OSAKA — On April 12, 1996, Okinawa Gov. Masahide Ota was meeting with prefectural officials when Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto telephoned with big news.

“It’s been decided that Futenma will be returned. However, a replacement facility will probably be necessary. Please cooperate,” Hashimoto told Ota. The governor, however, told Hashimoto he’d have to discuss the issue with other prefectural officials.

“U.S. Ambassador Walter Mondale is coming in five minutes. There’s no time,” Hashimoto replied. When Ota said he would not cooperate where he could not, Hashimoto said that, as Ota spoke English, he could tell Mondale that himself.

A few minutes later, the governor received a call from Mondale and merely thanked him for agreeing to return Futenma. Afterward, Hashimoto and Mondale announced the agreement, unaware they’d begun a process that more than 13 years later remains unresolved and is now a full-blown bilateral political snafu.

The saga of Futenma is one of misunderstandings, poor communication, bureaucratic rivalries, opportunistic politicians and business leaders, indifferent central government bureaucrats and deep opposition among Okinawans, critics say. In addition, arrogance on the part of U.S. officials, especially former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the architect of a 2006 agreement, has been blamed by many Okinawans and Americans for making a bad problem worse.

To break the impasse, Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada has floated the idea of integrating Futenma into Kadena Air Base in central Okinawa instead of straddling a cape near Nago. But the idea is nothing new.

It was, in fact, originally suggested by Japan back in 1996 during negotiations with the U.S, while the Americans offered unused land within the Kadena Ammunition Storage Area. Both ideas were nixed when the U.S. side opposed relocating to Kadena Air Base due to operational and safety concerns, as well as the bureaucratic rivalries between the air force at Kadena and the marines at Futenma.

Residents living near the base and munitions area also vigorously opposed the plans. After the prefectural assembly passed a resolution later in 1996 opposing Futenma’s relocation within the prefecture, Kadena was no longer an option.

Other alternatives surfaced during bilateral negotiations in the mid-1990s. One was to fill in a sea area west of the city of Urasoe, south of Futenma. It was close to Camp Zukeran, where many marines live, and the waters were shallow.

The U.S., however, objected, saying that because it was on Okinawa’s western coast, it couldn’t easily be defended. Nakagusuku Bay, off the marines’ White Beach Training Area, was also considered, but Ota opposed that plan, saying it would interfere with commercial development plans.

But Camp Schwab, farther north on Okinawa Island, was mentioned by both the U.S. and Japan as a possible location.

By November 1996, the sea off Camp Schwab emerged as a preferred location, even though Nago passed a unanimous resolution opposing an offshore airstrip. A month later, the U.S. and Japan released a “final” report that called for pursuing a sea-based facility to absorb the operational functions of Futenma, construction of a 1,300-meter runway, and for the current Futenma facility to be returned by 2003 at the latest.

The report did not specify an exact location for a replacement facility but said it was to be located off the east coast of Okinawa, so Nago was clearly in the running.

Despite considerable opposition, many Nago businesspeople favored the project. They presented their own plan, which called for a heliport to be built on reclaimed land with more local workers and participation by local construction firms. This, they told Tokyo, was the only way to overcome the opposition.

Nago seemed to be the best option for the U.S. and Japan, but local politicians in Okinawa fiercely opposed the move.

A nonbinding plebiscite was held in December 1997 in which 52 percent of Nago voters said no to an offshore heliport. Three days later, Nago’s mayor met Hashimoto, told him he was ignoring the plebiscite, accepted the heliport, and then announced he would step down.

Two months later, a candidate in favor of the heliport won the mayoral election by a mere 1,100 votes. But Okinawa Gov. Ota rejected the heliport, creating distrust in Tokyo and Washington and further straining relations between Okinawa and the central government. The governor has the authority to approve the land fill necessary for the heliport, and thus can halt the entire relocation plan.

Ota, however, was replaced in the 1998 election by Keiichi Inamine, who convinced voters he could break the impasse between Tokyo and Okinawa and bring economic prosperity if local firms benefited from the construction of the new facility and nearby residents were not affected by the noise.

Inamine proposed a facility to be shared by the U.S. military and commercial airlines and a 15-year time limit on the facility, both of which were opposed by the U.S.

Yet Washington understood Inamine was the only candidate who might get a replacement facility built. Then U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen gave Inamine’s campaign a boost by saying the U.S. would review the heliport proposal if the central and prefectural governments agreed on an alternative.

Pressure from Tokyo and Washington on Inamine to fulfill the 1996 agreement grew after he took office. So he put together a study group of potential sites, although critics would later question just how serious he considered other locations. In September 1999, Inamine announced that the area off Nago was the best alternative.

As a carrot, the central and prefectural governments promised a ¥100 billion economic stimulus package for northern Okinawa Island. Not long afterward, Nago passed a resolution accepting a relocation facility, although what kind of facility would be built had not been decided.

Despite all of the political maneuvering and promises of money, opposition to relocation within the prefecture remained strong, and no further progress was made, creating concern in Washington when George W. Bush became president in 2000.

By 2003, the year by which Futenma was originally supposed to have been relocated, the U.S. Defense Department under Rumsfeld was drawing up plans for a major force realignment in Asia.

Negotiations between Japan and the U.S. eventually produced a comprehensive realignment agreement in 2006, the centerpiece of which was the relocation of Futenma to the cape near Nago in the Henoko district, where Camp Schwab is located, by 2014 in exchange for transferring 8,000 marines and their dependents, who at the time numbered around 9,000, to Guam.

To the shock and dismay of Okinawans, the agreement called for a previously unheard-of two runways in a V pattern and a facility to be built partially offshore but closer to land than the prefecture or Nago wanted. It would not be a joint civilian-military facility or have a time limit.

The plan was roundly criticized by all sectors of Okinawan society, while many marines on Okinawa privately said it was unworkable and simply stiffened local opposition.

Inamine was replaced by Hirokazu Nakaima in the November 2006 election. Nakaima campaigned by saying he opposed Tokyo’s plans for the facility. But he later began qualifying his statements and by this fall had reversed his position completely, calling acceptance of the Henoko replacement facility inevitable.

Despite ongoing talks over the past three years and widespread local opposition to the Henoko plan, neither Tokyo nor Washington had offered any major concessions by the time the U.S. elected Barack Obama as president last November. Throughout the negotiation process, Washington had been dealing with a Liberal Democratic Party-ruled government in Tokyo. All of that changed in August.

Now, Washington faces resistance not only in Okinawa, where the prefectural assembly is in the hands of opponents belonging to the new force in power, the Democratic Party of Japan, but also among Diet members from Okinawa who are also calling for Futenma to be relocated outside of the prefecture.

In Tokyo, key DPJ figure Yukio Hatoyama told Okinawans in 2008 that he favored moving Futenma out of the prefecture. Now the prime minister, he has said that no decision on Futenma will be made before Obama arrives and that he wants to get the opinion of the Okinawan people on the issue.

But what Hatoyama may be trying to do now is to do away with the 13-year-old history of negotiations between the U.S., Japan and Okinawa, start from scratch and possibly come up with a new agreement in a couple of months, which critics say is impossible.

As Obama arrives in Japan, he finds no realistic alternatives on Futenma’s relocation on the table, and growing warnings that Japan’s relationship with the U.S. is now under pressure.

As one U.S. State Department official in Japan recently joked, Obama might show he’s worthy of his recent Nobel Peace Prize by steering the Futenma issue to a successful conclusion, although successful for who remains an open question.

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