Three weeks have passed since the United States and Japan announced with great fanfare an agreement on consolidating US military bases on Okinawa. The core of the agreement is the eventual, long-anticipated closure of the US Marine Air Station Futenma, perilously located in the crowded center of Ginowan City. The closure of Futenma, which would occur in 2022 at the earliest, is contingent on the construction of a replacement facility further north in the Henoko district of Okinawa. The decision to close Futenma was first reached in 1996, and the initial target date was 2014. Heated opposition on Okinawa has blocked the project.
Both governments hailed the agreement as a “breakthrough” on an issue they have intensively discussed for almost 18 years, with little to show for the efforts.
Most major US media outlets, whose correspondents in Tokyo were apparently not fully aware of the ins-and-outs of the nearly two decades of negotiations, proved to be easy prey for the optimistic cloak in which American and Japanese officials draped the April 5 deal.
In the weeks leading up to the announcement, and in the weeks that have followed, Ministry of Defense officials in Tokyo, and leading Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) politicians, have expressed optimism that Okinawa leaders can be convinced to alter their opposition. They point out that Okinawa Prefecture Governor Hirokazu Nakaima is a member of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s LDP, and argue that he will eventually “come around.”
Nakaima has a big voice in the matter because he must give approval before landfill work that is necessary for construction of the envisioned Henoko facility can proceed. Nakaima has repeatedly expressed his view that it is simply unrealistic to think that local opposition to the Henoko plan can be overcome. He calls for a replacement facility to be built outside of Okinawa, which, despite being far smaller than Japan’s four main islands, now hosts roughly 75% of the US military presence in Japan (as measured in total Japanese land leased by the United States military for bases).
Indeed, the ink had barely dried on the April 5 agreement when, the next day, Nakaima met with Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, and afterwards told reporters that he still opposes the Henoko plan, and still expects the US and Japan to reach agreement to transfer the Marine functions conducted at Futenma to a spot outside of Okinawa. “I have no intention of changing my stance,” he said.
Optimism rose among supporters of the Henoko replacement facility plan when Kurayoshi Takara, a 65 year-old professor who is considered Japan’s top historian on the Ryukyu Islands and Okinawa itself, took office as Vice Governor of Okinawa. Analysts sometimes pigeon-hole Takara as a “conservative,” but he is actually somewhat of an iconoclast whose views, while very respected, are hard to label. There was even talk of Nakaima retiring later this year, rather than running for reelection in late 2014, and leaving it to Takara to champion the Henoko plan.
Takara is having none of that. Eyebrows rose among those who follow Okinawa issues closely when Takara forcefully presented his opposition to the Henoko plan in an interview published by Asahi Shimbun on April 26.
The interview was accompanied by an “Interviewer’s Note,” written by Asahi correspondent Norio Yatsu.
Below are both the Yatsu note and the text of his interview with Takara.
* * * * *
Kurayoshi Takara, 65, a former professor at the University of the Ryukyus, once faced fierce criticism from the Okinawan people for drafting a recommendation saying that Okinawa should make up its mind to overcome history issues and fulfill its responsibility. He became the vice governor of Okinawa this spring. He is critical of the “victim mentality” and accepts the role played by the U.S. military bases in Okinawa. Is the arrival on the scene of this conservative opinion leader in the Okinawa Prefectural Government an indication of the possibility of accepting the relocation of the Futenma Air Station within Okinawa?
When the local papers in Okinawa carried on their front page the scoop that Takara was going to be named vice governor, I suspected this was a foreboding of things to come. Takara is an expert on Ryukyu history who was involved with historical research for the restoration of the Shuri Castle, as well as one of the leading conservative opinion leaders in Okinawa. I interviewed Takara in late March, just before he became vice governor. With the caveat that it’s his personal opinion, he said that Henoko relocation will not be feasible and expressed concern about the present situation in which Okinawa has no choice but to revert to its “finger-pointing” mode. He has kept quiet after assuming the vice governorship. Naha Mayor Takeshi Onaga is also opposed to Henoko relocation. [Henoko is a district of the city of Nago.] If Onaga is a person who appeals to “feelings,” Takara appeals to “reason.” We mainlanders must take very seriously the fact that the two top conservative brains in Okinawa have arrived at the same conclusion.
