U.S. presence vs. the public will

by Kiroku Hanai

A tense atmosphere prevails in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, during its centennial this year due to the planned deployment of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier at U.S. Yokosuka Naval Base.

Last year Mayor Ryoichi Kabaya announced a decision to accept the deployment. Subsequently, a citizens’ group campaigning against the deployment collected a number of signatures from supporters far more than necessary to call for a referendum. The group officially asked the mayor Jan. 17 to enact the referendum ordinance, and the mayor will convene an extraordinary session of the city assembly early next month to discuss the issue.

Nationwide, three referendums have been held concerning the presence of U.S. military forces:

Okinawa Prefecture, September 1996, over revision of the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement and the consolidation of U.S. military bases.

Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, December 1997, over the construction of an offshore U.S. military heliport.

Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, March 2006, over the transfer of carrier-based warplanes to U.S. Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station.

In each referendum, opponents of the U.S. military presence won. Yet the Okinawa governor and the Nago mayor have failed to respect their referendum results, provoking public outcries.

In Iwakuni, it was Mayor Katsusuke Ihara, an opponent of warplane transfers, who proposed the referendum. Opponents of the transfer won in a landslide. But after the Iwakuni city assembly unanimously adopted, in June 2005, a resolution against the U.S. proposal, the central government retaliated by withholding a 3.5 billion yen subsidy for constructing a new city hall under the fiscal 2007 budget. This rallied anti-mayor forces, and the city assembly in December adopted a resolution censuring the mayor.

In Yokosuka, the mayor and four political groups in the assembly are reluctant to support the proposed referendum on the grounds that the nuclear-carrier issue is under the jurisdiction of the central government and thus seems incompatible with a referendum, They assert that the homeporting of a nuclear-aircraft carrier cannot be rejected if safety is guaranteed.

However, Kayaba won a mayoral election on a pledge to oppose deployment of a nuclear-aircraft carrier in Yokosuka. Twice in 2005, the city assembly adopted resolutions demanding withdrawal of an agreement to accept the deployment of a nuclear carrier. Many residents do not understand why the mayor and the assembly have changed courses.

The number of signatures calling for the enactment of an ordinance to conduct a referendum on whether to homeport a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier amounted to six times the required number, or 2 percent of eligible voters. This shows the strength of local opposition to homeporting. The mayor and city assembly members should discern citizens’ will through the referendum.

On Jan. 9 the U.S. nuclear-powered submarine Newport News bumped the Japanese supertanker Mogami Gawa, owned by Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha, in the Strait of Hormuz. The accident heightened concerns about the safety of U.S. nuclear submarines. Since the submarine was under water at the time of the collision, it should be held solely responsible for the accident.

When the tanker crew asked the Newport News for its name and registry, the latter reportedly replied “Submarine” only. Such secretiveness seriously affects the navigational safety of civilian ships, although such a response might have been understandable if the event had happened in a war zone.

It was the third collision between a U.S. nuclear-powered submarine and a Japanese civilian ship. In April 1981, the United States’ first nuclear-powered strategic missile submarine George Washington collided with and sank the 2,350-ton cargo ship Nissho Maru in the East China Sea off Kagoshima Prefecture, causing two deaths.

In February 2001, the U.S. nuclear-powered submarine Greenville collided with and sank the Japanese fishery training ship Ehime Maru off Oahu Island, Hawaii, during an emergency surface drill. Nine Japanese died in the accident.

Nuclear-powered warships are susceptible to radiation leaks. Given that U.S. nuclear-powered submarines have collided with Japanese ships three times, it is not illogical to suspect that U.S. nuclear-powered carriers are also operating recklessly. How safe would it be to homeport a giant nuclear carrier in the Tokyo metropolitan area where 30 million people live?

Government officials argue that the pros and cons of accepting the U.S. military presence involve national government policy and are incompatible with a referendum. However, Article 74 of the Local Autonomy Law imposes no restrictions on citizens’ requests for the enactment, amendment or abolition of bylaws — except those relating to the levy or collection of local taxes, charges or fees.

Moreover, Article 94 of the Constitution stipulates that local entities have the right to “enact their own regulations within law.” A referendum result is not legally binding; bylaws with regard to referendums require only that local government heads respect the results.

When there is the possibility that the will of a mayor and city assembly differs from most citizens, a referendum should be carried out to discern citizens’ wishes and reflect it in local administration.

In Japan, where democratization started after World War II, a referendum is a desirable means of promoting the public’s political awareness and their participation in politics.

The Japan-U.S. Security Treaty is certainly under the jurisdiction of the central government. However, if a U.S. military installation is established under the treaty, local residents are affected by noise and dangers from the installation. If a war starts, for example, the base could be attacked by enemy forces. Only when they face imminent attack will local people realize what the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty actually means in their lives.

Discerning public will through a referendum is crucial if U.S. military bases are to function properly. The Yokosuka assembly should enact the referendum ordinance and demonstrate that Japan, like the U.S., is a democratic nation that respects the public will.