In the middle of March, the Chunichi Shimbun published a survey of average people’s opinions of the U.S.-Japan defense alliance. Seventy-eight percent of the respondents said they thought the alliance was either very important or mostly necessary. In addition, 59 percent felt the alliance was OK the way it is, while 38 percent said it should be reviewed, especially with regard to Okinawa, which hosts 75 percent of the U.S. military personnel stationed in Japan. Among this group there was a variety of responses to the problem of the Futenma air base, with about 60 percent saying it should be moved out of Okinawa. However, only about a fifth of these people thought it should be put somewhere else in Japan. In a different survey conducted by Livedoor News, 71 percent said they would strongly oppose any base being built in their prefectures.
These results point to a major problem facing Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, which continues to dither about Futenma. Hatoyama’s indecision may bring down his administration, maybe even the party itself, but his indecision mirrors the general population’s lack of understanding of what it wants. The people seem reconciled to the prospect of being eternally under the military umbrella of the United States, but they’d prefer that someone else host all those American soldiers. And while they sympathize with the people of Okinawa for having a disproportionate burden in this regard, they don’t know what to do about it.
It is difficult to say how much of this irresolute stance has been fostered by the media, but in an interview in the April 16 issue of Kinyobi, Okinawa Prefecture assemblyman Yonekichi Shinzato complained about the difference between local coverage and national coverage of the Futenma issue. Local reporters concentrate on the opinions of local residents, while the national media always frames the Okinawa base controversy in terms of the larger issue of national and regional security.
Such a distinction seems natural given the respective audiences of the two media camps. But by qualifying the local angle, the national media renders Okinawans’ concerns as being merely one aspect of the issue, when it should be the focus. Shinzato mentions a Yomiuri Shimbun article from last fall that cited a South Korean newspaper’s support for keeping Futenma in Okinawa because it strengthened U.S. capabilities for defending South Korea from an expanding Chinese military and North Korean missiles after the U.S. cut troop numbers in South Korea by a third. In the same article, the opinions of “experts” were all predicated on the idea that U.S. bases belonged in Okinawa and that the island is geographically ideal in terms of U.S. deterrence. Because no one challenges this premise, it’s easy for the rest of Japan to ignore the protestations of Okinawans.
Shinzato points out that U.S. bases in South Korea, not to mention the Philippines, have been closed due to strong local opposition that was supported by the general population of those countries. Local opposition to bases in Okinawa is just as strong, but there is no support from other Japanese, who tend to believe that hosting the U.S. military is the price Japan pays for having lost World War II. The U.S. is obviously sensitive to such public opinion, since it has charged the Japanese government with gaining the approval of locals for any base relocations.
Consequently, the proposal to move some of Futenma’s functions to the island of Tokunoshima has been characterized as a PR disaster. Because of the residents’ relatively low average income, it was hoped they’d welcome the so-called economic benefits of a U.S. base, an angle the national media always exaggerates. Every mainstream news outlet interviewed the same cram school owner, who seems to be the only business person who would welcome the base. But half the island’s population showed up at a rally to oppose it. What was Hatoyama thinking? The Asahi Shimbun speculates that maybe it was simply a scheme to show Okinawans that he was at least trying to move the base somewhere else.
The Tokunoshima situation shows the danger of not having a clear policy. In its manifesto, the DPJ promised to “put lives first” and rethink the base situation in Okinawa. In order to do that, however, it must first rethink Japan’s security alliance with the U.S., which has not changed for 50 years. The DPJ did not have a consistent policy with regard to the alliance because of the wide range of ideological positions within the party, and that policy has become even more incoherent with the addition of coalition partners who have their own views on the subject. “You have to know what you’re going to do about the alliance first,” Shinzato said. “But all they are doing is talking about where to put the base.”
This doesn’t mean Okinawans want the Hatoyama administration to fall. The previous Liberal Democratic Party government chose the Okinawan city of Nago for the relocation against the will of its residents, and the DPJ told them they’d do something about it. They want Hatoyama to abide by his promise to take at least some of the burden off of Okinawa, so they are not as obsessive about the end-of-May deadline for a decision as the mainstream media is. International relations scholar Jitsuro Terashima, who advised late Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto in 1997 when he discussed the Futenma relocation with the U.S., has said that the DPJ should give itself time to renegotiate a new agreement.
Okinawans are willing to give Hatoyama that time if he sincerely acts with their interests in mind, but as their DPJ Upper House Rep. Shokichi Kina told the Asahi Shimbun, if he decides to keep the Futenma base in Okinawa, they will do everything in their power to destroy him.