Home > NEWSROOM TOKYO > Feature Reports > Okinawa Base Relocation Battle

Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



Mon.-Fri.  20:00 - 20:40 (JST)

Okinawa Base Relocation Battle

Jan. 26, 2016

A local election in Japan's southern prefecture of Okinawa has left the regional and central governments no closer to agreeing on plans to move a US air base. The two sides have filed law suits and are fighting it out in court.

The US Marine Corps Futenma Air Station is located in the city of Ginowan. Over the weekend, residents voted in a mayoral election that many see as a battle between the regional and central governments.

A main issue in the election was the central government's plan to move the US Futenma airbase.

The base takes up nearly 25% of the densely-populated city of Ginowan.

Aircraft fly at just over rooftop levels above nearby houses. Residents complain about the noise. There have been other problems, including accidents. People are worried there could be more.

Japan and the US agreed to move the base in 1996, and to return the land it sits on to the people of Okinawa.

"The Futenma Air Station site will be returned within 5 to 7 years."
Ryutaro Hashimoto / Former Japanese Prime Minister

Japanese officials announced plans for a replacement facility in another part of Okinawa, off the coast of Nago.

They also promised to reduce the size and number of bases to lessen the burden posed by the American military presence.

But in late 2014, Okinawa voters elected a new governor who opposes the plan.

"I won't allow a new base to be built in Okinawa."
Takeshi Onaga / Okinawa Governor

The governor has tried to bring the project to a halt. He revoked a permit granted by his predecessor.

The local and central governments have each filed lawsuits, and are fighting in court. They are now waiting for the justice system to present a decision.

On Sunday, people in Ginowan went to the polls to choose one of two candidates for Mayor.

The victory went to the incumbent Atsushi Sakima, who was recommended by the ruling Liberal Democratic and Komeito parties.

"The Futenma Air Station should be moved. I think my campaign message has been understood by residents here."
Atsushi Sakima / Ginowan Mayor

Sakima said the relocation of the base is a priority, but he would not say whether he supports the government's plan to keep the base in Okinawa. He took more than 27,000 votes.

His opponent, Keiichiro Shimura, received support from opposition parties and Okinawa's governor. He said the base should be moved outside the prefecture. He got over 21,000 votes.

The central government intends to continue working towards the planned relocation.

"We'll do everything we can to lessen the burden of hosting US bases in Okinawa Prefecture. We will also work for the relocation of the Futenma Air Station. We'll make efforts to eliminate any possible safety risks posed by the airbase."
Gen Nakatani / Japanese Defense Minister

Newsroom Tokyo anchors Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya are joined by Sotaro Watanabe of the NHK Okinawa bureau. He's been covering the local elections and developments in Okinawa closely.

Shibuya: In Okinawa’s last elections for governor and Lower House representatives, candidates backed by the ruling coalition lost. But this time, it’s different. What's behind this?

Watanabe: In his campaign, the winner Sakima pledged to put pressure on the central government to make sure the Futenma land is returned. He didn't mention the relocation plan in his campaign. He focused on removing the safety risk that locals face by hosting the facility. Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga backed Sakima's rival, Keiichiro Shimura. Shimura made it clear that he was opposed to the central government’s plan of moving the base within Okinawa. An NHK exit poll showed 57% of voters in Ginowan want the relocation even if it ends up following the central government's plan, while 43% are opposed.

Beppu: What do you mean by that? Are you saying that the voters leaned toward Sakima because they thought that a vote for Shimura would mean the base would remain in Ginowan?

Watanabe: I think it was a matter of choice of who can remove the risks sooner. Voters considered the option of moving the base within Okinawa over the ideal option for them of it being out of the prefecture.

Shibuya: How will the results affect the relocation?

Watanabe: Before the election, the central government said local elections wouldn't affect their plans because they called it a matter of national security. But it was alarming for officials to see candidates opposing their plan win in two local elections and a national one. The ruling national coalition put a lot of energy into campaigning for the Ginowan election they saw as a crucial race. A senior member of a governing party in Okinawa expressed hope that the results would turn the tide.

Beppu: What will Governor Onaga do now?

Watanabe: Onaga has been saying that all of Okinawa opposes the central government’s plan. But now that the candidate backed by Governor Onaga has lost, some of his supporters are concerned that his leadership will lose momentum. Some say his tactics must be reviewed. But many of his supporters think that the outcome of this election should not be regarded as a change in public opinion on the base issue. Governor Onaga says the results won't change his stance, and he’s expected to keep fighting in court to stop the reclamation of land at the planned site. There is also a possibility that public sentiment in Okinawa toward the central government could grow worse if Tokyo takes a tougher stance against Okinawa, by taking strong measures on the construction process of the facility, for example.

The Japanese and US governments have been pushing hard for the relocation of the base within Okinawa. We'll look at why there is such a large concentration of US military facilities in the prefecture.

Okinawa is located far south of Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost main island.

Though Okinawa accounts for just 1% of Japanese land, 74% of US military bases in Japan are concentrated there. To understand why, we have to look at the aftermath of World War II.

