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Futenma question decisive factor for prefecture’s voters

by Mizuho Aoki

Staff Writer

Last in a series

Scanning the sky earlier this month, Yumi Kuniyoshi, 52, notes it’s a rare quiet day: no U.S. military aircraft are flying over her house in Urasoe, a small Okinawa city next to Ginowan, home of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.

Even with all the windows shut, the noise of a jet overhead drowns out all conversation and the TV. It’s not unknown for military aircraft to streak by at 3 or 4 in the morning, she said.

Though not opposed outright to U.S. installations in Okinawa, she has felt let down many times by news of Osprey night flights or another arrest of a drunken serviceman suspected of a crime.

“I hope the central government will demand more strongly that the U.S. not let such things happen again,” the mother of three daughters said. “I feel that the voice of Okinawans hasn’t reached Tokyo.”

It’s a common sentiment in the prefecture, which shoulders an outsize burden of the U.S. military presence in Japan. Not only is the dream of closing the Futenma base and having its operations moved outside the prefecture all but dead, the plan to replace the facility with a new airstrip in the less-populated city of Nago farther north on Okinawa Island has stalled too.

What’s more, despite strong opposition to the MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, which many believe is unsafe, 12 more are expected to be deployed to Futenma next month.

Two major candidates from Okinawa running in the July 21 Upper House poll have pledged to close the base and move its operations outside the prefecture. One, Masaaki Asato, a 45-year-old first-time Liberal Democratic Party candidate, stands in opposition to his own party, which has agreed to build the replacement base in Nago, on the Henoko coast at Camp Schwab.

But for many locals, promises like Asato’s ring hollow. They’ve heard similar pledges from politicians before.

“Whoever wins the upcoming Upper House election, things will stay the same. To be honest, I have no expectation (for political parties),” said Kuniyoshi, adding she hasn’t made up her mind which candidate or party to vote for.

While the LDP is enjoying a favorable wind nationwide thanks to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic policies, the situation is different in Okinawa, where anti-Tokyo sentiment remains strong.

According to media polls, LDP candidates are leading in most of the 47 prefectures, but in Okinawa, Asato is trailing incumbent Keiko Itokazu, 65, chairman of Okinawa Shakai Taishuto (Okinawa Social Mass Party). Itokazu is backed by opposition parties, including the Social Democratic Party.

In a bid to woo voters, Asato is vowing to turn around Okinawa’s economy, which has high unemployment and the lowest average annual income of all 47 prefectures, rather than focusing mainly on his pledge to rid the prefecture of the Futenma base — a position that puts him at odds with his party.

“Turning around the economy, creating more jobs, and increasing the income of all the citizens are the things people are expecting the government to achieve,” Asato, a former social welfare officer, told his supporters in late June in the town of Nishihara. “The tide of economic recovery may not have reached here in Okinawa, but I believe it will certainly reach here eventually.”

At the gathering, Asato failed to touch on the Futenma issue.

Nevertheless, the LDP’s Okinawa chapter admits it’s not an issue that can be swept entirely under the rug in the poll campaign.

“With so many media reports about the policy difference with LDP headquarters, we cannot say the Futenma issue is not the most important issue” in this Upper House election, Satoru Kinjo, director general of the LDP’s Okinawa chapter, told The Japan Times. “The Futenma issue will be a point of contention. . . . And although our policy is different, (Asato) won’t change his pledge. We will seek possible sites for relocating the Futenma air base outside the prefecture.”

But not all voters oppose the government’s Henoko plan.

Yukikazu Kokuba, president of Kokuba-gumi Co., the largest construction company in Okinawa and someone with close ties to Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, believes replacing Futenma with a new airstrip at Camp Schwab is the only realistic solution, and it’s time Okinawans accepted it.

“Over the years the government has looked for other sites for the Futenma air base outside Okinawa, but the conclusion was that there was nowhere but Henoko,” said Kokuba, who also heads the Okinawa Federation of Commerce and Industry and is a vocal supporter of the government’s plan to replace the base.

“It’s been 17 years since the decision was made to replace the Futenma base. For how many more years are we going to oppose the plan, and who is going to take responsibility for keeping the base at Futenma as a result?” Kokuba said.

Although the LDP’s Kinjo admitted some Okinawans support the government’s plan to relocate to Henoko, he notes the majority of locals are against it. And as long as this fundamental reality is ignored, the LDP has little chance of triumphing in Okinawa.

“A silent majority also wants the Futenma base out of Okinawa. I know that by being in politics in Okinawa,” Kinjo said. “There is no way for us but to go along with locals’ wishes.”

Opposition to the Nago airstrip plan remains strong in the prefecture, which accounts for just 0.6 percent of Japan’s territory yet hosts nearly 74 percent of U.S. military facilities.

No progress has been made since 1996, when the late Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto agreed with then-U.S. President Bill Clinton to close Futenma, alleged by some as the most dangerous military base in the world, and build the replacement airstrip at Henoko.

To break the impasse, Abe’s government submitted an application to Okinawa Prefecture to begin fill work for the planned Henoko airstrip, whose runways are expected to extend offshore.

Nakaima, who as governor has the authority to approve the application, is expected to reach a decision after studying the plan for about eight to 10 months. The central government hopes the decision comes before the Nago mayoral election next January.

Activist Hiroshi Ashitomi, 67, believes incumbent Itokazu must win the election to stop the state from building the airstrip in Henoko.

“Keiko Itokazu must win the upcoming House of Councilors election so Okinawans’ voices can be heard. Then, we need to win the Nago mayoral election. We also need to keep on pressuring Gov. Nakaima to say ‘no’ to the central government’s request (for permission to allow land reclamation work in Henoko),” Ashitomi stressed.

He and his peers have staged a sit-in spanning more than 3,000 days, since April 2004, in a tent set up at the bay where the government hopes to build the airstrip, which, Ashitomi claimed, would spell the end of the endangered Okinawa dugong, whose feeding grounds are located around the bay.

“We will continue our nonviolent protest. We won’t give up,” he said.

Although media polls suggest Itokazu is leading, her party isn’t counting its chickens just yet.

“Asato is young. And there is a current trend to give a chance to a young candidate. So we have a sense of crisis,” said Katsutoshi Toyama, secretary-general of Itokazu’s party.

But he stressed that Asato’s difference with the LDP is likely to work to Itokazu’s advantage.

“(Asato) says he will ‘seek to relocate’ the Futenma base outside Okinawa. He did not say he will ‘realize’ it. . . . He says he will not allow the Futenma base to be stuck in Ginowan. And the LDP’s headquarters says it will promote relocation of the base to Henoko. They’re poles apart.”

  • John Davis

    There is a lot of bad feeling toward the American bases in Okinawa. Partly it’s the inconvenience, partly the danger and partly it’s down to money.

    Tourism is booming in Okinawa. Most of the land occupied by the US forces is land that is perfect for development. Returning the land would solve the unemployment problem in one fell swoop.

    Those areas that have been returned, for example Shintoshin and Hanby Town are making 15 and 20 times the money they were making before they were handed back.

    Hotels, houses, shopping centres, and a MUCH bigger shot in the arm for the construction industry than building concrete runways in Henoko and provide thousands of new jobs.

    Everyone I know wants the bases out of Okinawa. But that’s only the people I know, other people may have different opinions. The demonstrations are very well supported, which leads me to think that there really is a lot of opposition to the US forces being here.

    How about a referendum?

    How about actually asking the Okinawan people whether they want the bases here or not?

    Wouldn’t that be the democratic thing to do?