After nearly a decade of stalling and prevarication over the replacement of Futenma Air Station in Okinawa, a solution has finally emerged from the dusty halls of power in Kasumigaseki and Washington.
Last week, the two governments agreed to relocate Futenma’s chopper base to the Marines Camp Schwab in Nago.
Tokyo had initially supported Washington’s preferred option: a joint civil-military airport off the coast of Henoko village at an estimated cost of 330 billion yen — footed by the Japanese taxpayer.
The deal, reached after virtually no consultation with the people who will host the base, was hailed worldwide as removing a “major obstacle” to the “crucial” U.S.-Japan alliance and greeted by an almost audible sigh of relief in Washington.
Japan is a close ally in America’s “war on terror” and the U.S. considers Okinawa, which is within striking distance of China and North Korea, a vital military linchpin amid a major realignment of its global forces.
The wrangling over the relocation, which was sparked by angry demonstrations following the rape of a 12-year-old girl by two marines and a sailor in 1995, had clearly irritated the White House and is believed responsible for the cancellation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s Japan trip earlier this month.
The cancellation concentrated bureaucratic minds ahead of a visit by President George W. Bush in mid-November, which may indeed have been its purpose.
Several Japanese newspapers said last week’s decision was prompted mainly by a rethink over the “environmental impact” of the base on pristine coral reefs off Henoko, home to the endangered dugong.
But there is every reason to believe that the real reason was a remarkably effective campaign of grassroots protest.
In June 2004, a small group began demonstrating against test drilling for the construction of the base.
The protesters set up camp on a roadside close to the beach at Henoko, blocking government surveyors. When the surveyors tried approaching from the sea, the demonstrators took to canoes or scaled construction scaffolding to obstruct them.
The group was joined in spirit and sometimes in body by dozens of international organizations campaigning on antiwar and environmental issues, including Greenpeace International and American NGO Earthjustice.
Several civil lawsuits were also filed, including one against the U.S. Defense Department.
But its core remained, and remains, a relatively small number of determined elderly people.
The demonstrations have been grueling and occasionally dangerous but remain a model of nonviolent protest.
“There is absolutely no doubt that this protest has forced the reconsideration of the base,” says Okinawa councilor Shoichi Chibana.
Now comes more news to surely gladden the hearts of antibase campaigners like Chibana.
Last weekend the U.S. announced the transfer of 7,000 marines from Okinawa to Guam, almost halving the current number of 15,000.
This appears to meet a 2002 pledge by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to reduce the U.S. military burden on Okinawa, which reluctantly hosts about 75 percent of all U.S. military facilities in Japan, and reject the recommendations of a recent congressional report by the Overseas Bases Commission that said current U.S. troop levels in the prefecture should be maintained.
The report said: “Diminishing our combat capability on the island would pose great risk to our national interests in the region.”
Despite the troop-cut and the Henoko climb-down, however, protesters say that they are furious that the base is going to be built in Okinawa at all.
Many are suspicious of U.S. promises and said that the move to Camp Schwab would still mean construction would take place up to the shoreline.
“Tokyo and America just completely take us for granted. If they want a new base, why don’t they build it on the mainland or outside Japan altogether?” asked one of the leaders, Osamu Taira. “The only reason that they foist it on us is because they know we are small and powerless.”
One activist said the world had been “suckered” by the agreement.
“All this is doing is moving the base from A to B, and remember: wherever it is built, we will have to pay for it,” said Teruko Kuwae. “The agreement doesn’t deal with our demand that the U.S. military leave here.”
Kuwae says she does not believe the promise to reduce troop levels. “We don’t know what goes on inside the bases or how many people are inside. And even if they do reduce troops, they are upgrading weapons systems and that will make this an even more dangerous place to live.”
The military mandarins in Tokyo and Washington are unlikely of course to lose any sleep over the opinions of “hardliners” like Kuwae, Chibana and Taira, but there are other signs that they may be in for a rough ride over the Futenma replacement.
After a lull, Okinawa is seeing another spike in tensions between locals and the military.
Last summer, a U.S. helicopter crashed into densely populated Ginowan next to the base, touching off the largest antibase demonstrations since 1996.
Two months later, an Okinawa Times-Asahi Shinbun survey indicated that 81 percent of Okinawans opposed the building of the new heliport; the antibase protests were hugely popular and widely covered in the local press.
Perhaps the most worrying omen of trouble to come, however, is the political trajectory of Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine.
Once enthusiastically backed by the Liberal Democrats as a moderate alternative to the antibase Masahide Ota, who he replaced in 1998, Inamine increasingly sounds little different to many of the angry people he represents.
On Thursday after the base deal was announced he told the press: “It is completely incompatible with (Okinawa’s) demand for a relocation outside the prefecture.”
Privately he is said to be furious at the “high-handed” decision.
If an essentially conservative politician like Inamine has been transformed by his proximity to the beleaguered Okinawans into an antibase warrior, what of the rest of the people there?
Tokyo has promised Washington it will sell last week’s deal, presumably using the troop-reductions as a sweetener.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the government has factored in the implacable hostility of campaigners like Rev. Taira Natsume, who has been standing with the Henoko protestors for 18 months.
“We will go on until all the bases are gone from here,” says Taira.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.