The May 17 demonstration in Okinawa in opposition to the Henoko project brought out 35,000 people, which was the largest gathering of opponents since Governor Takeshi Onaga defeated incumbent Hirokazu Nakaima last November.
There have been larger demonstrations in recent years, with 90,000 having gathered in 2010 to protest the prospect of building a new facility in Henoko Bay, off the coast of Marine Camp Schwab, to replace the Marine Air Station Futenma, dangerously located in the center of Ginowan City. In 2012, somewhere between 50,000 – 100,000 gathered in a park in Ginowan to protest the then-planned deployment of the hybrid Osprey aircraft to the Futenma base.
While relatively small, the demonstration last Sunday marked an important turning point, with average Okinawans seeming to gain faith that Governor Onaga will fulfill his campaign promise to give his all to stop construction of the new Henoko facility.
Even though voters swept Onaga into office last November, and voted down all four parliamentary candidates in Okinawa backed by the Abe administration and the LDP, they remained skeptical that Onaga would be willing and able to follow through on his unambiguous campaign promise.
Many Okinawans felt betrayed by Nakaima, who had seemed to promise to block construction of the Henoko facility, only to give his approval for necessary landfills in December 2013. Nakaima, with what came across as a verbal sleight of hand, claimed he had never promised to block the Henoko facility, but only to close the Funtema facility as soon as possible. The reaction against Nakaima was swift; his vain attempt at reelection ended in humiliating defeat.
But, while Onaga was welcomed as a sincere alternative to the chameleon-like Nakaima, the mood in Okinawa turned decidedly dour, with many voters and civic activists doubtful that Onaga would ultimately stand up to Tokyo. For many, it seemed inevitable that the Henoko project would be built, and the third-class status that many Okinawans feel is their plight would continue unabated.
Demonstrators have consistently shown up at the planned construction site for the new facility, but the numbers have been small, with a wait-and-see attitude toward Onaga prevailing among the somewhat fatalistic Okinawan population.
But now it’s Onaga’s determination that appears unabated, and average Okinawans have taken notice.
Onaga has put Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and his top aide, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, on the defense, suggesting meetings to discuss the impasse, only to put Abe and Suga in the embarrassing position of refusing to meet. Suga, whom Abe put in charge of the Okinawa problem, eventually gave in, and has met with Onaga several times. On April 5, Suga flew down to Okinawa, and repeated the oft-heard contention that there is “no alternative” to a new facility at Henoko as a replacement for the obsolete Futenma facility. Onaga, who has become known for his comedic-sarcastic mimicking of Suga’s predictable comments, responded with a brief history of postwar Okinawa. After the brutal Battle of Okinawa in April-June 1945, the US constructed what turned out to be permanent bases on what is Japan’s southern-most prefecture.
While the post-war US occupation of Japan ended in 1952, returning full sovereignty to Japan, the US maintained control of Okinawa for another 20 years. For Okinawans, this amounted to abandonment, and solidified a feeling of alienation from mainland Japan that continues to this day. Onaga told Suga that, with regard to US bases, “all of the land for those bases, including Futenma, was expropriated.” Onaga went on to say that Tokyo does not treat Okinawa, and Okinawans, as a full-fledged part of Japan.
Onaga cannot easily be dismissed as an ideological opponent to the US-Japan security alliance. He formerly headed up the Okinawa chapter of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, and broke with the central government with great reluctance. He is now the leader of a new political reality in Okinawa: a broad coalition of leftists, liberals, and conservatives alike who believe the time has come for Okinawa to no longer bear the overwhelming burden of US forces deployed in Japan.
Following Suga’s ill-fated visit to Okinawa, Prime Minister Abe gave it his best shot by finally agreeing to meet Onaga in Tokyo on April 17, prior to the prime minister’s late April visit to Washington. The result was the same. Abe acknowledged that the Futenma facility is dangerous, and must be closed – a common US-Japan understanding for the past 20 years – but insisted that the planned Henoko facility is the only viable replacement. Onaga later told reporters about his response to Abe: “I said that I will never allow a new base in Henoko.”
Onaga has crossed the Rubicon; there is no going back for him, and the recognition of that fact is gradually easing the sense of demoralization among many Okinawans that followed former governor Nakaima’s decision to allow the Henoko project to move forward.
