Nago City, for the Nago assembly, and for the governor of Okinawa prefecture were all rejected by voters. Candidates who opposed the Henoko base construction plan were elected. But the central government ignored these results. It is not Okinawa that tries to distinguish itself from the rest of Japan. It is the central government that treats Okinawa as if it were not part of Japan.
DISPATCH JAPAN: From the Okinawa point of view, which is more complicated: relations with Tokyo, or relations with the US Marines?
ONAGA: Both are difficult. But if I have to identify the bigger problem, I would say it is the central government in Tokyo. It is the responsibility of the central government to protect the Japanese people. I understand that the US military suffered many casualties on Okinawa toward the end of the Pacific War, and established bases on Okinawa in preparation of possible future conflicts. And I understand that both Japan and the US are democratic nations working together to deal with common concerns, such as the rise of China. But I think the US military has to pay more attention to the burden imposed on Okinawa by the heavy US base presence. To not do so could pose a risk to the whole bilateral security arrangement.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Despite the conflict over the Henoko project, do you remain a supporter of the US-Japan alliance?
ONAGA: I have served as a politician for over 30 years, and I have consistently supported the US-Japan security arrangement. However, the burden of hosting so much of the US military presence is simply excessive. With regard to the Futenma air station, our land was expropriated by the US forces, and our people were forced into concentration camp conditions. With regard to other US bases, the US used bulldozers to destroy our houses, expropriate our land, and build new bases. The people of Okinawa have never voluntarily offered our land for base construction. And now, the US acknowledges that the Futenma air station is the most dangerous airport in the world. But the US says that if Okinawans oppose construction of the new Henoko facility, it is Okinawa that must come up with an alternative plan.
The Japanese government often makes similar comments, and asks us: “Are you Okinawans really thinking about the security of Japan?” This is remarkable. Okinawa was separated from Japan by the San Francisco Treaty, and hosted most of the US bases, which in turn allowed Japan proper to focus on high-level economic development. Okinawa has suffered a lot, which is a situation that cannot endure.
I fully accept the US-Japan security arrangement, assuming it is fair. The US-Japan security arrangement has to be dignified, and protect freedom, democracy, and human rights. This is very helpful to Asia, and the rest of the world. But, at this point, the security arrangement does not extend these values to the Okinawan people. Under these circumstances, the alliance is groundless.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Privately, some US officials say that the Yokosuka naval facility, and the Kadena air base are the top strategic priorities, and that everything else should be negotiable. Do you agree with the idea that Yokosuka and Kadena are crucial?
ONAGA: In the past, many reformists in Okinawa were opposed to all US bases in the prefecture. But I have spoken extensively with the reformists, and the consensus now is that if the Henoko plan is abandoned, the rest of the bases would be tolerable. I understand your question, but I can’t really comment on whether other individual bases are critical or not.
DISPATCH JAPAN: The fuel tankers that used to be based at Futenma have already moved to Iwakuni. So the issue is: where to base the 24 Osprey the Marines want to place in Okinawa. Couldn’t the Osprey be placed inside Camp Schwab, or inside the Kadena air base? In other words, why do the Marines need a new runway at Henoko? Top officials from the Ministry of Defense have told me that they have asked the same question, and have not heard a good answer from the US about the need for a new runway.
ONAGA: It is not clear to me why the Marines want a new runway at Henoko. But my suspicion is that in 30-40 years, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces will utilize the new facility. The former defense minister, Satoshi Morimoto, has written that the Henoko facility is designed to eventually host more than 100 Osprey. Morimoto wrote in his last book that 12 Osprey would be deployed to Okinawa in 2012, and another 12 in 2013. At the time, the MOD denied any knowledge of such a plan. But it turned out to be true. So the real question is: how many Osprey do the Marines plan to deploy in Okinawa? We don’t know.
DISPATCH JAPAN: How is your personal relationship with Prime Minister Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga?
ONAGA: Looking back over his personal history, Suga has tried to cozy up with people in power so as to promote himself. That is at the root of Suga’s relationship with Abe.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What do you expect from Prime Minister Abe’s upcoming statement commemorating the end of World War II 70 years ago?
ONAGA: I would like to hear Abe repeat the words of former prime ministers Murayama and Koizumi.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Prime Minister Abe on occasion has questioned the validity of the San Francisco Peace Treaty.
ONAGA: Two years ago, Prime Minister Abe sponsored a ceremony celebrating the signing of the treaty, as it marked the return of sovereignty to Japan. But Okinawans were shocked, because Okinawa was separated from the rest of Japan, and kept under US occupation. Abe was not thinking about Okinawa. This indicated to me that Japan’s sense of responsibility to other countries is weak. In this sense, I think Abe has inherited the ideas of his grandfather, Kishi Nobusuke. Abe has often said that he wants Japan to emerge from under the postwar regime, and restore pride in Japan. But I wonder whether Abe includes Okinawa in his thinking, because with regards to Okinawa, Abe is desperately defending the postwar regime.
DISPATCH JAPAN: With regards to Henoko, have you already made your decision to reverse the landfill approval of former governor Nakaima that allows construction at Henoko to proceed?
ONAGA: Several years ago I served as campaign manager for then-governor Nakaima. I spent many hours with him, and we agreed on the campaign pledge to move a Futenma replacement facility outside of Okinawa. But later, without any consultation with me, he approved the landfill application, which was very damaging to the pride of Okinawans. People on the mainland said that Nakaima made his decision in exchange for economic aid from Tokyo. This was very hurtful. I decided to run for governor to help restore the damaged pride of Okinawans. I have a very strong determination to oppose the Henoko project, perhaps by reversing Nakaima’s decision.
But I am also aware of the US-Japan security situation, so my administration is trying to engage in talks with the US and Tokyo to find a solution.
If Japan and the US try to push ahead with the Henoko project, which they justify in part as a response to the rise of China, then the image of the US will be very damaged. That is why I think the new facility will actually not be built.