OSAKA – The government’s formal request last week for Okinawa’s permission to allow land reclamation work to start for the new airfield that would replace the U.S. Futenma base was a calculated move that came amid signs that local political opposition might be softening.
But with all 41 Okinawa cities, towns and villages, the prefectural assembly and the prefectural chapter of the Liberal Democratic Party officially opposed to building a new base in Okinawa to replace U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima is now caught between the stepped-up demands of Tokyo and those in the prefecture who fear the consequences of not agreeing to the new base, and base foes, who are expected to increase their opposition in the days and weeks ahead.
The Friday announcement by the Okinawa Defense Bureau that it would seek permission to fill in offshore areas along the Henoko coast in Nago comes after nearly a month of political signals that the long-entrenched opposition to the base might be weakening. Earlier this month, the Nago fishermen’s cooperative voted overwhelmingly to agree with the central government’s formal request to begin reclamation work for the new base, whose planned runways would extend offshore.
The agreement was an important first step toward breaking local opposition over the base. It came after years of behind-the-scenes negotiations between the fishermen’s group, the Defense bureau, and local LDP or LDP-supported politicians who quietly favored the base.
No formal agreement between the fishermen and the central government has yet been signed. That will not happen until, and unless, an agreement on how much money will be offered as compensation for lost fishing grounds is first reached. How much money might be required to win the co-op’s agreement is unknown.
In the early 1990s, the central and Kansai regional governments paid about ¥60 billion to fishing cooperatives in Osaka, Hyogo and Wakayama prefectures for the basic rights to build the man-made island for Kansai airport. Aichi Prefecture paid about ¥7.1 billion to two local fishermen’s unions for the rights to the fishing grounds where Chubu airport now sits.
Legally, Tokyo does not need to have a signed agreement from the co-op before formally applying to Nakaima to reclaim the land. But having such an agreement puts great political pressure on local politicians, including Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine, who opposes the base. Inamine was particularly upset by the co-op’s decision.
“Is it alright to accept the base simply after seeing a one-time payment?” asked Inamine after the fishing co-op’s nod.
In mid-March, in a controversial election decided by lottery after both candidates got exactly the same number of votes, Munekatsu Kayo, 60, was elected head of the Henoko district. He won after antibase voters threw their support behind him and said he would respect the decision of Inamine and the town assembly, both opponents to the new base.
But Kayo also indicated another survey of local opinion would be conducted in May, and he would be open to discussions if the results showed the majority of Henoko residents favored the new base. Such recent developments in Henoko encouraged the central government to step up its public pressure.
“The Henoko ward chief has agreed and the Nago fishermen’s union has agreed (to the reclamation),” Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said Sunday.
But to gain the governor’s approval, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will first have to win over the Okinawa prefectural chapter of the LDP. On Sunday, it said it will continue to call for closing Futenma, which is in the crowded city of Ginowan, and moving its flight operations outside Okinawa when it meets in early April.
“The position of the prefectural chapter on relocating Futenma outside of Okinawa will not change,” Secretary General Moriyuki Teruya told Okinawa media.
Nakaima has said it could take up to 10 months for him to decide whether to allow the reclamation work to go ahead. By then, the results of the Upper House election in July and the Nago mayoral election in January will be known, and the latter is expected to be especially intense. Although Nakaima now says building the Henoko airstrip is impossible, he has indicated in the past that he might accept if there was local agreement.