In early August, it appeared Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga might use his authority to cancel permission for the central government’s landfill work on a U.S. facility in Henoko, where personnel from the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma are supposed to be relocated.
Before Onaga could make a formal announcement, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga declared a one-month halt to the project for discussions.
The pause marked the latest twist in the two-decade standoff between Okinawa, Tokyo and Washington over the Futenma base and what to do with it.
What does the problem stem from?
Okinawans say the origin of the problem lies in the period from 1945 to 1972, when Okinawa was a military protectorate of the United States and the land the Futenma base sits on was appropriated without local consent.
However, the current dispute over the Henoko facility is most directly traceable to September 1995 after two U.S. Marines and a U.S. Navy corpsman kidnapped and raped a 12 year old girl.
The incident sparked massive anti-base protests and some measure of international outrage. It forced the U.S. and Japan to begin a formal process of reducing the U.S. military presence in Okinawa.
What led to Henoko?
Although many in Okinawa wanted the Futenma base, in crowded Ginowan, closed and the Marines relocated out of the prefecture, Tokyo and Washington insisted on keeping them on the island as part of the overall U.S. strategy to defend Japan under the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty.
A couple of months after the rape, the U.S. and Japan formed the Special Action Committee on Okinawa, which was tasked with finding ways to realign, consolidate and reduce the number of U.S. military bases there.
The committee’s final report in December 1996 noted three alternatives had been explored for a Futenma replacement facility: incorporating the helicopter operations at the adjacent U.S. Air Force Kadena air base; constructing a helicopter base at Camp Schwab in Henoko, northern Okinawa; and constructing a sea-based facility. The report also said Futenma would be returned within five to seven years “after adequate replacement facilities are completed and operational.”
A long, contentious and convoluted decision-making process followed, with the result being a decision to build an airstrip with two runways in a V-shaped pattern next to Camp Schwab. The runways would extend offshore, thus requiring landfill.
How did Okinawa react?
Opposition existed among most Okinawans, but politically things were more complicated. In the city of Nago, where Henoko is located, there were those who supported the move if it meant more central government subsidies.
In December 1997, Nago held a referendum on whether to accept the base, with the majority of voters rejecting the facility. Less than a week later, Tetusya Higa, Nago mayor at the time, who favored the base, ignored the referendum, announced that he would accept the Henoko replacement facility, and resigned.
A couple of months later, Okinawa Gov. Masahide Ota announced that he would not accept it. Two days after that, Takeo Kishimoto, who had argued that the helicopter base would help boost the economy, narrowly won the Nago mayoral election, which had a voter turnout of 82 percent.
What has happened since?
Successive agreements were concluded between the U.S. and Japan to stick to the Henoko relocation plan, particularly one in 2006, even as the political situation in Nago and in the governor’s office grew ever more confusing.
Through the years, local media polls have consistently shown a majority of Okinawans oppose the Henoko relocation plan. But various Nago mayors and Okinawa governors often made their exact public position unclear, partially as a negotiation tactic to ensure continued central government funding for various Okinawa-related construction projects, including a second runway at Naha airport.
In late 2009, the anti-base faction was emboldened when the Democratic Party of Japan’s Yukio Hatoyama, who became prime minister, said he wanted to discuss other options for relocation.
In early 2010, Susumu Inamine was elected Nago mayor, defeating the pro-Henoko incumbent on a ticket of opposition to relocation. Later that year, Hirokazu Nakaima, who was seeking re-election as governor, promised to seek Futenma’s relocation outside the prefecture. But pressure on Okinawa by Tokyo to accept the Henoko project remained intense and grew further after the Liberal Democratic Party returned to power in 2012.
Nakaima submitted various demands to Tokyo, including the closure of Futenma within five years. In late 2013, he reversed his position and agreed to approve a central government landfill application related to Henoko. Tokyo also agreed to provide at least ¥300 billion annually in funding for non-Henoko Okinawa public works projects until 2022.
Nakaima was severely criticized for his decision. Naha Mayor Takeshi Onaga, who served as Nakaima’s campaign manager in 2010, broke ranks, cobbled together a broad coalition of those who opposed the Henoko project, and defeated Nakaima in the November 2014 gubernatorial election.
What happens next?
Onaga and officials of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet are discussing the issue but remain at odds.
The one-month halt announced by Suga expires on Sept. 9. After meeting with Onaga in Okinawa on Saturday, Suga indicated the talks are unlikely to be extended after that date.
Onaga could still formally cancel permission for the offshore work, which would ratchet up tensions even further between Tokyo and Okinawa. Or, despite what Suga said, both sides could agree to resume discussions.
As to the possibility of the Henoko project being canceled, Tokyo and Washington insist that the plan remains the only viable option — nearly two decades after it was proposed. Canceling it would involve finding another site, one that meets U.S. Marines’ logistical requirements and that would secure local acceptance.
It is unlikely the U.S. could consider any new proposal until after the November 2016 presidential election, meaning that barring a breakthrough, Henoko appears likely to remain the official choice for a while longer.