In a one-page summary of a report on Japan-U.S. relations submitted to the U.S. Congress in mid-February, the Congressional Research Service said “U.S.-Japan defense cooperation has improved” under the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, citing such developments as enactment of “controversial security legislation” and updating of the bilateral defense cooperation guidelines. The summary also noted that “concerns remain about the implementation of an agreement to relocate the controversial Futenma base in Okinawa due to opposition from the local population.”

The simple fact that a short summary of a 43-page report dealing with overall relations mentioned the planned relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma — from a populated area of Ginowan in southern Okinawa Island to the Henoko area of Nago in the northern part of the island — points to awareness on the part of U.S. congressional researchers that the issue, if mishandled, could severely hinder bilateral relations. About two weeks earlier, Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga, visiting Washington, told some U.S. lawmakers that the Futenma relocation to Henoko could take 15 to 20 years since 70 to 80 percent of the people in Okinawa oppose it. The researchers may have taken Onaga’s words seriously.

Both the Japanese and U.S. governments should not neglect a warning the report gives in its main text: that the “risk remains that heavy-handed actions by Tokyo or Washington could lead to more intense anti-base protests.” It cautioned that some Okinawan anti-base citizens’ groups “may take extreme measures” to stop the Henoko construction. Before such a scenario becomes reality, both governments should soberly consider whether their current approach to the Futenma dispute is appropriate.

The confrontation continues between the national government and Okinawa Prefecture. In their meeting in Washington in February, Abe and President Donald Trump agreed that building a substitute facility at Henoko is the only solution to the dangers posed by the Futenma base to local residents. Onaga, who was elected in 2014 on a promise of halting the Henoko project, wants Futenma’s military functions moved out of Okinawa altogether. But the Abe administration is forging ahead with the project after resuming construction upon the Supreme Court decision in December that annulled Onaga’s revocation of the permit that his predecessor gave in 2013 for land reclamation work in the Henoko area.

Other developments have helped intensify the confrontation between Okinawa and the national government. In December, the United States returned to Japan about 4,000 hectares of land that made up about half of the Northern Training Area in Okinawa. But Onaga boycotted the national government-sponsored ceremony to celebrate the return, attending instead a gathering to protest the crash earlier in the month of an MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft from the Futenma base on a reef near the coast of Nago. A quid pro quo for the partial return of the Northern Training Area is the construction of six circular helipads, each 75 meters in diameter, inside the remaining area for Osprey aircraft as well as conventional helicopters. It was the largest land return in Okinawa since the prefecture’s 1972 reversion to Japanese control. However, about 70 percent of facilities solely used by the U.S. forces in Japan remains concentrated in Okinawa, which accounts for less than 1 percent of the nation’s territory.

Both the Japanese and U.S. governments should keep in mind that the heavy U.S. military presence, coupled with accidents and crimes involving the U.S. forces and its personnel, are behind the local residents’ opposition to the construction of the Futenma replacement facility in Henoko. Near the new helipad construction site, the faceoff between anti-base protesters and guards continues. There is a danger that as the helipad construction goes forward, actions by protesters and responses by the national government will escalate.

One episode that is deepening Okinawans’ resentment is a series of arrests in October and November of antiwar activist Hiroji Yamashiro, his continuing detention and subsequent indictment. While all the charges are for minor offenses, like placing concrete blocks outside Camp Schwab in January 2016, he is denied visits by anyone other than his lawyers. The actions against him could be viewed as aimed at suppressing his activities and intimidating anti-base protesters. Even the Supreme Court in late February rejected a plea for his release on bail — an act that could trigger a perception among local people that the national government and the judiciary discriminate against Okinawans.

The situation in Okinawa is far from desirable. Both the Japanese and U.S. governments should not underestimate the possibility that their callous attitude toward Okinawa, as demonstrated by the dismissal of local opinions on the Futenma relocation issue, could ignite their long-simmering resentment, leading to actions that damage Japan-U.S. bilateral ties as well as relations between Okinawa and the national government.

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