The submission of the environmental assessment on Henoko in Okinawa sparked polarized reactions from the governments in Tokyo and Washington and the people of Okinawa, underscoring the gap in awareness over the contentious relocation of the Futenma air base.
Despite thunderous public outrage among Okinawa residents, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda had repeatedly expressed his intention to submit the report by the end of the year. And in the end, the Defense Ministry was unable to hand the report to the Okinawa Prefectural Government directly as planned and was forced to use the mail.
Pundits say Noda was adamant about submitting the report by Dec. 31 as a show of good faith to the United States. Amid the gridlock facing the Futenma plan, the U.S. Congress lost patience and recently decided to cut $150 million from the 2012 budget to move thousands of marines from Okinawa to Guam, which was a major part of the relocation package.
“The Futenma issue has been in a deadlock and has become a thorn between Japan and the U.S.,” said Fumiaki Kubo, a professor of political science at the University of Tokyo. “Japan wanted to submit the report to give consideration to the U.S. and show that it is making efforts one step at a time to resolve the issue.”
Ever since the Democratic Party of Japan took power in 2009, promising and failing to move the Futenma base out of Okinawa, the central government’s relationship has been rocky not only with the locals on the island but also the U.S. However, Kubo thinks bilateral ties have taken a turn for the better, as both sides have agreed to focus on other pressing matters, including the situation on the Korean Peninsula.
“Japan and the U.S. agreed that while Futenma is important, they will not let it affect other outstanding bilateral issues,” he said.
The experts, however, are unsure whether Japan’s submission of the report will have any impact on Congress to restore the funding.
Sheila Smith, a senior fellow for Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, stressed that regardless of the impact the assessment report may or may not have on Capitol Hill, Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima now has to reach a decision on the relocation plan.
“The time has come to make that decision. It is difficult to predict whether this will influence thinking on Capitol Hill. . . . Yet delaying the decision is not likely to be fruitful, and will only increase frustration all around,” Smith said.
Since taking office in 2006 with the backing of the pro-base business community and the Liberal Democratic Party, Nakaima has kept Tokyo and Washington guessing as to whether he will actually override local opposition and, with appropriate financial incentives from Tokyo, formally approve the Henoko plan.
Currently 41 Okinawan municipality heads, including 29 conservatives who say they support Japan’s alliance with the U.S., as well as the prefectural assembly are calling for Futenma to be relocated outside of Okinawa. Following the election last year of an antibase mayor in Nago, Nakaima appeared to switch his position by announcing that he too would seek to get Futenma out of the prefecture rather than relocated to Henoko.
However, many local construction and real estate firms, worried they will lose out if the construction in Henoko is canceled, have been meeting with pro-Henoko Diet members and local politicians over the past year in an attempt to put political pressure on Nakaima to go through with the plan, under certain conditions.
The result has been further comments from the governor that moving Futenma out of Okinawa would be the quickest option, even as he says building the replacement at Henoko is nearly impossible. To emphasize the point, Nakaima also told Washington policymakers in September that an “irreparable rift” in relations between Japan, Okinawa, and the U.S. would be the result of forceful construction of the Henoko base.
Nakaima’s statement over the weekend that Okinawa would be forced to accept the environmental assessment came just after the administration agreed to provide Okinawa with nearly ¥294 billion in support for fiscal 2012, a 27 percent increase over the roughly ¥230 billion Okinawa received this fiscal year.
This money is just the beginning. Okinawa is negotiating with Tokyo for a 10-year revitalization plan that would run until 2022. Thus, final approval from Nakaima for the Henoko relocation has become Okinawa’s strongest bargaining chip for negotiations over the new 10-year plan. As Okinawa media pointed out, the governor indicated only that he would accept the environmental assessment. He made no mention of whether he would approve the Henoko plan itself.
But if Nakaima is ready to accept the environmental assessment, base opponents and international environmental groups are not. Since at least 2003, activists have waged a campaign to stop the Henoko base due to environmental concerns. That year, a coalition of U.S. and Okinawan groups filed a lawsuit in a U.S. District Court in San Francisco against the U.S. Department of Defense, charging that the plans to construct the Henoko facility on reclaimed land would destroy the habitat of the endangered Okinawa dugong.
A marine mammal, the dugong is listed as a protected species under the Japanese Register of Cultural Properties. The animal is an ancient symbol of abundance and some Ryukyu legends hold the dugong is sent by the sea god to warn people of approaching tsunami.
“I would imagine the assessment will say there is no major impact on the dugong if the base is built. But we have to determine if the dugong would be driven away by noise in the waters due to the marines practicing beach landings at Camp Schwab and Japanese frogmen checking the surrounding seabed,” said Kunitoshi Sakurai, a member of the Okinawa Environmental Network, which is one of several organizations leading the fight to protect the mammal.
The 2003 lawsuit charged that the Defense Department failed to take into account the effect of the proposed Henoko facility on the dugong, something required under America’s National Historic Preservation Act. In 2008, the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered the Defense Department to submit additional information on what was needed to evaluate the impacts of a Futenma replacement facility on the dugong. But the scope of the ruling applied only to the U.S., not Japan.
Between 2003 and 2008, there were numerous clashes, sometimes physical, between local activists, who used canoes and kayaks to block central government attempts to do geological surveys. Their struggle attracted international attention, with groups like Greenpeace, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and WWF expressing support and offering assistance.
In 2009, Okinawa Prefecture called on the central government to carry out a survey of the dugong over a period of several years after it was learned that the Okinawa Defense Bureau cut the discovery of a dugong in Henoko Bay out of an official report. Tuesday’s assessment says the government is satisfying Okinawan demands by carrying out dugong surveys since 2009. The exact number of dugongs in the Henoko Bay area is unknown, with environmental activists saying there are up to 50 while some residents who support the base claim sightings are rare.
Ginowan mayor to quit
The mayor of Ginowan, which hosts the U.S. Futenma air field, has offered to step down due to health problems, according to city officials.
Takeshi Asato, 59, who was hospitalized in July for heart disease and underwent surgery in September, had been receiving treatment in hopes of resuming duties in February.
Deputy Mayor Seiei Komesu has been standing in for him.
Asato will soon submit a letter of resignation to the chairman of the Ginowan Municipal Assembly, which is expected to accept it in January, the city officials said Monday.
In November 2010, Asato won the mayoral election on the back of opposition to a Japan-U.S. agreement to relocate the Futenma facility within Okinawa Prefecture. He has called for the base to be moved abroad.
Former Ginowan Mayor Yoichi Iha and Atsushi Sakima, a member of the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly, are widely expected to run in the next mayoral election. Iha ran unsuccessfully for Okinawa governor in November 2010.