KOBE – The recent announcement by the government that the Henoko project would take at least another 10 years (thus, twice as long as originally stated) and cost three times as much exposed an inconvenient and dirty little secret.
Not that the two governments are very much incompetent in matters concerning Okinawa, which is not a secret after all, but that most people in the prefecture in fact do not truly desire a solution to the so-called Okinawa problem.
To be sure, some, particularly in the city of Ginowan, where U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma is located, certainly do, if they can even define what the “problem” is.
As I have long argued (see for example, “The Okinawa ‘Base Problem’ Today,” Nippon.com, February 2012, as an early example), there really is no Okinawa problem in the first place. It is a myth.
Futenma is neither the “most dangerous airfield in the world” (a quote attributed to former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld but denied by everyone who was with him that day in November 2003 when he visited Okinawa) nor the noisiest (I lived very close to it for seven years and still have my hearing and sanity). The introduction of the highly versatile, capable and quieter tilt-rotor MV-22B Ospreys beginning in October 2012 actually reduced the use of Futenma, rather than increasing the “burden.” Crimes by U.S. military members are not high relative to the local population (but seem to be rising, unfortunately), etc. The U.S. military contribution to the Okinawa economy is far more than the 3 to 5 percent usually cited. I could go on and on.
But counterintuitives aside, with the exception of those residents who, for whatever reason — pro- or anti-presence — desire a “solution” and thus, a removal of a friction point in or cancer on the bilateral relationship, there are very few individuals and groups who truly seek a resolution. If they did, the originally simple project could have been done a long time ago.
There is, in other words, a huge profit motive in the construction, and friction, continuing for most of the actors in this saga.
First are the construction companies, both local and mainland, who have made, and continue to make, an obscene amount of money, whether the construction moves forward or not, as contracts have been signed.
Second are the cement, gravel and fill suppliers, and barge, truck and equipment providers who transport the necessary items.
Third are the security companies, which through the lack of intellectual honesty on the part of the then-Defense Agency (that argued that building the runway on an existing U.S. facility would not require security because the fence would prevent protesters from disrupting construction), are doing quite well today.
Fourth are the insurance companies underwriting the project, who will continue to get paid regardless of progress.
Fifth, landowners at Futenma, many of whom expressed concern about the return of their property years ago leading to the land-payment extension law years ago, will continue to get paid, above market value, and even after the base no longer continues to exist for up to seven years.
Sixth, landowners at locations near Henoko, for related activities — parking lots, new buildings and restaurants, stores, etc., are loving life.
Seventh, the local media, especially the newspapers that have seen a dramatic decline in subscriptions, have a new lease on life by increasing their reporting on the opposition to the construction at Camp Schwab and partnering with the “Henoko Fund.”
Eighth, anti-base groups, also a dying breed, have kept alive the movement, including taking on an influx of the 1960 Anpo generation. It has led to a huge amount of donations, some of which have gone to the aforementioned Henoko Fund. Moreover, these activities have led to the birth of a new generation of politicians, locally in Nago and at the prefectural level. Indeed, Hiroji Yamashiro, the “leader” of the anti-construction movement, who was subsequently arrested on several occasions and charged, even skillfully used these anti-base activities to promote himself in his eventually unsuccessful run for the Upper House in 2010.
Ninth, academics who partner with the above group(s) will have more to write about.
Tenth, politicians from existing political parties have also used the renewed attention to maintain or enhance their presence. With the exception of the December 2012 election that gave rise to the second Abe administration, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito coalition has lost just about every gubernatorial and national-level race in Okinawa over the past decade.
Eleventh, bureaucrats in both governments and defense contractors are also guaranteed employment as long as the projects are in the works.
Finally, ironically (but not really), is the U.S. military, which can continue to use the infinitely better (90 meters above sea level for starters) and more strategically sound (a 2,740-meter runway allows the world’s largest aircraft to land and take off as necessary) Futenma indefinitely.
In my 20 years of interactions with the U.S. Marines, including seven years as their political adviser in Okinawa and prior to that in Hawaii, I have never met a single officer, ever, who thought Henoko was a good idea. Indeed, one former vice commandant on a visit to Okinawa, when discussing it with his Office of Secretary of Defense traveling companion, said, “John, you guys are on drugs.”
Let’s hope not. If they are, 40 years (the time from the original Special Action Committee on Okinawa agreement in 1996 until the likely and unfortunate closure of Futenma in the 2030s) is a long time to be addicted to an illegal substance.
I had hoped they would kick the habit long ago, and had so recommended a detailed plan (the Katsuren Proposal) that would have allowed them to get off the drugs in three years. The wise men of Washington (and Tokyo) chose otherwise, preferring the more expensive and toxic 40-year plan.
So I offer my congratulations to all dozen winners in the recent government announcement, although I think overall that the citizens and taxpayers of the two countries, including Okinawa, lose out most as the problem eats away at the bilateral relationship (alliance managers on the U.S. side decried the incompetence of Tokyo after the recent reports) and the relationship between Okinawa and the rest of the country.
Robert D. Eldridge is a visiting researcher at Okinawa International University.