The Abe administration has stepped up its efforts to build a replacement facility for the U.S. Marine Corps’ Air Station Futenma located in central Okinawa. There have also been reports that law enforcement authorities have roughly handled people protesting the replacement plan. The forcefulness with which the national government is pushing forward with the the Futenma replacement base could harden the attitude of Okinawans who have expressed their opposition to construction of the new facility.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should not ignore the written opinion adopted in late January by the city assembly of Nago, where Henoko, the planned site of the replacement facility, is located. The opinion protested “excessive security” used against protesters in the area by the local police and the Japan Coast Guard, which has allegedly resulted in many injuries. It also called for an immediate halt to land reclamation work.
Abe should not dismiss the will of local voters, as recent elections show. By a margin of some 100,000 votes, Henoko plan opponent Takeshi Onaga beat incumbent Hirokazu Nakaima, who had approved the reclamation plan, in the November gubernatorial race. Then, in December’s Lower House election, candidates supporting Onaga’s position won in all four of the prefecture’s single-seat constituencies.
Last August, the national government launched the work to conduct geological surveys for the reclamation project that involved boring holes in the sea bed off Henoko. The work was suspended after mid-September due to bad weather caused by a typhoon, then was postponed further apparently to avoid having it affect the gubernatorial and Lower House elections.
To prepare for the resumption of seabed drilling, the government started work in mid-January to build a temporary quay. It brought in five large work barges, two of them fitted with cranes, to the area later in the month. The work barges were brought into the area one day after Onaga’s prefectural government had set up a committee of six experts to review whether Nakaima’s December 2013 decision to give the go-ahead on the reclamation work — which was an about-face from his position at his re-election in 2010 — was appropriate. This was also after Onaga had urged the coast guard and the Okinawa prefectural police to pay more attention to the safety of Henoko protesters. For example, this month the coast guard reportedly towed eight protesters in canoes 3 km out to sea and released them, forcing them to paddle back.
Three days after Abe’s Cabinet decided to spend ¥346 billion in fiscal 2014 to promote Okinawa’s economy — ¥50 billion more than in the previous year, then Gov. Nakaima had reversed his position of seeking the transfer of Futenma functions outside of Okinawa and had approved the national government’s plan for reclaiming waters off Henoko. The addition was an apparent quid pro quo for Nakaima’s support.
After Onaga spoiled Nakaima’s re-election bid in the November race, the Abe administration responded by deciding in early January to reduce Okinawa development spending in fiscal 2015 — the first such cut in five years — to ¥333.9 billion, for a decline of 4.6 percent from fiscal 2014. Last week, Abe and the Cabinet members concerned added insult to injury when they refused to meet with Onaga during his visit to Tokyo. Abe had similarly refused to meet Onaga in December.
These and other related developments will only exacerbate the distrust harbored by many Okinawans toward the Abe administration, and deepen the schism between Okinawa and Tokyo over the issue, which directly involves Japan’s security alliance with the United States.
The administration may think that moving forward on the Futenma relocation — which has made slow progress since the plan was initially floated in 1996 — contributes to stability of the Japan-U.S. alliance. But it should realize that smooth implementation of the relocation will be difficult given the strong local opposition. The administration’s current intransigent attitude could cause the situation to become even more serious. It should seriously consider alternative ways to resolving the Futenma issue.