Japan and the United States on April 5 agreed on a road map for the reversion of five U.S. military facilities plus U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, all lying south of U.S. Kadena Air Base on Okinawa Island.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the same day that the agreement was “extremely meaningful to lessen the burden of Okinawa.” Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera visited Okinawa the next day and explained the reversion plan to Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima.
Although the government is trying to sell the agreement to Okinawans, it has a major flaw. Most of the facilities will not be returned unless alternative sites are secured within existing U.S. military facilities on Okinawa or unless a large number of U.S. Marines currently stationed there are deployed elsewhere.
When the late Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and U.S. Ambassador Walter Mondale announced a plan in 1996 to return the Futenma airfield, the reversion was to take place within five to seven years. But in 2006, Japan and the U.S. agreed to move the Futenma functions to Henoko, further north on Okinawa Island, by 2014. Facing Okinawans’ strong opposition to the plan to build the Futenma replacement within Okinawa Prefecture, however, Japan and the U.S. abandoned the deadline in 2011.
Japan and the U.S. had agreed on the return of the five other facilities — Camp Zukeran, the Makiminato Service Area, Camp Kuwae, the army port in Naha and Kuwae Tank Farm No. 1 — as well, but linked their return with the construction of the Futenma replacement. Because this meant that they will not revert to Japanese control unless the Futenma replacement is built at Henoko, Japan and the U.S. in April 2012 delinked their reversion and the construction of the Henoko facility.
The latest agreement states that the reversion of the five facilities will take place between fiscal 2013 and fiscal 2028 or later and that Futenma will be returned in fiscal 2022 or later on the condition that its replacement is built at Henoko.
The way the agreement is written suggests that the reversion could be delayed further.
It is important for the government to realize that if the reversion hinges on securing alternative sites within Okinawa Prefecture, it is unlikely that the reversion process will make significant progress. Okinawans will likely express strong opposition to the move by Tokyo and Washington to merely move the functions of the facilities within Okinawa Prefecture.
Tokyo and Washington should heed Okinawan calls to move the Futenma functions outside Okinawa Prefecture. As long Japan and the U.S. push forward with the Henoko plan, Okinawan resentment over the heavy presence of U.S. military facilities in their prefecture will only deepen. If this goes on long enough, it could create a serious schism between Okinawa and Tokyo, and have a negative impact on Japan-U.S. relations.