Over the past couple of months, Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki, who was elected in September 2018 as an opponent of the planned relocation of the functions of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to the waters off Camp Schwab, has been calling through various forums for the re-examination of that decision and other matters concerning Okinawa.

One of those is through direct dialogue with the central government. The second is through a “SACO with Okinawa” process, with SACO being the name of the U.S.-Japan bilateral committee (Special Action Committee on Okinawa) formed in November 1995 with a one-year mandate to “reduce the burden on the people of Okinawa and thereby strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance,” and which recommended the relocation of Futenma to Henoko, which hosts Camp Schwab, in the first place.

While I am not sure about the prospects for success of such actions (in part because the selection of the proper individuals is key to create the right chemistry and results), in principle I support them because I believe that dialogue is very important, and the Japanese and U.S. governments can use them to make their respective cases if they believe in accountability.

As such, I have made similar proposals in my writings over the years, including that Okinawa and other communities that host U.S. bases be able to observe the Japan-U.S. Joint Committee meetings in which matters concerning those bases are discussed. Whether they should have the right to speak or directly influence a decision is another matter, but it is important to preserve transparency in any case.

A third forum that Tamaki is now promoting is the idea of a conference held in Okinawa at the Bankoku Shinryokan in Nago, which was the venue for the 2000 Group of Eight summit.

I am particularly happy to hear about this as I have been calling for an Okinawa conference since 2000, and most recently introduced it on Feb. 25, during my appearance on the TBS program “Hodo 1930” to discuss the results of the prefectural referendum held the day before and suggest a way forward from the mess the two governments and Okinawa have created.

During the commercial break, as I was explaining my recommendation, my fellow panelists and Koji Matsubara, the show’s host, were in a state of shock as none of them knew of my proposal even though I had written about it in some detail before, including in my 2016 memoirs about Okinawa (“Okinawaron: Zaiokinawa Kaiheitai Motokanbu no Kokuhaku”). Moreover, they were unfamiliar with the Kyoto Conference on Okinawa, the historically successful model that my proposal was based on, which had taken place exactly 50 years ago.

The participants in the January 1969 four-day gathering were primarily scholars and former officials with close ties to their respective governments. It is what is called “Track 2” diplomacy, in which the private sector and academia facilitates the discussions, but in this case I called it “Track 1.5” due to the proximity and sharing of information between the participants and their governments. They produced recommendations that were directly submitted to Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, and became the policy of the government in its negotiations with the United States on Okinawa’s reversion.

I first proposed the idea of a new conference in April 2000. At the time I was a postdoctoral fellow with the Suntory Foundation, having completed my dissertation, which became the double award-winning book, “The Origins of the Bilateral Okinawa Problem,” and was in between trips to Okinawa to do fieldwork for an article published in the August issue of the intellectual monthly Chuo Koron under the title “What Okinawa is Demanding and What is Demanded of Okinawa.”

To prepare the proposal, I met with a hero of mine long involved with Okinawan affairs, the late Ichiro Suetsugu, who served as the head of the secretariat in charge of the original conference to ask him how participants were chosen, how funds were raised, how the report was prepared and disseminated, and other technical and logistical matters.

I also met with representatives of the Okinawa Association (Okinawa Kyokai), which was then based in Tokyo and which had served in its previous incarnation (Assistance Association for Okinawa, Ogasawara, and the Northern Islands, or Nanpo Doho Engokai) prior to Okinawa’s reversion in 1972 as a semi-public organization to represent the interests of Okinawa, still under U.S. administration, in mainland Japan. It had been instrumental in the 1969 conference and I wanted the modern-day version of the association to be involved in hosting the conference as the secretariat, which they were happy to do.

We in turn spoke with former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto — a mentee of Sato who was particularly close with Okinawa and had pushed the Clinton administration to agree in early 1996 to the conditional return of Futenma — who offered to lend his support.

The conference was to be held not in Kyoto, but in Okinawa, shortly after the summit, at the same venue, to make full use of the energy and high-level attention being devoted to Okinawa at the time.

Instead of simply being an observer and guest presenter as it was in Kyoto, Okinawa would be the host. It would be conducted over four days. Day one would be devoted to reviewing the G8 summit and the significance of having held it in Okinawa. Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, U.S. Ambassador to Japan Thomas S. Foley and Gov. Ichiro Inamine would each make opening remarks and attend the first day. Day two would be devoted to the so-called base problem and economic matters. Day three would be about U.S.-Japan relations and regional security issues. Day four would discuss the future of Okinawa policy and U.S.-Japan-Okinawa relations for inclusion in the final report.

The key to all this, of course, came down to those selected to join — knowledgeable, insightful, open-minded, concerned and with influence. (Several of those we chose at the time have sadly since passed away.)

Unfortunately, when I brought the proposal to the Okinawa Prefectural Government, the governor showed no interest at all. Eventually, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun adopted the proposal and organized its own, presumably smaller, event. Okinawa’s failure to take advantage of the momentum at the time to move the dialogue forward was highly disappointing.

The time around the G8 summit in Okinawa was the high point of the Okinawa-U.S.-Japan relationship; since then, it has been in a steep downward spiral, as if both wings of the airplane have been removed.

Indeed, that may be an appropriate analogy. Whether officials from the two national governments wish to admit or not, there are at least three parties involved. To fly the plane, you are going to need your wings to be intact and your engines functioning. When a wing or engine is damaged or working at cross-purposes, you are going to have a tough time flying. The same can be said for the U.S.-Japan-Okinawa relationship. You need everyone aligned to move forward.

In this sense, considering the many years of lackadaisical conservative, nominally pro-base administrations in which little was done practically for the relationship on the one hand, and anti-base, opposed-to-everything administrations, which eroded the already dull relationship on the other, Tamaki’s effort to seize the initiative by calling 19 years later for a new Okinawa conference should be embraced, or at least tried.

Robert D. Eldridge is the author of “Post-Reversion Okinawa and U.S.-Japan Relations” and is a visiting researcher at the Institute of Okinawan Studies, Hosei University, and at the Okinawa Institute of Law and Politics, Okinawa International University.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.