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Fifty years ago this week, a seemingly minor matter was agreed to by the central government with a local authority that would have significant domestic and international repercussions.

That matter was the “Yara Memorandum (of Understanding),” an agreement between Chobyo Yara, then-chief executive of the government of the Ryukyu Islands, the predecessor to today’s Okinawa Prefectural Government (OPG), and the central government represented by Transportation Minister Kyoshiro Niwa and Sadanori Yamanaka, the director general of the Cabinet office and state minister, on the use of an airport with a 3,000-meter runway that was built in Okinawa and opened in May 1979.

Yara welcomed the construction of the airport because it would likely bring investment to the Miyako Island group, comprising Miyako, Shimoji (where the airport was built), neighboring Irabu and a few other smaller populated islands. However, he was under intense pressure from his leftist allies to oppose it, particularly those who thought the central government was intending for it to become a military base rather than for its stated purpose as a training airport for civilian airline pilots.

The need for the civilian training airport had first arisen in 1965 with the increase in commercial airline use. Japan did not have a domestic facility for its pilots to practice touch-and-go and other training required for commercial jet pilots in the modern age. As such, all of its pilots had to be trained in the United States, which was problematic economically for Japan at the time considering the unfavorable exchange rate.

Over the next few years, different domestic sites were studied, including several in Okinawa (whose eventual return was agreed to at a U.S.-Japan summit in November 1967). A decision was reached in 1968 that Shimoji Island was the best for several reasons, including the firmness of the ground beneath the potential site, the limited population and the lack of alternative use for the land. Official and public discussion of Shimoji’s designation was put off until after the first-ever public election of the governor in the fall of that year.

Yara first acted surprised about it when newspapers began reporting the choice in early 1969 after he took office. Of course, he knew about it beforehand and met with officials from Japan Air Lines and the transportation ministry. While there was solid local support, there was also fierce criticism and agitation from outside activists (a dynamic quite similar to today at Henoko in Nago City). Anti-construction groups and labor unions even staged sit-ins in and around the governor’s office.

Opposition was centered on three main issues — compensation for farmers, concern over noise pollution and safety (a B-52 crash at Kadena Air Base had occurred right after Yara’s election touching off massive anti-base protests) and the fear that airport would be shared with the Self-Defense Forces and/or utilized by the U.S. military. This last issue was emphasized in a March 26, 1971, resolution by the Ryukyu legislature (the predecessor to the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly) that demanded “the airport will definitely not be used for military purposes.”

The first issue was negotiable, the second one dealt with by stringent rules and regulations and public education. The third issue was based on distrust and was the most divisive locally.

For budgetary and other reasons, the central government was under pressure to move quickly on construction. In August 1971, Yara, attending a national governors association meeting in Tokyo, decided to use the occasion to get the agreement, in writing, of the central government on the third issue and approached Yamanaka, who had a soft spot for Okinawa and would later serve as the first director general of the Okinawa Development Agency. Yamanaka spoke with Niwa, who quickly agreed, and with Naomi Nishimura, the director general of the Defense Agency who was against it in principle but later reluctantly agreed.

Yara prepared a letter on Aug. 13, which stated: (1) The government of the Ryukyu Islands (now, OPG) is to own and manage the airport; (2) The GRI (OPG) would decide the way in which it was used; (3) The ministry of transportation has no intention to use the airport for anything other than a training airport for civilian airline pilots and commercial flights, and does not have the authority to order the manager of the airport (i.e., the GRI or later OPG) to make the airport available for any other purpose than the aforementioned ones.

According to his diary, Yara brought the letter with him to Tokyo, meeting with Yamanaka, who had been a student at the school Yara taught at before the war, on the 15th and Niwa on the 16th. The two officially responded to Yara in letter form on the 17th stating that they had “no disagreement” with the request. Yamanaka spoke with authority, having met with Prime Minister Eisaku Sato who confirmed his support of Yamanaka’s approach.

In April 1979, as the construction neared completion, then conservative Gov. Junji Nishime sent a confirmation letter to the government, which added that other than “lifesaving or emergency landings that cannot be avoided, the airport will be managed and operated for the use by civilian aircraft.”

Despite local efforts over the years (2001 and 2005 in particular) to invite the SDF to use or deploy aircraft there, the OPG has continued to resist, citing the “Yara Memorandum.” Further, whenever the U.S. military has used the airfield for refueling on the way to exercises or to respond to the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami, the OPG has strongly opposed it and withheld even the minimal amount of cooperation. The local media always strongly lends its support behind the OPG’s unfortunate lack of cooperation.

The need for refueling at Shimoji has been reduced with the introduction in 2012-2013 of the MV-22 Ospreys, with their long flight range and ability to be refueled in mid-air. The need for an SDF presence, in contrast, at Shimoji has only increased in light of Chinese naval and air force activity close-by in the Senkaku Islands and other neighboring parts.

Shimoji is much closer to the Senkakus than the existing Air Self-Defense Force base at Naha, from which fighter jets must scramble against intrusions — taking time, fuel and a toll on pilots and the aircraft. An MSDF presence of reconnaissance aircraft as well as the highly versatile US-2 amphibious plane for search-and-rescue, reconnaissance and transportation missions is also highly desirable.

Indeed, the SDF has no organic inter-island transportation capabilities in the Sakishima Island group of Miyako, Ishigaki, or Yonaguni, and the US-2 can also handle that mission as well.

Clearly, circumstances are different today compared to 1971. Support for the SDF in Okinawa is high. Further, the threat that the People’s Republic of China now poses, with its sending of ships, submarines and aircraft through the Miyako Strait, did not exist 50 years ago. Miyako fishermen, moreover, are prevented from fishing in their own waters due to fears about Chinese attacks and harassment. There are also local calls to make the huge Shimojishima Airport, which can easily be expanded to include a second parallel 3,000-meter runway, a regional disaster hub.

These are not excuses, but reasons, serious reasons to reconsider the outdated Yara Memo and stance of the prefectural assembly. I hope too that the Japanese government begins the coordination as soon as possible as little time is left before a fait accompli is undertaken toward the nearby Senkaku Islands by Beijing.

Presence means position — the ability to influence outcomes (or prevent other potentially harmful situations) by being there. Even Yara, who was a leftist — but highly practical — governor, would recognize that if he were with us today.

Robert D. Eldridge is a former tenured associate professor of U.S.-Japan relations at Osaka University and the former political adviser to the U.S. Marine Corps in Japan. He is the author of numerous books, including “Okinawa and the U.S. Marine Corps” (Reed International, 2019).

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