ASAHI: Your recommendation “Okinawa Initiative” in 2000 was astounding. Is your assumption of the vice governorship a step toward accepting the relocation of the Futenma Air Station to Henoko?
Takara: Several people in Tokyo told me that the bureaucrats think so and are happy. They say that with my becoming vice governor, Governor Hirokazu Nakaima will give approval for landfill in Henoko, resign, and Takara will take over. I thought they have a shallow understanding of Okinawa. That’s their wishful thinking.
What I urged in that recommendation was for Okinawa to make up its mind to be a part of the nation of Japan. Modern Japan has merely treated Okinawa as a marginal prefecture and as a result, Okinawa became has adopted an unwavering victim mentality. Its ability to see the big picture has weakened. For sure, the situation in Okinawa does justify complaints about discrimination. I was saying that we should not focus only on that aspect and should improve our way of thinking. It is a big mistake to think that Takara believes that Okinawa issues can be forgotten and anything that’s good for Japan can go ahead. If I have to choose, I will definitely choose Okinawa’s interest.
ASAHI: Is it too optimistic to think that the governor will approve the landfill?
Takara: Personally, I think this will be very difficult. The government will probably do all it can to create an environment conducive for the approval, but I don’t think the situation will change with such methods.
As a result of the controversy stirred up by former Democratic Party of Japan Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s statement that [the Futenma base] would “at least be relocated out of Okinawa,” the hurdle for relocation within the prefecture has become higher. At the same time, Okinawans have begun to share the common perception that the hurdle is indeed higher. In both senses, there is no going back to the previous state of affairs.
The government will have various options, such as to criticize the governor’s inaction on the landfill application or take him to court, like in the case of former Governor Masahide Ota’s refusal to sign lease contracts on behalf of military land owners. Yet is it really worth going that far for Henoko relocation? This will only aggravate the Okinawan people’s antipathy toward the bases.
ASAHI: The governor has not completely ruled out relocation within Okinawa, and there are people who accept the relocation. The government may be thinking that Henoko relocation is still possible depending on the political situation in Okinawa.
Takara: For sure, the governor is not saying that he is opposed to relocation within Okinawa. However, he has been saying all along that Henoko relocation is near impossible. Why is Tokyo not accurate in its analysis of the reality in Okinawa? What is the government’s basis for saying there are actually many people who accept the relocation?
ASAHI: Perhaps it’s the notion that if forced to choose between Henoko relocation and the permanent presence of the Futenma base by the end of this year, Henoko would be accepted with reluctance.
Takara: However, it’s the Japanese government that is providing military bases, and these are operated by the U.S. forces. It will be utterly irresponsible for the authorities in charge of security to say: We tried to remove the danger posed by the Futenma base but Okinawa would not listen, so the base is staying where it is. If an accident occurs, it would be Okinawa’s fault.
ASAHI: What you are saying now is completely different from the Mr. Takara who served as adviser to the conservative Inamine and Nakaima administrations who asserted that “solutions are more important than interpretations.”
Takara: Okinawa plays two roles. One is to denounce, criticize, and point to the issues relating to the military bases concentrated in Okinawa. The other is to come up with concrete proposals for arriving at solutions to these issues to be included in the agenda of Japan as a whole, telling Japan: “Therefore, Okinawa would like to propose the following ideas, and it is willing to compromise to a certain extent for these proposals.”
