Former negotiator lays base woes on Okinawa

by Reiji Yoshida

Every story has more than one side.

Most news reports in Japan portray the people of Okinawa as victims — they suffer noise pollution from U.S. air bases, fear accidents involving military aircraft and have long felt victimized as the central government places overall priority on the security alliance with the U.S.

But from the perspective of former Vice Defense Minister Takemasa Moriya, the top government negotiator on Okinawa base issues until 2007, prefectural leaders deserve blame for many of the problems involving U.S. bases, in particular the stalled relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from Ginowan.

Key political and business leaders in Okinawa have repeatedly stalled the government-proposed relocation plan they had previously agreed to, drawing out the implementation process and as a result prolonging the hardship confronting the people living around the base, Moriya argued during a recent interview with The Japan Times.

“When I met Gov. (Hirokazu) Nakaima soon after he was elected (in November 2006), he told me it would take around 20 years to solve this kind of problem in Okinawa. He said it’s quite difficult to form a consensus among Okinawan people,” Moriya said.

“Nakaima then said the central government and the U.S. should just be patient. But where is his responsibility as an administrator? Why won’t the local government address (the hardship of) people living around the base?”

In April 1996, then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and President Bill Clinton agreed to return Futenma, citing the urgency of easing the heavy noise pollution and danger of accidents involving what U.S. officials have reportedly described as “the most dangerous base in the world.”

Following the 1996 agreement, Moriya was the central government’s point man in negotiations with the U.S. military and the people of Okinawa.

After quitting in a political row in 2007, Moriya was convicted in November 2008 of accepting bribes worth ¥12.5 million from a defense equipment contractor and sentenced by the Tokyo District Court to 2 1/2 years in prison. He lost an appeal in the Tokyo High Court last December and is now seeking leniency from the Supreme Court.

Despite his wrongdoing, which he has admitted, Moriya was one of the key architects of postwar defense policy and knows most of the inside stories involving the negotiations over Futenma.

Moriya said in 1996 he put out feelers for moving the Futenma air station and its related facilities in Okinawa to Tomakomai, Hokkaido.

But the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks changed the entire security landscape — not just for the U.S. but for Japan and the rest of the world — and neither Japan nor the U.S. made any further explorations into moving the Futenma base outside Okinawa, he said.

“The (security) issue at that time (1996) was how to deal with China and North Korea. For that purpose, marines did not necessarily have to stay in Okinawa, and Hokkaido was OK” geopolitically, Moriya said.

“But 9/11 changed all that,” he said, and the strategic importance of the U.S. bases in Okinawa became more important than ever.

Okinawa leaders have their own logic in repeatedly delaying the Futenma reversion process.

Antimilitary, anti-Tokyo sentiment has remained strong there, making any political compromise with the central government difficult, no matter how innocuous.

Elections at the municipal and prefectural level in Okinawa also give base opponents the opportunity to reignite the political war over the Futenma relocation issue.

Still, the history of negotiations between Tokyo and Okinawa is that of a number of flip-flops by Okinawa leaders, Moriya said.

In 1998, business leader Keiichi Inamine was elected governor after promising to build an alternative off-shore airport to replace Futenma that would be used by both the military and the private sector. Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi accepted the proposal, which led to a Cabinet decision to formally adopt the idea in December 1999.

But then Inamine spent nearly three years just coming up with a basic construction plan for the airport.

Inamine delayed the launch of legally required environmental impact statements by almost another two years, insisting the central government, not the prefecture as stipulated by a local ordinance, should conduct the assessment.

The assessment work finally started in April 2004. Then that August, a U.S. helicopter out of Futenma crashed on a nearby university campus, fanning Okinawans’ anger against the base even more.

Inamine criticized the U.S. for the long-feared aircraft accident, but it had already been five years since he was elected on his promise to build an alternative airport, Moriya pointed out.

“It didn’t make sense that the governor would level a protest at the U.S. over the accident. If he had done his best (to carry out the Futenma relocation), it would be OK, but he didn’t,” Moriya said.

After giving up on the joint-use airport, both Inamine and then Nago Mayor Yoshikazu Shimabukuro signed a document in 2006 on a revised government plan to build alternative runways in a V-pattern along Nago’s Henoko cape at Camp Schwab.

The environmental assessment for that plan is to be finished soon at long last. But long before that, Nakaima and Shimabukuro started demanding that the alternative base be located farther offshore, which Moriya says would only make construction unfeasible because of the expected sabotage by environmentalists who could easily approach the site from the sea.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s failed campaign promise to move Futenma to another prefecture or outside Japan has angered Okinawa’s residents, again prompting their local leaders to reject any compromise on relocating the base within the prefecture.

But this “all-or-nothing” sentiment in Okinawa is not a realistic demand politically, Moriya argued.

The U.S. military in Japan has raised its readiness levels dramatically after 9/11 to prepare for emergencies in Afghanistan, the Indian Ocean, the vital Malacca Strait and other parts of the Asia-Pacific region, he said.

But to maintain military readiness for those areas west and south of Japan, moving the Futenma air base about 3,000 km north to Hokkaido — the only place in Japan with enough spare room to accommodate all Futenma-related units and facilities — is now out of the question, the reason Tokyo and Washington stopped discussing any option to move U.S. Marines units from Okinawa, according to Moriya.

Removing the marines from Okinawa could help destabilize wide areas, including the sea lane from the Middle East via the Malacca Strait to Japan, Moriya said.

“Japan can prosper thanks to a stable world environment. National security is about the economy, our everyday life,” Moriya said. “It takes time to build up a security system. You can’t immediately call back the U.S. forces once they are gone.”

Moriya now suspects that many Okinawa leaders want to prolong the base reversion process because of the vast financial assistance the central government keeps injecting into the prefecture in compensation for hosting the U.S. military.

To win over local leaders on moving Futenma to Nago, the government has allocated ¥100 billion over 10 years in special budgets for the depopulated northern Okinawa Island area, much of the money going toward construction of huge, expensive public facilities.

Separately, under a special law to promote the lagging Okinawan economy, ¥9.2 trillion was poured into the prefecture between 1972 and this year, according to the Cabinet Office. In 2009 alone, ¥244.7 billion was spent under the promotion law.

“Prime Minister Hatoyama should have realized Okinawa has its own problems. Some people can’t get by (economically) without military bases,” Moriya said.