After the Peace Treaty with allied nations was signed in 1951 and came into effect the following year, Japan regained its independence.

On the mainland, there was growing opposition to the US military bases and the Japan-US Security Treaty. The return of the bases was promoted at the request of the Japanese government.

But Okinawa remained under the US occupation, and the bases only grew as the cold war escalated.

During the Vietnam War, Okinawa became an important strategic location for the US military.

There was growing dissatisfaction with the bases in Okinawa, and a movement was growing to return to Japanese administration.

Okinawa finally reverted to Japan in 1972. But after the reversion, little progress was made in the reorganization of US bases in Okinawa. The local burden remained unchanged.

In 1995, when a girl was raped by American soldiers, there was new impetus in the movement to return the US bases. Local sentiment was souring amid a continuous US military presence 50 years after the end of World War II.

The year after, the US government agreed to return the US Marine Corps Futenma Air Station to Japan.

The Japanese government, in consultation with the US government, has been working to implement measures intended to decrease the burden on Okinawa.

After an agreement to return several US facilities, parts of them have reverted to Japan.

But many bases remain concentrated in Okinawa. Bonji Ohara, a research fellow at The Tokyo Foundation and a former executive of the Japan Self-Defense Forces, explains.

“If you look at a map of the world, Asia is between the US and the Mediterranean, and Okinawa is the largest base in that area. For the US, the basic meaning of security is the ability to send its military anywhere in the world. In that sense, Okinawa is its most important location.”
Bonji Ohara / The Tokyo Foundation

Ohara goes on to talk about the strategic importance of the Futenma Base.

“For Japan, Futenma is crucial for stability in northeast Asia. In times of emergency, US Marines are the first troops to be dispatched. They are always ready for action. It would be very inconvenient if all the troops, including those at an air base, were not in the same place. By the same token, they should always take part in drills together to be prepared. Okinawa is the only option for the US Marines who must engage in routine drills while preparing for an emergency.”
Bonji Ohara / The Tokyo Foundation

According to Ohara, the US military presence on mainland Japan and Okinawa, and throughout Southeast Asia, helps to contain the Chinese military, which has been increasing its influence in the region.

“The Chinese military is concerned about the so-called first island chain, which starts in the Aleutian Islands and stretches to the Korean peninsula, Japan’s mainland, then from Okinawa and islands such as Taiwan and the Philippines, to Southeast Asia. In fact, America’s Navy and Air Force bases used to be in the Philippines. In that sense, these islands have long been home to American military bases and the bases of its allies, such as Japan and Korea. China thinks that those bases could become a chain, used to besiege the country. Of course, this is the US’s intention. If the Chinese Navy entered the Pacific Ocean, it would be very important to the US to have bases in this area, because they can monitor the Chinese Navy's activities in these waters.”
Bonji Ohara / The Tokyo Foundation

Beppu and Shibuya are joined by Professor Nobumasa Akiyama of Hitotsubashi University. He's a security expert and has been closely watching the developments in Okinawa.

Beppu: The relocation of the Futenma base is from the populous Ginowan city to a less-populated Henoko. Why are there people who are against this relocation?

Akiyama: This is actually a partial solution for the problem. Protesters say that the relocation must be planned to reduce the burden of Okinawa as a whole. So the relocation from Futenma to Henoko does not solve the problem of reducing the burden of the prefecture, so they want the relocation or closedown of Futenma, then move the bases or functions to the mainland of Japan, or overseas.

Beppu: Despite the opposition, the Japanese and US government say this is the best solution. Why does the US feel this way?

Akiyama: It's because of geopolitics in the region. Okinawa is located in an extremely important place in East Asian geopolitics. Rapid reaction capability of the Marines ensures the US will be able to respond to any contingency, including humanitarian disaster and conflicts involving armed forces. That kind of capability ensures US credibility of deterrence and commitment to regional stability.

Beppu: How about the Japanese government? Why does it think it's the best solution?

Akiyama: If the US committed to the defense of the region and stayed in Okinawa, it increases US determination to defend Japan. That means that if China and Japan are involved in armed conflict, the bases in Okinawa will possibly be the first targets to be attacked. Despite that, the US says it will stay in Okinawa. Staying in Okinawa gives the Japanese credibility that the US remains committed to the region.

Beppu: Everyone knows there's tension between Okinawa and Tokyo. What do you think is the key to making things move forward?

Akiyama: The key is engaging the local community to move forward with the plan to reduce the burden of Okinawa. Of course, the economy is important. But at the same time, the way the government proceeds with the relocation plan is important. It isn't enough to simply relocate from Futenma to Henoko. I think the government should move forward and enhance the process of returning the land that's occupied by US forces other than Futenma to the local community, and the government should work with the local community to plan for the economic growth of the local community.

Beppu: Are you saying that winning the legal battle is not enough for the government to end this controversy?

Akiyama: Yes, winning the legal battle isn't sufficient. Also, winning the election does not give a full endorsement to the Japanese government plan. Engaging the community, dialogue, and enhancing plans to return the land -- these are the keys.