With ties between the central government and Okinawa improving under Gov. Keiichi Inamine, Okinawan municipalities have openly begun to use “base-for-money” tactics that are making Tokyo officials smile.
In a telephone interview with The Japan Times, Katsuhiro Yoshida, mayor of the central Okinawan town of Kin, said he will formally announce as early as this weekend his decision to accept the relocation of the U.S. Navy’s Sobe Communications Site into Camp Hansen in his town — a decision made in 1996 by Tokyo and Washington but never given local backing.
“Shortly after (an Okinawan schoolgirl) was raped (by three U.S. servicemen stationed in Okinawa) in 1995, the strong anti-U.S. military sentiment (in the prefecture) would not allow any more U.S. facilities to be built,” Yoshida said. “But I’ve seen our people gradually soften their attitudes.”
Yoshida said the factors behind his decision were the changes in the political atmosphere of Okinawa after Inamine was elected in November, the need to effectively utilize the military sites after their return, which requires financial aid from Tokyo, and urging by local businesses to accept relocation.
Following the town assembly’s adoption March 30 of a non-binding resolution to receive the Sobe Communications Site, the mayor visited Defense Agency Director General Hosei Norota and asked Tokyo for more economic aid should the town accept the U.S. facility, which once was a symbol of Okinawa’s resistance to the U.S. military presence.
In June 1996, the central government illegally occupied the Sobe site, which is locally dubbed “the elephant cage,” after a defiant landowner refused to sign a new lease with Tokyo after the previous one expired. Seeking a breakthrough, the government later drafted new legislation to effectively deprive landowners in Okinawa of their right to refuse such cooperation with Tokyo.
Norota told reporters in Tokyo that he has only praise for the recent moves in Okinawa, adding that the central government is prepared to reward Kin — a town of 10,000 — for finally saying yes to Tokyo’s request. “I reckon this move will lead to another, and that eventually it will have a positive effect on (the agreed relocation of) Futenma (Air Station) as well,” Norota said.
Officials from Washington and Tokyo agreed during a meeting of the Special Action Committee on Okinawa in 1996 to return part or all of the land being used by 11 U.S military installations in Okinawa. However, the plan has been deadlocked partly due to former Okinawan Gov. Masahide Ota’s persistent rejection to the condition of the SACO agreement that the same military functions must be maintained within the prefecture even after the relocations.
Now, Kin seems certain to be among the first Okinawan municipalities to receive financial assistance from Tokyo, which plans to provide a total of 2.15 billion yen annually for Okinawan towns cooperating with the SACO relocations. The SACO subsidy will continue for five years starting this month.
Just squeezing in under the deadline, three other Okinawan municipalities will also earn grants this year by accepting SACO-agreed items.
Ie-son, which hosts the Iejima Auxiliary Airfield, announced March 24 that it will accept U.S. parachute drills currently conducted at Yomitan Auxiliary Airfield, paving the way for the Yomitan facility’s return to Japan as agreed in the SACO framework.
By the end of March, the towns of Chatan and Kitanakagusuku agreed to accept the SACO-proposed integration of U.S. military housing at Camp Kuwae (Camp Lester) and Camp Zukeran (Camp Foster) in the southwestern part of the island.
Meanwhile, the nation’s poorest prefecture points out that the grants from Tokyo are not enough.