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The long-stalled government attempt to find a new home for the U.S. Marine Futenma Air Station in Okinawa is coming back to life. The Okinawa Prefectural Government has apparently narrowed down the candidate sites to a couple of locations on the eastern shores of the main island. The government of Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi cannot hide its joy about the apparent progress, and Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine seems to feel that he has seen the light at the end of the tunnel — a quick payoff to Mr. Obuchi’s decision to host next year’s G8 summit in Okinawa. Or is it? Isn’t it a bit too facile for the government to think it has found the missing piece to the Futenma puzzle?

The first obstacle to a solution to the Futenma problem was removed late last year with the election of Mr. Inamine as Okinawa governor. Soon after taking office, Mr. Inamine put his stamp of authority on the prefectural government by forging a deal on the relocation of the Naha military port, another thorn in the side for the Okinawa people. Then came Mr. Obuchi’s decision on the G8 summit venue. In one stroke, the Obuchi government seems to have laid the groundwork for untying the Futenma knot; now they must fill in the details and shape a local consensus.

That script was played out in late July at the prime minister’s official residence when the heads of 10 municipalities from northern Okinawa assembled in the office of Chief Cabinet Secretary Tsutomu Nonaka, the minister in charge of Okinawa affairs, to lobby the government for funds to help the local economy. On the same day, as it turned out, U.S. Defense Secretary Richard Cohen also called at the prime minister’s official residence for talks with Mr. Obuchi. The two events were evidently unrelated, but Mr. Nonaka played his cards like a seasoned poker player. “We are facing an important period of time, and we may have to ask for your help on various issues,” Mr. Nonaka was said to have told his visitors from Okinawa. The language was suitably opaque, but the message was clear: The government wants a quid pro quo.

Mr. Obuchi, of course, was playing for high stakes when he gave the nod to Okinawa to host the G8 summit in Nago: clearing the war legacies of the 20th century as Japan moves into a new millennium. Futenma, obviously, is a vivid reminder of the enormity of the problem. Japan wants the base back, but despite an agreement by the top political leaders of the two countries, three and a half years have passed and there has been absolutely no movement at the local level.

There can be nothing more desirable than an early resolution of the Futenma impasse. Washington, too, has become impatient about the issue, pressing Japan to remove Futenma as a potential focus of media attention by the time U.S. President Bill Clinton and other world leaders descend on Okinawa. While ostensibly fending off U.S. pressure, the Obuchi government has used every informal channel to put the heat on Mr. Inamine.

However diplomatically unbecoming, outside pressure, once again, seems to work in Japan. The linkage between the G8 summit and the relocation of Futenma airfield becomes apparent with each passing day. Contrary to past public postures, more and more municipalities in northern Okinawa have expressed interest in playing host to a substitute heliport for the U.S. Marines. Last month, the municipal assembly of Ginowan, where the Futenma airfield is located, adopted a resolution accepting a relocation elsewhere in the prefecture. The logical next step would be the acceptance of an alternative site by another local authority, then a concurring resolution by the prefectural assembly, and finally approval by Mr. Inamine himself.

But for anyone with any knowledge about the complexity of base issues in Okinawa, that scenario has all the subtlety of a steamroller. As a matter of fact, Mr. Inamine himself underscored the complexity of the base issue last month when he presented a six-point request to the central government, asking for help on land use of the former U.S. military bases, government assistance to landlords who have leased land to the U.S. military and the issue of employment for Japanese base personnel. All these issues have remained unsettled in Okinawa since the United States handed the islands back to Japan 27 years ago.

The return of Futenma is an integral part of any comprehensive settlement of Japan’s World War II legacies. At a time when the issue of Futenma relocation seems to be moving forward, the government must act with all the precaution and prudence it can muster as it prepares the whole country for the 21st century.

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