ONAGA: RELUCTANT ACTIVIST: Can Onaga really stop the Henoko project? The governor knows that if the issue comes down to brute force, there is little he can do to stop a determined central government. But will Tokyo, backed by the US, really want to engage in the brutal police tactics that would likely be required to push past determined demonstrators backed by the governor of Okinawa?
Several sources close to Onaga report that the governor has commented in private that Tokyo too easily forgets the pleas from Okinawa, so “it might be better to throw rocks because no one forgets pain.” Indeed, Onaga wants his ‘private’ comments public, as his office has provided the information to numerous journalists.
Onaga is not a professional, anti-American rabble-rouser. This comes from a governor who is conservative at heart, moderate in temperament, and reluctant to be an activist, but who is fed up with what he truly believes is mistreatment of Okinawa by both the United States and Japan’s central government.
ONAGA’S STRATEGY: Governor Onaga also knows that if the impasse over the Henoko project boils down to a battle in the courts, Okinawa will almost surely lose. He has been pursuing a four-part strategy that ultimately rests on mobilizing large demonstrations of public opposition that might force Washington and Tokyo to reconsider: 1) Slow down the construction process as much as possible, until he can put together an air-tight legal argument to overturn former governor Nakaima’s approval of the landfill procedures needed for construction of the envisioned new facility. Construction was supposed to begin this summer, but all involved unofficially acknowledge that the project won’t get underway until Autumn, at the earliest. Onaga intends to delay construction in part by rejecting what would normally be routine requests for modifications to the existing building plans. Each rejection will likely require court intervention, pushing construction further behind schedule; 2) Produce a report, now scheduled for late June or early July, by a panel of experts appointed by Onaga that will poke huge holes in the decision-making process and conclusions that led to Nakaima’s controversial decision, and use the report as the legal basis for reversing and withdrawing Nakamia’s approval; 3) Use the expected panel report to demand a stop to all work on the Henoko project, throwing the issue into the uncharted territory of Japan’s court system. Never before has Japan’s court system had to take up such a big case involving a local governor objecting to central government construction plans;. 4) Use the court delays to build public opposition to the Henoko project, such that the central government and the US government cannot avoid revisiting the entire issue.
That’s the plan. Onaga recently set up a special unit within his office charged specifically to investigate and pursue every possible means to shutter the Henoko project.
The next big events to watch are Onaga’s planned trip to Washington starting May 30, the June 23 celebration of Memorial Day on Okinawa, a holiday in the prefecture that commemorates the end of the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, and the mayoral election in Ginowan City in January 2016.
The Obama administration will be under pressure to find a balance between according Onaga the respect deserved by a sitting governor of such an important prefecture, while not giving Onaga any reason to believe the US will alter its plans for the Henoko facility. The aggressive Okinawa media will be ready to pounce on any perceived snub of Onaga. The upcoming visit will follow the recent opening of a prefectural office in Washington designed to press Okinawa’s case directly to US policy makers.
Meanwhile, Memorial Day on Okinawa will put Prime Minister Abe in a bind. The sitting prime minister traditionally attends the day’s festivities. For Abe to not attend would further inflame anger among Okinawans. But should he attend, Abe will be under pressure to address and defend the Henoko project, which will also raise the ire of island residents.
Further out, political insiders in Okinawa will be watching the January 2016 race for mayor of Ginowan City, where the controversial Marine Air Station Futenma dominates the landscape. Incumbent mayor Atsushi Sakima, a member of the Liberal Democratic Party and close to Prime Minister Abe, insists that all Marine operations at Futenma cease within the next 4-5 years.
But Sakima has not taken a stand on the Henoko replacement facility, arguing that his responsibility to his supporters is to close Futenma, not to figure out a new location for the bases’s ongoing operations. The US says it will keep Futenma open until a replacement facility is up and running. Abe, in line with his predecessors, says the Henoko facility must be built so that Futenma can be closed. A large majority of Okinawans, who backed Onaga in his race against Nakaima last year, want the Futenma base closed, and oppose construction of a new facility at Henoko. It is not clear who will run against Sakima next January. But should a candidate who openly opposes both the Futenma base and the Henoko plan knock him out of office, pressure will intensify for the US and Japan to revisit the issue.