Commentary / Japan

Vote highlights problems with Henoko plan

by Robert D. Eldridge.

Contributing Writer

As readers know, voters in Okinawa Prefecture went to the polls on Sunday to express their stance on the planned relocation of the functions of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to the waters offshore Camp Schwab, located in the Henoko district of the city of Nago. As expected, opponents won by a large majority (72.1 percent), adding a new level of political pressure to the central government as it tries to move forward with the problematic plan.

Indeed, the 434,273 voters who opposed the relocation actually numbered more than those who chose Denny Tamaki last Sept. 30 in the gubernatorial election held early due to his predecessor’s passing. This may be the most significant interpretation (among many important other aspects) of the results, which are legally nonbinding on the central government but obligate the governor to respect them and to relay them to the two governments.

This was the fifth referendum on bases in Japan (with four being held in Okinawa) to date. Four of the five have concerned U.S. facilities, and one (Yonaguni, in February 2015), dealt with the deployment of a Ground Self-Defense Coastal Observation Unit to the otherwise unprotected island. There will likely be more to follow.

Each referendum has been different, which brings an element of excitement to observers and uncertainty to the organizers. In contrast, the central government tends to denounce the validity of these referendums, even though the lack of transparency and accountability is often the very reason they tend to be held. Further, it argues that defense is the purview of the national government, but no such reference appears in the Constitution, and if it wants to truly correct this gap, it will need to revise Article 73 of the Constitution as well to include the phrase “defense matters” or “defense policy.”

Importantly, this was the first time that Okinawan voters across the entire prefecture had the opportunity to vote on the planned relocation. Residents of Nago participated in a December 1997 referendum, which divided the community almost equally (with opponents winning, albeit by only a relatively small margin). However, the vote at that time was limited to the residents of that city. The previous year, a first-ever vote on the bases had been held at the prefectural level, but the question was generic and not specifically about the Futenma relocation, which had not been finally decided upon then.

Nevertheless, voter turnout this time was relatively low, as conservatives, rather than embracing the referendum and using it as an opportunity to show their support for the government plan, criticized the effort to conduct the referendum in the first place, with many eventually boycotting it altogether as they did in 1996, and as others did in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, in 2006. As such, turnout was 52 percent, higher than in many elections, but lower than the original prefectural referendum which saw 59 percent turnout.

It was also lower than the 97 percent turnout in the Yonaguni referendum, when the supporters of the GSDF base proactively participated, essentially skillfully hijacking the effort and winning with 70 percent approval.

Some have argued the adding of the third response “neither” (“dochira demo nai”), which was done to ensure that the cities opposed to conducting the referendum would participate, was the reason for the lower turnout, but these comments have all come from conservative lawmakers and residents, and give the strong appearance of shifting the blame to the prefectural government rather than themselves.

Indeed, they may be becoming afraid that the boycott efforts, including rejection of the referendum altogether by the assemblies and mayors of five cities, will come back to bite them or their candidates in local elections this year and in the future. Shifting the blame is what Okinawa’s conservatives do best (an election defeat, in their mind, is not because of a lack of attractiveness of their policies or themselves, but because of an incident or accident by the U.S. military, for example).

Looking at the results more carefully on a municipality level, in most of the prefecture’s 41 cities, towns and villages, opposition to the relocation was three to six times higher than the support rate. Fourteen municipalities had somewhat close contests (which I expansively define as around twice as high), but in no case anyway near at all would the “neither” (even if among them they were entirely supportive of the plan) have tipped the scales in favor of the supporters. Their numbers were just too few, and by definition, they were uncertain of their view.

Even in the communities that had the “close” contests, the margin of victory for the opponents was relatively high. Of those, the lowest was on Kitadaito Island (which for a variety of reasons has completely different local socio-political dynamics than on the main island of Okinawa) at 1.397, and Yonaguni, which as mentioned above saw its own referendum on the deployment of GSDF forces there, at 1.581.

Ginowan, which hosts U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, was understandably one of the 14 communities where supporters of the relocation did better. But even then, it ranked third from bottom. In other words, while citizens there are more in favor of reverting Futenma within the prefecture than many other communities, the number of supporters was not as high as might be thought.

There are many reasons that people voted the way they did or chose not to vote altogether. This is true of regular elections as well, but the boycotts and the government’s failure to positively introduce the Henoko plan were largely responsible for the lower turnout by supporters.

I warned against this six months ago in these pages (“Okinawa referendum could bring clarity,” Aug. 19). Although I have long been a strong critic of the Henoko plan and have long offered a cheaper, quicker, more environmentally and community friendly, operationally stronger and strategically minded alternative called the Katsuren Concept, I had sincerely hoped the government would make its best case for it (in a transparent, intellectually honest and accountable manner) and that supporters of it would do their best to lend their ear and vote accordingly.

But to the best of my knowledge, the central government and the conservative parties did not prepare a public information campaign or encourage supporters to get involved. Instead, it and the U.S. government keep repeating the mantra, ad nauseam, that Henoko is the “best plan” and the “only viable one.” It is neither.

Nor is it “better.” It is the worst plan, plain and simple. The recent coming to light of the construction issues (a weak seabed requiring installation of more than 70,000 pilings) — known for decades — further proves that. It would be funny if it were not so tragic — the waste of precious tax dollars over the past 23 years (longer than it took for Okinawa itself to be reverted between 1952 and 1972), major destruction of the environment, and most unfortunate, the near irreparable damage to the political relationship between Okinawa Prefecture and the central government on the one hand, and between the three parties, including the United States, on the other.

Just like you would not want to build a castle out of sand, or a house out of cards, you don’t want to build the vitally important Futenma replacement facility on a pack of lies. The two governments are better than this. It should not have taken a referendum to show them that.

Robert D. Eldridge is the author of “The Origins of the Bilateral Okinawa Problem” and other works, and was the political adviser to the U.S. Marine Corps in Japan from 2009 to 2015.