Osaka group preps Kansai solution to Futenma base row

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

If a group of Osaka residents has its way, the U.S. Marine Corps base at Futenma in Okinawa may not end up in the northern part of the island, but in one of five spots in their prefecture.

The effort comes more than 20 years after the rape of an Okinawan schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen sparked calls to reduce the U.S. base presence. Over the past 15 years, three U.S. presidents and nine prime ministers, including Shinzo Abe (now taking his second swing), have failed to fulfill the bilateral agreement to replace U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, with a new base in Henoko, in Nago.

This is due to fierce local opposition that has only grown more intense since last November’s election of anti-base Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga, and a refusal by Tokyo and Washington to consider alternatives.

Onaga, Nago Mayor Susume Inamine and a majority of Okinawans oppose the Henoko plan. Onaga recently defied Abe by withdrawing permission, granted by his predecessor, for a related landfill project. A long series of court battles between Okinawa and Tokyo now appears inevitable. Meanwhile, tensions and clashes between anti-base protesters from Okinawa and elsewhere, and security forces from Tokyo and Okinawa are increasing.

To finally solve the problem, a small group of traditionally anti-base activists in Osaka has been calling for Futenma’s replacement airstrip to be built in Osaka. They hope to lighten Okinawa’s base-hosting burden and prevent an escalation of violence.

The group, consisting of about a dozen core members, is led by Aki Matsumoto, a 32-year-old woman who became involved with the Okinawa base issue during college. As years passed by without any resolution, she realized that Japanese in the rest of the country were not thinking about the base issue as their problem.

Pro-base and pro-security alliance Japanese were perfectly happy to voice their support for replacing the Futenma base, as long as nobody suggested its replacement be located in their quiet neighborhood, while anti-base protesters were not offering solutions. Caught in the middle were the Okinawans.

“The members of our group who are offering to bring Futenma to Osaka are people who have long years of experience opposing U.S. bases around Japan, starting with Okinawa. Within Japanese society, which approves of a discriminatory policy toward Okinawa, shouting ‘We don’t need bases anywhere’ will just lead to the bases in Okinawa remaining where they are,” Matsumoto said.

At present, Matsumoto and her group are thinking about five places in Osaka Prefecture where Futenma’s successor could be built. They include Kansai airport, Yao airport (a smaller facility used by the Self-Defense Forces), Yumeshima, an artificial island in the city of Osaka, Takatsuki, in the northern part of the prefecture, and Izumiotsu, a city on Osaka bay between Kansai airport and downtown Osaka.

At a recent seminar on how to persuade Osaka residents to host the base, Matsuno said that at this point, the discussion is just getting started.

The group’s goal and site suggestions, which include places where its members reside, have not yet been presented to government officials from either country, and the feasibility of each site still needs to be explored, she said.

“I know there are concerns about bringing an Okinawa base to Osaka. However, we have to bear in mind that we’ve been avoiding responsibility for what’s happening in Okinawa. Upon deciding to bring the base to Osaka, all Osakans can resolve various problems and concerns,” Matsumoto said.

A survey by the Cabinet Office earlier this year said 83 percent of the public believes the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty is useful for Japan’s peace and security, even as Okinawan media polls consistently show a clear majority of residents do not want the Futenma base to stay in their prefecture. A June survey by the Ryukyu Shimpo newspaper said that while 31 percent of residents want the base removed from Japan, about 22 percent were willing to see it moved to another prefecture.

Midori Ikeda, a professor at Otsuma Women’s University in Tokyo who studies Okinawa discrimination issues, noted that mainland Japanese tend to make excuses for keeping the bases in Okinawa, which just encourages further discrimination.

“People say the Okinawans have so many bases because they are too conciliatory, or that Okinawa is using them as a negotiating card to get more central government funding for local infrastructure projects,” Ikeda said. “But what we have now is a situation whereby peace activism and discrimination toward Okinawans exists side by side.”

The idea of shifting Futenma’s operations to Kansai is not new. In 2009, and then again in 2012, during a time when the Democratic Party of Japan was in power, Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto suggested Kansai airport could host the base. In addition, Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui said in September 2012 that Osaka Prefecture could host Futenma’s replacement. “We’re ready to accept the base,” Matsui said at the time.

However, Hashimoto and Matsui would later reverse their positions after the Liberal Democratic Party returned to power in December 2012.

The hurdles — political, economic, and logistical — of trading the Henoko plan for Osaka are daunting. Tokyo and Washington remain firmly committed to the plan. Politically influential businesses involved in its construction would create problems if the plan were dropped. Local opposition in Osaka would have to be overcome and — most importantly — any new site would have to meet the logistic requirements of the U.S. Marines.

In the past, Japanese officials in the ruling and opposition parties have also suggested Kyushu and Hokkaido as alternatives to Henoko.

Kyushu in particular remains a possibility. There is a U.S. Navy base at Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, and the Defense Ministry has just unveiled a plan that would deploy up to 70 Self-Defense Forces aircraft, including contentious V-22 Ospreys, at underused Saga airport.

In fact, there is already a group similar to Matsumoto’s in Fukuoka, which has proposed relocating Futenma’s operations there. Yet whatever the results of such efforts, it’s clear that some in Osaka who have long opposed building a new base in Okinawa believe it’s time for new, out-of-the-box thinking.

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