Henoko residents harbor hopes and fears about new U.S. air base


NAGO, Okinawa Pref. — People in the Henoko district of Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, have mixed feelings about the planned relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to their shores.

They worry about noise pollution and the danger of accidents but at the same time keenly feel economic measures are necessary to revive the depopulated area’s fortunes.

They meanwhile expect little from new Prime Minister Nato Kan and his Cabinet, which replaced the Yukio Hatoyama administration that stepped down last week, smarting from a failed effort to resolve the base relocation row.

Most people asked Tuesday by The Japan Times to comment on the new administration declined to give their full name, disinclined to publicly comment on the politically sensitive issue out of fear of upsetting their neighbors.

“It’s better if the base isn’t moved here. But if it’s coming anyway, we want the (new government) to offer some economic measures to help the local economy,” said a 40-year-old unemployed construction worker.

He said many Henoko residents are construction workers and they hope the base relocation will bring jobs along with it.

“The economy here is very severe. I don’t have a job and almost feel I want to start drinking sake during the daytime,” he said.

A local mother who identified herself only by her first name, Etsuko, said she opposes the base relocation plan. But if it is inevitable, she wants the new government to give sufficient compensation to each household and prioritize benefits for Henoko residents before reaching out to people in Nago, Tokyo or Washington.

“We are in a dilemma. I have children and I’m worried about their future,” she said. “I’m wondering which is better, if the base will come or not. Maybe the demerits outweigh the merits.”

Kosuke Asato, 19, said he doesn’t want the base moved here because of the terrible noise pollution it would bring. Before moving to Henoko, he lived close to the Futenma air base in Ginowan, from which huge helicopters frequently rattled the densely populated area.

“I’m opposed to the relocation plan. But many other people in Henoko are not necessarily opposed to it,” he said.

Asato said Henoko is one of the few places in Okinawa where some local residents are willing to accept a new U.S. base, and he believes the government will follow through on its plan.

“If there is any place in Okinawa that can accept the relocation, I think it would be here,” he said. “I don’t think the government can start over and choose a new place. It would be too tough.”

A 40-year-old woman who was born and grew up in Henoko declined to give her name because her parents don’t want her to talk about the base issue in this small divided community.

She said she opposes the relocation, saying the construction would destroy the rich coastal beauty and wouldn’t benefit her children and later generations.

Unlike Hatoyama, who hails from a blue-blood political family, Kan was an ordinary citizen before becoming a politician, a reason she thinks he may be an improvement.

But Kan has already agreed with the U.S. government to push for the relocation plan, and changing it would be a very tough mission for any prime minister, she said.

“I feel politicians (in Tokyo) are very very far away from us. Kan may be a little better than Hatoyama, but I don’t expect much from him,” she said. “If the prime minister changes every year, whoever assumes the office won’t be taken seriously by other countries.”