POINT OF VIEW/ Manabu Sato: Okinawa does not need new U.S. military bases
SPECIAL TO THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
Okinawa is in the midst of political struggles on many fronts. The central issue is Tokyo's plan to construct a U.S. Marines base in the Henoko district of Nago city.
On the surface, there appears to be a conflict between Tokyo and the Liberal Democratic Party-backed governor of Okinawa and the Nago mayor over the final location of the new base.
The governor and the mayor both won elections last year with campaign promises to oppose the base plan "as it is," in order to make the base issue less salient in their elections. But they never intended to refuse the construction of a new base. It is obvious that some insignificant compromises will be made to build a massive base with two runways and a military port.
The real battle to stop the base construction altogether has been carried out by civic groups. The groups have been engaged in a nonviolent and direct-action campaign in Henoko since 2004.
Currently, Tokyo is forcing preparatory work for the construction, as well as the related construction of several Marines helipads in the northern forests in Takae, Higashi Village. While there is little objection from the local governments, the civic groups are actively opposed to these plans.
Keiko Itokazu, an independent candidate backed by all of the major opposition parties, easily won the Okinawa Prefecture seat in the Upper House election in July over her opponent, an LDP incumbent. The opposition parties had lost three critical elections in a row, thus this was a crucial victory for those opposed to further militarization of Okinawa.
Had they lost this election despite the favorable political conditions, the anti-base opponents may never win an important election in Okinawa. However, it remains to be seen if the latest election is an anomaly or the beginning of a new political trend.
The favorable political conditions include not only national issues like pension and political scandals, but also issues specific to Okinawa. These issues have never received intensive national media coverage, but they matter greatly to the people of Okinawa.
In March, the education ministry issued an order to delete references to the Japanese military's involvement in the forced mass civilian suicides at the end of the Battle of Okinawa from a high school history textbook. This has become such an emotional issue that a large-scale protest rally is planned in September, which even the LDP-backed governor has decided to participate in.
In May, the Defense Ministry sent a minesweeper vessel to offshore Henoko to intimidate opposition activities. This action was extremely insensitive to Okinawa, where Japanese military did much harm to the civilian population during World War II.
The Henoko base is supposed to be a replacement for the dangerous Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, but it will be a totally different attack base with many more capabilities. Tokyo is determined to push the project through to simply satisfy the U.S. military.
The Japanese government began a so-called preliminary survey for environmental assessment by drilling sensors and other devices into the coral reef.
Since the construction site is not finalized and the types of aircraft using the new base have not been revealed, this cannot be a legitimate environmental assessment, according to Japanese law. Nevertheless, Tokyo is continuing the operation.
The dispatch of the minesweeper represented a decisive departure from postwar practice of the Self-Defense Forces. This was the first time the SDF was used in a domestic political situation.
The SDF dispatch to Henoko violated laws and political precedents, and it could open the door to future use of SDF in any political conflict in Japan. However, this incident never caught national attention, either.
Many other incidents have infuriated Okinawa people, but their feelings have seldom registered in recent elections until the latest one. After the huge 1995 anti-U.S. military base rally following the gang rape of a schoolgirl by U.S. Marines, Tokyo has flooded Okinawa with construction money.
While the political machine of public works has been losing electoral effectiveness in other parts of Japan, Okinawa, especially the northern region, has become more dependent on such pork-barrel projects. Many Okinawans have become conditioned to believe that they cannot live without U.S. bases and they expect to receive "extraordinary" financial treatment forever.
With the enactment of a law to facilitate U.S. military realignment in Japan, Tokyo can now use the financial carrots and sticks more directly to make local governments do its will.
The new helipads under construction in Takae will form a vast jungle training field in conjunction with the new Henoko base. The Marines will love this, but this has nothing to do with the security of Japan or Okinawa.
Marines in the jungle training will not defend Japan from the assumed future threats from China. This plan is aimed strictly at pleasing the U.S. military, particularly the Marines. In addition, Japan will spend more than $6 billion (about 700 billion yen) to renovate a huge U.S. military complex in Guam.
When the Guam facility is completed in a few years, most of the Marines in Okinawa will move there. Guam is a far superior strategic location for U.S. forces in the Pacific than Okinawa, which is too close to China and Taiwan.
Okinawa's usefulness as a strategic point will decrease, yet Okinawa will be burdened with new bases and new jungle training fields with a false expectation of the money attached. Okinawa should wake up now and keep its land in its own hands.
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The author is a professor of political science at Okinawa International University.(IHT/Asahi: September 7,2007)