However, Okinawa is still unable to extricate itself from the first role more than 10 years after the prefectural government changed hands from the reformists to the conservatives. The base issues are that much confined within Okinawa. The repeated crimes and accidents caused by U.S. service members and the forcible deployment of the Osprey simply serve to make the contradictions in Okinawa sink in. In reality, Okinawa has no choice but to continue to protest.
ASAHI: The governor advocates relocation out of Okinawa.
Takara: Governor Nakaima pledged to relocate the Futenma base out of Okinawa during the election campaign for his second term, thus plunging into the debate. His rival called for relocation out of Japan.
Naha Mayor Takeshi Onaga, I, and others purposely chose to use the expression “relocation out of Okinawa” because relocation to some other place in Japan is better for thinking about Japan’s security. If we simply forget about other options in the country and go straight to relocation to Guam, the Japanese people will not appreciate the weight of the base-hosting burden on Okinawa or understand why security is important.
I slightly revised the governor’s speech to the National Governors’ Association after his reelection to read: “We are grateful for your sympathy and understanding for Okinawa, but the situation will not improve with just that. Please think of this as a problem for the Japanese people as a whole.” However, the reaction was cold.
ASAHI: That’s the perception gap between Okinawa and the mainland.
Takara: Forty years after Okinawa’s reversion to Japanese administration, the perception gap on the historical experience of the brutal Battle of Okinawa and long-term military occupation by the U.S. forces, which resulted in the excessive base-hosting burden, is beginning to emerge in a tangible manner. Many Okinawans are now saying that the way the Japanese government treats Okinawa amounts to discrimination.
ASAHI: However, you seem to disapprove of using the expression “discrimination.”
Takara: I can understand the sentiment, but once you talk like that, discussion and dialogue will stop. Those accused of discrimination will shut up and there will be an emotional gap. I have come to think that it is more important to come up with an alternative expression.
ASAHI: When Okinawa talks about discrimination, some mainlanders and Internet users accuse it of being a “traitor.” Don’t you think there has been little change in the paradigm of “finger- pointing Okinawa versus dejected mainland” that you abhor?
Takara: Tolerance has withered amid the social stagnation. While politicians say they take Okinawa’s voice seriously, they do not substantially translate this into policy decisions. With the generational change, it is no longer possible to talk heart-to-heart like in the olden days.
The ceremony to mark the restoration of Japan’s sovereignty on Apr. 28 is a case in point. I thought the Prime Minister really came up with a symbolic issue. Okinawa’s reversion only came after the barbaric American occupation that followed Apr. 28 ended. Unfortunately, I don’t think the Prime Minister had a strong sense that Okinawa, Amami, and Ogasawara were deserted at that time when he talked about the restoration of sovereignty.
ASAHI: You grew up on Minamidaito Island.
Takara: This is an island that people from Hachijo Island in Tokyo opened up in 1900. That is why Okinawa is not something that I take for granted without even thinking, which is why I am able to take a relative point of view and look at Okinawa from a certain distance.
ASAHI: Is a solution still difficult even after the Liberal Democratic Party returned to power?
Takara: I think so. This country is facing too many tough issues. Futenma relocation is just one of the political issues. I believe I have no choice but to do my job with this understanding.
The Japanese government is too occupied to even review the Japan-U.S. agreement and is only able to move forward on the basis of the existing policy. While in Okinawa, the hurdle is now raised for relocation within the prefecture. There is also very little leeway to mediate and narrow the gap.
ASAHI: Aren’t you the one who is going to close that gap?
Takara: Oh, no. It is not appropriate for the Okinawa Prefectural Government to say we have this and that idea based on the Japan-U.S. agreement or we will be able to accept this and that military base. It will be difficult for Okinawa to give up its posture of “finger-pointing” unless the government is able to come up with burden-reduction measures not premised on Henoko relocation, in addition to returning the facilities south of Kadena Air Base. However, I must not lose sight of the role I must play in proposing solutions to the problem. Otherwise, we will only be able to find solutions within the context of the contradictions plaguing us. I would like to prevent that from happening.