Okinawan voters send a message

In the mayoral election Sunday in the city of Nago in the northern part of Okinawa Island, incumbent Mayor Susumu Inamine, who opposes a government plan to relocate the functions of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to the Henoko district of the city, defeated Bunshin Suematsu, who favors the plan.

Inamine’s victory reflects local opposition not only to the relocation plan but also to Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima’s Dec. 27 decision in which he approved landfill work for the construction of an alternative Futenma air base facility at Henoko, following Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s promise to allot more than ¥300 billion each year through fiscal 2021 for the development of Okinawa.

The election result also means a rejection of Suematsu’s approach to use central government money given in exchange for the acceptance of the new facility to improve administrative services for Nago citizens. The Abe administration should respect the will of local residents as expressed in the election and refrain from pushing through the Henoko plan.

A forceful stance on the Futenma issue by the central government would deepen resentment not only among Nago residents but also among the general Okinawan population, creating a wider schism between Okinawa and Tokyo that could impact the Japan-U.S. security relationship. The central government should pay attention to resolutions opposed to the Henoko plan that have been adopted by the local assemblies of Okinawa’s 41 municipalities.

Abe and other government leaders should also pay attention to the danger that smooth security cooperation between Japan and the United States could be compromised if the U.S. bases on Okinawa continue to stir up local opposition. Given the strength of anti-base sentiment, if the government forces through the Henoko plan, large-scale demonstrations and even bloodshed could result.

Because of Gov. Nakaima’s Dec. 27 decision, the central government now has the legal power to go ahead with the landfill work, the prerequisite for building a substitute facility for the Futenma functions. Mayor Inamine will employ all available legal means to delay the construction. The central government would be wise to bear in mind that even after his Dec. 27 decision, Gov. Nakaima said that taking the Futenma functions out of Okinawa Prefecture would take less time.

Although the central government says that relocating Futenma air base from the congested city of Ginowan in the central part of the island to Henoko will enhance the safety of Ginowan residents, it must also be emphasized that the Henoko plan not only relocates Futenma’s functions to Henoko but also beefs them up, creating a stronger U.S. military presence in Okinawa. While the Futenma base has only one runway, the Henoko facility would have two runways. And unlike Futenma, it would have an ammunition loading facility and a mooring berth that an amphibious assault ship could use to transport marines and weapons.

It is perfectly understandable that, given the tragic history of the Battle of Okinawa — which resulted in civilian casualties on a massive scale— and the difficulties caused by the heavy presence of U.S. military facilities on their island, many Okinawans do not want to see another powerful military facility built in their prefecture and are opposed to the Henoko plan. Abe and other government leaders should realize that the Henoko plan has become the symbol of the heavy U.S. military presence in Okinawa and Okinawan resentment over the situation.

Last March, Abe told the Diet that he would like to listen to opinions from Okinawans and to build a trustful relationship with them in proceeding with the relocation plan. He should turn his words into action by humbly listening to the voices of Okinawan people, including their call for moving the Futenma functions out of Okinawa. Relocating them to another part of Japan, and thus more fairly spreading the burden of hosting U.S. bases, would greatly reduce local resentment of U.S. military facilities in Okinawa.