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Yet another ‘Battle of Okinawa’

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CANBERRA — Elections in August gave Japan a new government, headed by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. In electing him and his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), the Japanese people, like the American people less than a year earlier, were opting for change. Remarkably, however, what followed on the part of President Barack Obama’s United States has been a campaign of unrelenting pressure to block any such change.

The core issue has been the disposition of American military presence in Okinawa and the U.S. insistence that Hatoyama honor an agreement known as the Guam Treaty. Under the Guam agreement of February 2009, adopted as a treaty under special legislation in May, 8,000 U.S. Marines were to be relocated from Okinawa to Guam, and the U.S. Marine base at Futenma was to be transferred to Henoko in Nago City in northern Okinawa, where Japan would build a new base. Japan would also pay $6.09 billion toward the Guam transfer cost.

The Guam Treaty was one of the first acts of a popular “reforming” U.S. administration, and one of the last of a Japanese regime in fatal decline. It set in unusually clear relief the relationship between the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 economic powers. It was worthy of close attention because the agreement was unequal, unconstitutional, illegal, redundant, colonial and deceitful.

It was unequal because it obliged the government of Japan to construct one new base and to contribute a substantial sum toward constructing another for the U.S. while the American side merely offered an ambiguous pledge to withdraw a number of troops and reserved the right, under Article 8, to vary the agreement at will.

It was unconstitutional since under Article 95 of the Japanese Constitution any law applicable only to one local public entity requires the consent of the majority of the voters of that district and the Okinawan wishes were clearly ignored in the Guam Treaty. The Diet simply rode roughshod over Okinawa.

Since the treaty took precedence over domestic law, it also had the effect of downgrading, in effect vitiating, the requirements of Japan’s environmental protection laws. Any serious and internationally credible environmental impact assessment (EIA) would surely conclude that a massive military construction project was incompatible with the delicate coral and forest environment of the Oura Bay area, but it was taken for granted that Japan’s EIA would be a mere formality and the treaty further undermined the procedure.

The treaty was also redundant. It simply reiterated major sections of earlier agreements (of 2005 and 2006) on which there had been little or no progress. It merely added compulsive force to those agreements and tied the hands of any successor government.

The agreement/treaty was essentially colonial, with the “natives” (Okinawans) to be guided and exploited, but not consulted. The Guam Treaty showed the Obama administration to be maintaining Bush diplomacy: paternalistic, interventionist, antidemocratic and intolerant of Japan’s search for an independent foreign policy.

Finally, the treaty was characterized by what in Japanese is known as “gomakashi” — trickery and lies dressed in the rhetoric of principle and mutuality. Although reported as a U.S. concession to Japan (“troop withdrawal”), it was plainly designed to increase the Japanese contribution to the alliance by substituting a new, high-tech and greatly expanded base at Henoko for the inconvenient, dangerous and obsolescent Futenma. The figure of 8,000 marines to be withdrawn also turned out, under questions in the Diet, to be also false. The more likely figure was less than 3,000.

While working to tie Japan’s hands by the deals with the collapsing Aso administration, the U.S. knew well that the (then) opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ)’s position was clear: No new base should be built within Okinawa, Futenma should simply be returned.

Drumbeats of concern, warning, friendly advice from Washington — that Hatoyama and the DPJ had better not take such pledges seriously, much less actually try to carry them out, and that any attempt to vary the Guam agreement would be seen as anti-American — rose steadily, culminating in the October Tokyo visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who delivered an ultimatum: The Guam agreement had to be implemented.

The intimidation had an effect. Defense Secretary Toshimi Kitazawa suggested that there probably was, after all, no real alternative to construction at Henoko. Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada also began to waver. Weeks after the election victory he had said, “If Japan just follows what the U.S. says, then I think as a sovereign nation that is very pathetic.” And: “The will of the people of Okinawa and the will of the people of Japan was expressed in the elections . . . I don’t think we will act simply by accepting what the U.S tells us. . . .” After the Gates statement, however, he suggested that the Futenma functions might after all be transferred within Okinawa, even though he declined to endorse the Henoko project, proposing instead they be merged with those of the large Kadena U.S. Air Force Base nearby.

The prefecture’s Ryukyu Shimpo newspaper, in a passionate editorial, lamented the incapacity of the new Hatoyama government to counter the “intimidatory diplomacy” of Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and decried the drift back toward “acceptance of the status quo of following the U.S.”

Nearly four decades have passed since Okinawa reverted from the U.S. to Japan, yet U.S. bases still take up one-fifth of the land surface of its main island. Nowhere is more overwhelmed than the city of Ginowan, reluctant host for the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station. The U.S. and Japan agreed in 1996 that Futenma would be returned, but made return conditional on a replacement, which also would have to be built in Okinawa. Thirteen years on, there the matter still stands.

The “Futenma Replacement Facility,” the subject of such intense diplomatic contention today, is one that has grown from a modest “helipad,” as it was referred to in 1996 to a removable, offshore structure with a 2,500-meter runway, and then in 2006 to its current version: dual-1,800 meter runways plus a deep sea naval port and a chain of helipads — a comprehensive air, land and sea base. Time and again, the project was blocked by popular opposition, but time and again the Japanese government renewed and expanded it.

Yet opinion in the prefecture has, if anything, hardened. An October Ryukyu Shimpo/Mainichi Shimbun poll showed that 70 percent of Okinawans opposed relocation within the prefecture and a mere 5 percent favored the Henoko design endorsed by the Guam Treaty and demanded by Washington. In the August national elections, DPJ candidates who promised they would never allow construction of a new base swept the polls in Okinawa, crushing the representatives of the compliant “old regime.”

Both prefectural newspapers, the majority in Okinawa’s Parliament, and 80 percent of Okinawan government mayors are also opposed, believing any Futenma base substitute should be constructed either elsewhere in Japan or overseas.

There has never been such a postwar confrontation between the U.S. and Japan. With the last shots of Washington’s diplomatic barrage exploding around him and Obama’s visit imminent, Hatoyama continues to study his options. If he rejects the U.S. demands, a major diplomatic crisis is bound to erupt. If he swallows them, he provokes a domestic political crisis and drives Okinawa to despair. Yet choose he must.

Gavan McCormack is an emeritus professor at Australia National University in Canberra. Japan Focus (japanfocus.org) will post an unabridged version of this article.