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Okinawa redux: Democracy and an alliance at risk

by Jeff Kingston

U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy made a meet-and-greet trip to Okinawa last month, an opportunity to gauge the lay of the land and listen to some of the stakeholders in the longstanding controversies over plans to reduce America’s military footprint in the prefecture.

Local newspapers published editorials in English during her visit so nothing would get lost in translation, pointing out that Okinawans overwhelmingly oppose the plan to relocate the giant Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from Ginowan City to a new base at Henoko in the north of the island.

The editorials also called on the ambassador to show as much concern for protecting the nation’s last remaining population of dugong (a sea mammal, like a manatee, classed as being at risk of extinction) as she has for the dolphins slaughtered every year in the port of Taiji, Wakayama, that she tweeted about earlier this year.

Kennedy’s predecessor, John Roos, was frustrated that it seemed like his job was “all Futenma, all the time” — lurching from crisis to crisis. That base in Ginowan City is slated for closure because it is located in a densely populated residential community where the chances of an accident are deemed to be unacceptably high.

In 2004, a helicopter crash at an adjacent university caused no casualties, but spotlighted the urgent need to close the base.

The 2006 “U.S.-Japan Roadmap for Realignment Implementation” calls for relocating Futenma to the fishing village of Henoko. The plan is to build a V-shaped runway out onto reclaimed land in Oura Bay, where there is now a coral reef in pristine waters.

Okinawa islanders oppose this plan because it’s not immediately obvious why reducing the military footprint requires building an additional new military facility in the prefecture rather than somewhere else outside it.

Okinawans also resent shouldering a disproportionate share of the base-hosting burden; the prefecture’s land mass is less than 1 percent of Japan’s total, but it hosts most of the U.S. bases and military personnel stationed nationwide.

To sweeten this bitter pill, Tokyo splashes out vast sums of public works and other subsidies to Okinawa.

At the end of 2013, eager to proceed with the landfill phase of the floundering Henoko project, Team Abe made a Christmas promise of a Mount Fuji-size heap of yen over the next eight years if Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima would play ball. Nakaima succumbed to this extravagant bribe, but now Okinawa’s own Judas is the islands’ most reviled politician and the prefectural assembly demanded that he resign for his treachery.

Nakaima’s betrayal has disappointed many of his supporters who voted for him in the 2010 gubernatorial elections, when he backed relocating Futenma outside of Okinawa. In those elections, the pro-Henoko candidate won just over 2 percent of the vote, signaling the depth of anti-base sentiments island-wide.

Subsequently, Nakaima cold-shouldered conga lines of Tokyo’s bureaucrats and politicians trying to change his mind. He stalled and stonewalled for three years, tenaciously keeping his promise, but finally caved in to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s lavish inducements.

Douglas Lummis, a former U.S. Marine and retired Tsuda College, Tokyo, professor now resident in Okinawa, recently wrote in the online journal Japan Focus, “It continues to amaze me that a person presented with the opportunity to become a hero whose name would be passed on in Okinawan culture for generations, would instead choose to be remembered as a liar and a turncoat.”

In mid-January 2014, Susumu Inamine was reelected as mayor of Nago, where the Henoko site is located. He campaigned on the promise of blocking the base project, thus attracting the attention of heavyweights in Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, who view him as a nuisance that needs to be sorted out.

These outsiders managed to get one of the two pro-base candidates to back out of the race — but they then doomed their own guy by crassly trampling on the city’s dignity.

LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba blew into town and dangled a ¥50 billion bonus, but only if the pro-base candidate was elected. Angry voters told him where to shove his carrot by reelecting Inamine. Not content to suborn democracy, the LDP also showed itself to be a poor loser, insisting after the setback that local opposition doesn’t matter.

Except that it does.

Henoko is a zombie project stumbling ahead only because it is pumped up with vast sums of money, but the voodoo doctors in Tokyo can’t silence local voices opposed to their plan. In 2013, a delegation representing the “Okinawan Consensus,” and drawn from all levels of government ranging from village councils to the prefectural assembly, formally demanded that the central government close Futenma and not relocate it anywhere in Okinawa.

Eager to curry favor with Washington and demonstrate that he is a reliable alliance partner, Abe is ignoring local opposition and treating Okinawans like sacrificial pawns.

In mid-January 2014, a poll conducted by the Ryukyu Shimpo daily newspaper found that 84 percent of islanders oppose the Henoko relocation plan — while only 9 percent favor this option.

By trampling on the will of the people, Abe puts Washington in an awkward position. Democracy is ostensibly one of the core common values of the alliance, but Abe’s machinations in Okinawa resemble old-school Chicago-style politics where satchels of moola are delivered in smoke-filled rooms. The LDP has embraced this cash-and-carry style of politics to the detriment of democracy.

The potentially ugly optics of imposing this zombie project on angry Okinawans, perhaps provoking violent confrontations, are enough to send U.S. officials scrambling for cover.

However, the Abe-dozer running roughshod over Okinawans and democracy seems to be a risk the prime minister is willing to take — but is Washington happy to go along, averting its eyes from the unpleasant spectacle?

The environment matters, and in our image-sensitive world, destroying a coral reef while threatening the habitat of the dugong is a hard sell, especially for a base that almost nobody wants and many actively oppose. Incidentally, it is also unnecessary.

The least-bad temporary solution still appears to be shifting Futenma to the massive Kadena Air Base to the south on Okinawa island, but intra-service rivalry is blocking this. In 2011, Sens. Carl Levin, Jim Webb and John McCain backed that plan, dismissing Henoko as “unrealistic, unworkable and unaffordable.”

Moreover, pushing this zombie plan carries considerable risks.

Mike Mochizuki, an influential Japan hand at George Washington University, notes that, “If the Japanese and U.S. governments will continue to stick to the charade that the coastal-landfill Henoko base will be built as planned . . . it could give rise to a stridently anti-U.S. base governor in Okinawa after Gov. Nakaima retires, and weaken Okinawan support for more strategically critical bases on Okinawa, like Kadena Air Base.”

Alliance managers take note.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

  • http://jonreinsch.wordpress.com/ Jon Reinsch

    I doubt we can hope for much from alliance managers in the U.S. unless they have a dramatically different worldview from those over at the Israel desk. When “friendly” governments engage in antidemocratic acts, or worse, the U.S. either tacitly approves or emits tut-tuts like “not helpful.” As long as allies comply with American dictates (and sometimes even when they don’t), the U.S. will cover for them, knowing that “the potentially ugly optics” will be tamped down by a mostly compliant press. This won’t change until we impose a cost on their hypocrisy by withholding our support when they cynically exploit the “soft power” of democracy and international law against their foes.