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Following the tragic rape of a 12-year old Okinawa school girl by three U.S. servicemen in 1995, Secretary of Defense William Perry, perhaps the most respected member of President Bill Clinton’s Cabinet, invited former Ambassadors Mike Mansfield and Richard L. Armitage to have lunch with him and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Perry, an eminently decent man, was distraught by the tragedy and sought advice of two senior Americans trusted by many Japanese.

Both of them urged Perry to act decisively to show his deep concern over the incident while not doing anything to jeopardize the U.S.-Japan security relationship vital to both countries. Their suggestion was consideration of returning to Japan the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station, located in the middle of an Okinawan city, if a suitable replacement for the base, which is essential to U.S. Seventh Fleet operational readiness, could be found.

Perry appreciated the suggestion of these two experts and asked Armitage, a Republican with an influential network among the U.S. foreign policy and military communities, for help in overcoming opposition Perry knew would be forthcoming, especially from the uniformed U.S. military, to any such proposal. Armitage, a dedicated patriot and an empathetic father, responded in a positive and bipartisan fashion.

After much behind-the-scenes discussions in the United States and Japan and after an extensive bilateral negotiation process, the U.S.-Japan Special Action Committee on Okinawa stated in its final report in December 1996 that Futenma’s Seventh Fleet helicopters would be relocated to an alternative site in a sea-based heliport off the east coast of the main island of Okinawa. It was anticipated that a period of five to seven years would be necessary to achieve this objective.

Almost four years later some progress has been made, but the move of the Futenma helicopters has become mired in local Japanese politics. No clear plan of action has been approved in Tokyo to implement the SACO recommendations. A consortium of mainland Japanese shipbuilding and steel companies has formulated plans for two different sea-based heliports off Henoko village in Nago City, Okinawa, but some Okinawan construction companies have floated a competing proposal for a landfill project in Henoko or elsewhere, arguing that the sea-based proposal would help mainland companies as opposed to local firms.

Last month the Okinawa Prefectural Government hinted that it wants the new sea-based heliport to be built at Nago to include an adjacent aircraft maintenance facility built onshore that would attract business from Japanese and other Asian airlines.

Although I have no contractual connection to any of the Japanese (mainland or Okinawan) or U.S. companies interested in the sea-based or landfill proposals, I did visit Nago City and Henoko village in the summer of 1998 to speak about U.S.-Japan security issues. I was very surprised by what I experienced.

The city of Nago consists of eastern and western parts separated by some fairly rugged mountains. Most of the population of Nago lives in the western part. Henoko is a small village is in the east, and the Camp Schwab U.S. Marine Corps base is adjacent to Henoko.

From 8 to 10 p.m. on a July evening I met in a non-air-conditioned, screened-in room just off the beach with a group of Henoko village officials, fishermen, school teachers and local businessmen. Most of the attendants looked as though they had just come from work, and we sat around the table drinking Okinawan beer from cans.

One of the village officials thanked me very much for coming to Henoko. He said that Japanese government officials and even Okinawa Prefecture officials rarely visited there. He said the people living in Henoko felt very isolated, that their views were not reflected in the Okinawan press, and that they could not get good information from those newspapers. He said it was difficult for the villagers to get reliable information. He said that the only credible reliable source the villagers had was “from our friends,” the U.S. Marines at Camp Schwab.

The village official continued, saying that he thought he reflected the views of the people of the village who felt that the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty was essential to the safety of all of Japan, and especially of Okinawa. And he said they would like to think it is very important for the U.S. as well. He said the villagers knew of a proposal to build a floating runway off Henoko which, if it came to be, would cause them some inconvenience. But he said that the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty was so important that, if building that runway would help ensure the continuity and vitality of the alliance, then the villagers of Henoko would consider it their duty and their honor to support that decision.

Since that time I have learned about the sea-based heliport proposal that the Henoko group to which I spoke said would be most acceptable to the local people because it would be built 3 km from the shore allowing local fishing activities to continue with minimal interruption. To my astonishment I discovered that this proposal would not only allow Futenma’s helicopters to be relocated, but the facility is large and stable enough to allow the U.S. Army’s Naha Port and the U.S. Marine Corps’ Makiminato Service Area (Camp Kinzer) to be relocated to the same sea-based facility as well.

If U.S. bases at Futenma, Naha and Kinzer were consolidated off Henoko, and the adjacent landfill aircraft maintenance facility were constructed there as well, a sleepy village with an economy based on fishing and local commerce would be transformed into a high-technology employment center following a huge construction project in which local as well as mainland companies would necessarily play a large role.

Of course the cost for the government of Japan of such a venture would be large, and it is likely that the U.S. military opposition that greeted the idea of relocating only Futenma would be repeated. But if the government of Okinawa commits firmly to support such an ambitious plan, it seems to me it would be very hard for either Tokyo or Washington to fail to support it because it satisfies local concerns as well as meets SACO requirements.

Near the end of my discussion with the villagers of Henoko in 1998, a fisherman with a very ruddy complexion, which was reflective of many years of hard work on the sea, asked me if I would give him my personal opinion of then Okinawa Gov. Masahide Ota’s call for the a removal of all U.S. forces from Okinawa within 10 to 15 years. I replied that I could not of course speak for Ota; however, I really wondered if he sincerely believed that, if the U.S. did withdraw all of its forces from Okinawa as well as its support from Taiwan, if Taiwan’s democratically elected government would continue and if Okinawa’s Senkaku Islands would be more secure. This hearty, strong-looking fisherman looked me squarely in the eyes and said, “We would lose our lives; please don’t leave Okinawa.”

I told the villagers I met that I have rarely met any group in Japan or in the U.S. that impressed me more by their appreciation of, and dedication to the goals of peace and stability provided by the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. I told them that I thought Yokosuka was the most important U.S. base in the mainland of Japan, but I told them that I really felt my heart belonged in my first duty station in the navy — Sasebo, an old navy town that appreciates the U.S. and Japanese navies. I said that in Okinawa, I thought that Kadena was the single most strategically important base, but from that night, I had to think that Henoko village might be the Sasebo of Okinawa. Several of the persons there seemed to cry to hear those words.

I felt my heart belonged in Henoko that night because those villagers expressed exactly the same regard for the value of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty that I feel.

I sincerely hope that, following the Okinawa summit, the Japanese government will take the patriotism and aspirations of these local people who are most effected into account in making a decision which will reward and revitalize Henoko and preserve the capability of the U.S.-Japan alliance to provide peace and prosperity in the Pacific century.

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