|

Base time frame for Futenma relocation uncertain

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

The decision Friday by Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima to allow the start of offshore fill work needed to build a replacement facility for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma ends a 17-year standoff that pitted entrenched base opponents against Tokyo and Washington.

But while the governor’s decision is a major step toward realizing the building of the Futenma replacement base on the Henoko coast in the city of Nago, the date for completion depends on a variety of factors, ranging from continued political opposition in Okinawa to whether the U.S. Congress will ensure the necessary funds for Guam to take in Okinawa-based U.S. Marines, mainly from the Futenma contingent.

The prefectural assembly was discussing Friday whether to formally condemn Nakaima. However, a three-fourth’s majority is needed to pass such a resolution. That could be difficult as many members, especially from the Liberal Democratic Party, previously opposed the Nago base less out of a conviction that it was a bad idea and more as a bargaining chip for squeezing money out of the central government for funding public works projects.

How effective local opposition will be now that a decision has been made, however, is unclear. In recent months, pro-base advocates in Okinawa’s business community have become much more vocal and organized in getting their message out, claiming the anti-base activists do not represent the majority opinion in Okinawa.

Okinawa media polls have long showed most residents do not want to see Futenma replaced inside their prefecture, though the results vary depending on how and where the poll is conducted. A September poll by the Okinawa Times of just 793 of Nago’s 61,000 residents showed a slight majority, 51.9 percent, were firmly against a base being built in the city and another 25 percent leaned toward opposing it.

Those who are not staunch opponents may also find themselves swayed by the fact that Nakaima’s decision came in return for a host of new guarantees by Tokyo, foremost of which are yearly funds, until 2021, of at least ¥300 billion for a host of construction and public works’ projects.

Firms like Kokuba Gumi Ltd., the prefecture’s largest and most politically influential general contractor (Okinawa LDP Lower House member Konosuke Kokuba is the grandson of the founder), as well as Nago-based Higashi Kaihatsu, one of the city’s most prominent construction companies, as well their subcontractors and related businesses, are likely to directly benefit from the Henoko base plan and the various projects that will be spawned by its construction over the next eight years.

That means lots of jobs and guaranteed income for large numbers of Okinawans, and continued political support for pro-base politicians.

However, questions remain.

Most notable is what will happen to the project if the agreement to transfer about 8,000 marines and their families out of Okinawa to Guam down the road gets caught up in Washington politics, should Congress refuse funding for Guam, or if such funding is not sufficient to complete the transfer by a specific date.

In addition, Nakaima did not receive a clear answer from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe regarding his demand that Futenma be closed within five years.

Estimates are that building the Henoko base could take up to a decade. That might create more political headaches for Washington and Tokyo, as Okinawans demand other measures to alleviate the base burden. Thus the quest to build the Nago base is far from over.