Progress on Futenma relocation

The go-ahead given by Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima for the start of landfill work in building an alternative facility in northern Okinawa to replace the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma air base may mark a political breakthrough for Tokyo in its security alliance with Washington, at least on the surface. But even if the Futenma relocation is carried out, it will not result in a substantive reduction of the burden imposed on Okinawa, which hosts the bulk of U.S. military bases in Japan.

The central government must realize that most people in Okinawa resent the so-called reorganization of U.S. bases on their soil that has merely led to plans for substitute facilities on Okinawa Island instead of actual reductions in the U.S. military presence.

Tokyo needs to take concrete actions to ease Okinawa’s burden in meaningful ways. This will be crucial in sustaining Japan’s security alliance with the United States and in maintaining a trustful relationship between Tokyo and Okinawa.

The governor’s approval of the landfill work advances a plan initially agreed on between the Japanese and U.S. governments in 1996 to close Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, central Okinawa, on condition that an alternative facility was built within the prefecture. The accord to return the Futenma site to Japan and reorganize other U.S. military facilities on the island followed a rise in local anti-U.S. base sentiment in Okinawa the previous year, after American servicemen had raped a local schoolgirl.

While Tokyo and Washington reached subsequent agreements that designated the coastal area of the Henoko district in Nago in northern Okinawa as the site for a substitute facility, and decided on specifics for a new runway, the relocation of the Futenma facility made little progress due to local opposition.

The initial target to return the Futenma site “within five to seven years” gave way to a plan to realize the transfer by 2014, which in turn was pushed back to “2022 or later.”

Amid the prolonged impasse, the central government does not appear to have seriously considered moving the Futenma base functions out of Okinawa — already home to around three-quarters of the Japan-based facilities used solely by the U.S. military.

When the Democratic Party of Japan took power from the Liberal Democratic Party in 2009, then Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said the substitute facility for Futenma should be moved either outside Okinawa or out of Japan. But within several months, his administration scrapped the idea and reverted to the Henoko plan. The flip-flop only hardened local opposition while hurting Japan’s diplomatic credibility vis-a-vis the U.S.

Although closing the Futenma base would at least remove some of the dangers posed by the operation of this facility in a densely populated area of Ginowan, mayors of all 41 municipalities in Okinawa have been unanimous in urging the government to give up on constructing the substitute facility within the prefecture.

In a recent local media survey, 63 percent of Okinawans polled said Nakaima should not allow landfill work off Henoko for the substitute facility, while 22 percent said the governor should do so.

The turnaround by Nakaima, who for years had called for moving the Futenma substitute facility outside of Okinawa, came after the national government allocated ¥340 billion for fiscal 2014 measures to promote Okinawa’s economy. In addition, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promised that at least ¥300 billion in such funds will be set aside for Okinawa each year until fiscal 2021.

Abe needs to follow through on his words that the central government will do all it can to reduce Okinawa’s burden of hosting the U.S. bases. And the reduction needs to result in a substantially smaller American military footprint on the island. Otherwise, resentment in Okinawa will rise.