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Tokunoshima is a risky gambit

by Eric Johnston

TOKUNOSHIMA, Kagoshima Pref. — When Tokunoshima, an island with about 26,000 residents officially governed by Kagoshima Prefecture but counted as part of the Satsunan Islands that lie closer to Okinawa than Kyushu, first emerged as a candidate host for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, local reaction was one of shock.

“We’d heard nothing about Futenma being relocated to Tokunoshima until it was reported in the media that (Prime Minister Yukio) Hatoyama was considering it,” said Yuichiro Esaki, 67, a local retiree.

At a demonstration last Sunday against the move, which organizers claimed drew 15,000 people but was likely a few thousand less, many said what angered them most was the central government’s lack of prior consultation.

“Nobody from Tokyo bothered to first check with local politicians or residents to see how we’d feel about hosting Futenma, which is why opposition is so strong,” said Kouei Kabayama, head of the organization that arranged the rally.

A few other attendees suggested Hatoyama and his Democratic Party of Japan picked Tokunoshima simply by looking at a map and finding the most convenient spot for appeasing both Okinawa Prefecture, which wants Futenma removed, and the Americans, who want it to stay in close proximity to other Okinawa-based marine units. The other bases on Okinawa are around 200 km from Tokunoshima.

Exactly how, and why, Hatoyama came to favor the island is not entirely clear. But one early supporter was Hidetada Maeda, the former head of Amagi, one of Tokunoshima’s three townships.

Maeda has the connection in Shizuoka Prefecture and is an influential supporter of Seishuu Makino, a DPJ representative from the prefecture. It was Maeda who brought the idea to Makino and introduced him to certain Tokunoshima residents who said they might accept the base under certain conditions. Makino then aired the idea with senior DPJ leaders.

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to revitalize the local economy. We can expect central government assistance in the form of tax reductions and other special measures, and new businesses. It’s important to have a practical stance that seriously looks at employment and economic effects, not one that just opposes a base as some kind of monster,” Maeda told local media last month.

On his Web site, Makino said the January mayoral election in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, of a candidate opposed to the 2006 U.S.-Japan pact moving Futenma to Henoko, a part of Nago, and Okinawan demands to remove Futenma led him to get behind Maeda’s proposal.

“After numerous discussions with persons connected to Tokunoshima, I’m convinced it’s the most appropriate place to relocate the base,” Makino wrote on the Web site Feb. 1.

But the strength and breadth of the local opposition appears to have taken the DPJ’s leaders and the media by surprise. Before Sunday’s rally, antibase signs were posted all over the island, and Kabayama said afterward that journalists told him that, unlike antibase demonstrations elsewhere, the Tokunoshima gathering drew people from all ages and walks of life.

“Opposition is especially strong among those who experienced World War II and younger women, who want to preserve the natural environment of Tokunoshima as a legacy to their children,” he said.

But both pro- and antibase residents agree that gauging the true strength of the opposition is far more complex than simply conducting media polls or concluding that all the attendees at that heavily promoted event on a beautiful Sunday afternoon are strong opponents.

If the central government formally offers the island specific financial carrots and other incentives in return for hosting Futenma, several attendees said, a number of those opposed could well change their minds.

This is why Hajime Tanioka, a local businessman who owns a training gym and does not outright oppose hosting a base, is pushing for a plebiscite on the issue.

“Sunday’s rally was something of a local festival, and there was pressure on residents by antibase local government officials to be there,” he said. “If you didn’t attend, you risked being ostracized. Not everyone who attended opposed the bases.”

On April 14, Tanioka and others who want to talk to the central government about possibly hosting a replacement facility for Futenma sent a fax to the prime minister’s office with 19 conditions for negotiation.

“At present, those who support bringing Futenma to Tokunoshima are portrayed as the bad guys, and it’s estimated the ratio of opponents to supporters is seven to three. However, most who are opposed say they hear that, in Okinawa, only a few landowners and construction firms benefit from the bases, and that they’re a demerit for the rest of the island. This is the real reason for the opposition,” Tanioka said.

The 19 conditions include financial incentives and promises of new public works projects. They include a guaranteed ¥100,000 monthly subsidy to all Tokunoshima residents over 60 years old, as long as they were registered as of April 2010, plus a ¥20,000 monthly payment to all households and a ¥20,000 monthly child allowance that augments what is currently provided.

In addition, Tanioka’s group wants Tokyo to provide money for new and wider roads to accommodate U.S. military vehicles, and public works projects like an all-weather dome to host the island’s famed bullfights, which usually take place outdoors in January, May and October. If it becomes clear the bovine birthrate is declining due to stress produced by noise from the base, another condition is for to Tokyo to provide money for a barn that muffles the sound.

As for conditions on the U.S. military, Tanioka’s group seeks a guarantee that the new Futenma site not be built near heavily populated areas and that aircraft not fly over the island.

At the top of the list, though, are guarantees that Tokyo will not cut the amount of financial assistance it currently provides to Tokunoshima. Central government assistance to the five main islands in the Amami chain, including Tokunoshima, totaled ¥29 billion in fiscal 2009 but was cut by about 20 percent this fiscal year. Tanioka’s group wants to see that return to ¥29 billion.

The group is also strongly asking the central government to raise the amount of government subsidies for sugar cane, the island’s main crop, to around ¥26,000 per ton from around ¥16,000 now.

“If Tokyo accepts these conditions to a certain extent, I’m confident at least 70 percent, perhaps 80 percent, of the residents would say yes if a formal request to host Futenma was made to Tokunoshima’s leaders and a plebiscite on the issue were held,” Tanioka said.

In the meantime, however, there is growing opposition to moving the base to Tokunoshima in the DPJ. The party’s Kagoshima chapter, angry that the prime minister did not consult its members, has asked him to call off the plan because there are too many unknowns and a local consensus has not yet been reached.

The U.S. has also reportedly said it won’t accept Tokunoshima even if formally offered, due to the logistical and operational difficulties.

So, with less than six weeks until the end of May, when Hatoyama is supposed to make his final decision, supporters and opponents of relocating Futenma agree that, given the way he has handled the issue so far, Hatoyama will have to display exceptional negotiation skills with the island’s residents and with the United States if he is to convince them both that Tokunoshima is the best option.