The Abe administration does not appear intent in seeking the support of Okinawans as it pushes for building a new facility in the prefecture to relocate U.S. Marine Air Station Futenma. The government this week started seabed drilling in waters off the Henoko district of Nago for reclamation work to build the Futenma replacement airstrip.
Coming less than three months before the Okinawa gubernatorial race in November, in which the incumbent who gave the go-ahead for the reclamation faces an uphill battle amid local opposition, the move raised speculation that the administration was rushing to set the work in motion before local voters have a chance to express their will on the divisive relocation issue.
Relocation of the Futenma facility in the densely populated city of Ginowan, central Okinawa, has been a pending issue since 1996. Local opposition to construction of a new U.S. military facility within Okinawa to replace Futenma — which they say would not result in net reduction of their U.S. base burden — has prevented the project from moving forward.
The government may think that further stalemate in the relocation as agreed on with Washington could affect the security alliance with the United States.
However, it should realize that a lack of trust by the people of Okinawa — who host the bulk of the U.S. military presence in Japan — in central government policy on base issues could shake the very foundations of the alliance.
The drilling off Henoko to examine the strength and geographical conditions of the seabed started on Monday after the government set up restricted areas to prevent protesters from approaching the site on boats and thwart the operation.
The government had to give up an earlier attempt a decade ago to drill at the site after fierce protests from opponents. Protesters this time vocally demonstrated against the work from outside the restricted areas and in other parts of the prefecture.
Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, who called for the relocation of the Futenma base to outside of Okinawa when he was re-elected in 2010, gave the go-ahead for the national government’s reclamation plan off Henoko last December after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promised at least ¥300 billion in government spending every year through fiscal 2021 to promote Okinawa’s economy.
The governor came under severe criticism from local residents for the turnaround, with the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly adopting an opposition-led resolution urging him to step down.
In the Nago mayoral election held in January, the incumbent Susumu Inamine, who opposes Futenma’s relocation to Henoko, defeated a candidate backed by Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party. Inamine has vowed to do everything within his powers as mayor to block the reclamation work.
A survey held in April by local daily Ryukyu Shimpo showed that opposition to the relocation within Okinawa lingers among nearly three-quarters of the people of Okinawa.
Nakaima, who is seeking a third-term as governor in the November election, faces the challenge of rival candidates including Naha Mayor Takeshi Onaga, who formerly served as secretary general of the LDP’s Okinawa chapter and opposes the relocation to Henoko.
An earlier survey by the LDP on local voters reportedly showed that Onaga would lead the race over Nakaima. The Abe administration might be worried that Nakaima’s possible loss could again set back the Futenma relocation, although Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has said the government will steadily move the work in Henoko forward irrespective of the outcome of the November election.
By pushing ahead with the seabed drilling off Henoko just a few months before the poll, it almost looks as if the Abe administration is saying it will not count popular will as a factor in whether to proceed with the Futenma relocation per the agreement with the U.S.
The project has not moved forward for nearly two decades as the local opinions remained sharply divided. A high-handed approach without sufficient efforts to win the support of local residents could further complicate matters and stall progress on the issue.