Pursue dialogue to resolve Henoko relocation standoff

The election of Denny Tamaki as the new governor of Okinawa Prefecture in Sunday’s election makes it likely that the protracted standoff between the national government and Okinawa over the relocation of the U.S. Marine’s Air Station Futenma to a new site in the prefecture will continue. Tamaki, a former opposition member of the Lower House, fought the campaign on the promise of carrying on the late former Gov. Takeshi Onaga’s opposition to the construction of a Futenma replacement facility in the Henoko area of Nago in northern Okinawa. A continuation of the bitter confrontation between the government and the prefecture that hosts a bulk of the U.S. military bases in this country is not desirable. Both the new governor and the national government should pursue dialogue to explore a way to resolve the standoff.

The Okinawa election was moved up after Onaga’s sudden death in August. Since being elected in 2014 on a platform of halting construction of the Futenma replacement facility in Henoko, Onaga sought to reverse the prefecture’s approval of the national government’s landfill work at the Henoko site that was given in 2013 by his predecessor, Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima. He maintained his opposition to the Henoko construction after losing a court battle with the government to invalidate the go-ahead for the landfill — until he died of cancer a few months before his four-year term was to end. Following his death, the prefecture withdrew its permission for the landfill on grounds of illegality in the procedure, again putting the construction work on hold.

Despite opposition from Okinawa Prefecture, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has reiterated that relocation to the site off the Henoko coast is the only solution to removing the dangers posed by the Futenma base — which is located in the middle of the residential area of the central Okinawa city of Ginowan — while maintaining the deterrence created by the presence of U.S. Marines in Okinawa — and went ahead with the construction. Onaga, meanwhile, maintained his opposition to the relocation to Henoko on the basis of the popular will in Okinawa as manifested in his 2014 election win. But as the standoff with the national government over the Futenma relocation issue became protracted, the incumbent mayor of Nago, who campaigned against the relocation to Henoko, was defeated by a candidate backed by Abe’s ruling coalition in February.

Tamaki’s victory in Sunday’s election over former Ginowan Mayor Atsushi Sakima, who was supported by the Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito coalition, thus comes as a political setback for Abe, who had just won a third three-year term as LDP president. Abe reportedly sought to settle the dispute over the Futenma relocation — which has dragged on for more than 20 years since the Japanese and U.S. governments agreed in 1996 to shut down the base within several years on the condition that a substitute facility was built in Okinawa — once and for all by winning the gubernatorial race.

The LDP staged an all-out campaign in support of Sakima by mobilizing Diet members and their aides in large numbers, and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga visited Okinawa three times in September alone. Komeito, which left it up to its members whom to vote in the 2014 race, endorsed Sakima in the latest election. Sakima, for his part, carefully avoided making the relocation to Henoko a key campaign issue to boost his chances of winning, focusing instead on an economic and welfare agenda.

The back-to-back victories of candidates opposing the construction of the Henoko facility in the Okinawa gubernatorial elections appear to make the popular will of local voters clear on the issue. Tamaki won a record 396,000 votes in Sunday’s election, eclipsing his main contender by 80,000 votes. However, popular will alone will not settle the dispute, as Onaga’s tenure showed.

Irrespective of the Okinawa election results, the government plans to forge ahead with the Henoko construction, likely entering yet another court battle with the prefecture to reverse its withdrawal of the permit for landfill work. Tamaki plans to maintain the prefecture’s withdrawal of the permit, while also weighing the option of holding a plebiscite, as proposed to the prefectural assembly, to hear the opinions of Okinawa voters on the Henoko construction and present the voters’ intent to the government.

Such an all-out confrontation will not resolve the standoff, just as constructing a new U.S. military facility by overriding local opposition will not contribute to the smooth operation of the Japan-U.S. security alliance and U.S. bases in Okinawa — which require the support and understanding of their host communities. Both the new governor and the national government should instead seek dialogue to explore a way out of the standoff.