Monday, October 19, 2009

Hot Button Henoko

Monday, Oct. 19, 2009
Opposition to Futenma move won't go away
Japan Times Staff writer

First of Two Parts

To understand why the stalled relocation of the U.S. Marines' Futenma air base is now arguably the most entrenched political problem facing the Japan-U.S. relationship, it's a good idea to sit for a long time on the warm beach of Henoko in northern Okinawa.

On this beach next to Camp Schwab, where plans call for a new facility to be built on reclaimed land, a group of local residents opposed to moving Futenma's functions here have set up a tent and are maintaining a protest vigil that has surpassed 2,000 days.

"It's our responsibility to ensure that the Henoko bay area, which is home to coral reefs and endangered dugong, remains pristine for our grandchildren. For peace and environmental reasons, the last thing Okinawa needs is another U.S. military base, especially here," said Hiroshi Ashitomi, cochair of a citizens' group opposing construction of the new facility and one of the leaders of the sit-in.

The 20 to 30 protesters a day who are usually at the camp on the turquoise bay are often joined by visitors from mainland Japan and abroad. Ashitomi and the others often provide briefings to university students on the social and environmental issues related to the relocation plan, explanations of why they are opposed, and reports on what local Okinawan media are saying about the building of the new base with two runways in a V-shape, a plan the governments of Japan and the United States agreed to in 2006.

While largely a friendly, uneventful camp-out, protesters have occasionally been roused to action. One of the more dramatic incidents was a confrontation last year on the bay and underwater when Japan Coast Guard divers tried to set up cameras on the seabed.

On June 18, 2008, when coast guard boats appeared and divers began setting up cameras and other equipment on the seabed, protesters donned wet suits and air tanks, jumped into small boats and kayaks, and went out to stop them.

Video taken by the protesters shows seven divers surrounding a lone protester underwater and the physical confrontation that followed, as well as a standoff on the surface between other coast guard boats and protesters.

The confrontation fortunately ended without serious injury. But the incident galvanized local political opposition to the Henoko plan. Exactly one month later, on July 18, the prefectural assembly, which had just been captured by the Democratic Party of Japan and other parties opposed to the Futenma plan, passed a resolution calling for the replacement facility to be built outside Okinawa.

Last year, Yukio Hatoyama visited Okinawa and said that if he became prime minister he would work to have Futenma relocated outside Japan. In autumn 2008, Seiji Maehara, now minister of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism and state minister for Okinawa and Northern Territories affairs, told supporters that advisers to Barack Obama had indicated to him earlier that year they were willing to reconsider the entire 2006 agreement if Obama became president.

Such comments by Hatoyama and Maehara raised expectations among Henoko opponents that an Obama presidency and a DPJ-led government would lead to the cancellation of the relocation plan.

By June 2009, an opinion poll conducted by the local Okinawa Times and the Asahi Shimbun showed 68 percent of Okinawa residents opposed relocating Futenma within the prefecture, against only 18 percent in favor.

Survey respondents who were opposed said relocating to Henoko would not reduce the overall burden of the U.S. bases in Okinawa, which hosts 75 percent of all U.S. bases in Japan, and would destroy the marine environment.

Those who approved said relocating to Henoko would get Futenma out of crowded Ginowan, in central Okinawa, and into an area where noise and other problems would be much less of an issue. Others said that in exchange for allowing the Henoko facility to be built, Tokyo would hopefully reward Okinawa with subsidies for local economic development.

In addition to the DPJ-led coalition taking power on the national level, local political opposition to the Henoko plan was further strengthened in the Aug. 30 election when all five winning candidates from Okinawa announced they would oppose funding for the Henoko facility and negotiate with the U.S. to have Futenma relocated outside of not just Okinawa but Japan.

The changed political landscape means the only prominent politician in Okinawa still talking about relocating Futenma within the prefecture is Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima. But Nakaima finds himself surrounded by those who disagree with him and faces a tough re-election campaign in November 2010, where his opponents will likely to be more organized and better financed than they were in 2006 when Nakaima faced a split opposition and won partially by telling voters that he didn't support the current plan.

Today, however, Nakaima is caught in a tug or war.

The combatants are those in the prefectural assembly and Tokyo who oppose a Henoko facility, the mayor and residents of Ginowan who are demanding Futenma close as early as possible, and members of his Liberal Democratic Party and base supporters.

The latter worry that if the opposition gets its way, the money the U.S. military on Okinawa contributes to the local economy in the form of employment of local residents, base land lease payments, personnel-related spending, and base-related contracts with local businesses, will dry up, leaving what is already one of Japan's poorest prefectures even worse off.

According to the prefecture, the economic impact of the U.S. military amounts to at least $2 billion annually.

Nakaima has dealt with the pressure, and accusations that he has caved in to Tokyo and Washington, by attempting to convince Okinawans that the Henoko base agreement is a done deal.

"Relocating outside of Okinawa Prefecture would be best. But we can't resist accepting relocation within the prefecture. However, the central government needs to come up with a plan for resolving the issue as quickly as possible," Nakaima told reporters in Naha last Tuesday, the day he released his opinions of an environmental impact assessment report on the Henoko plan.

A decision by Tokyo, however, will not come soon despite pressure from both the Okinawans and Washington, which is viewing with increasing concern the growing political opposition in Japan not only to the Futenma relocation plan but also extension of the Maritime Self-Defense Forces refueling mission in the Indian Ocean.

On Friday, Hatoyama said a final decision on the Futenma issue is unlikely before next summer.

"I think we will need a conclusion around the midpoint of the period between the Nago mayoral election and the Okinawa gubernatorial election," he said.

On the one hand, Hatoyama has said he wants Futenma to leave the prefecture.

On the other hand, the DPJ's manifesto for the recent Lower House election did not specifically commit the party to carrying out his promise, merely to "review the realignment of the bases and the way they should be," which those who oppose the Henoko plan fear gives him wiggle room to get out of his verbal promise, but those who hope for a compromise with the U.S. can be reached see as a possible way out of the current stalemate.

Publicly, the United States continues to insist that it wants to stick to the 2006 agreement and the current plans for the Henoko facility. But privately, American officials who deal with Japan and Okinawa say relocating to Henoko is so fraught with logistic problems there is no way the agreement can be carried out by 2014 even if the political opposition in Japan is somehow overcome.

Alternatives to Henoko have yet to be floated by high-ranking policymakers on either side. Years ago, there was talk among some outside policy experts about consolidating the marines now at Futenma with the adjacent Kadena air force base and relocating them farther south to Shimoji Island, where an airport with a 3,000-meter runway is located. The runway and airport are currently used primarily for commercial aviation training. But for political and operational reasons, such proposals were rejected.

Though next year marks the 50th anniversary of Japan's security treaty with the United States, with political pressure in Okinawa and the rest of Japan on the rise to relocate the Futenma replacement facility outside Japan, highly visible celebrations and public discussion may lead to more political headaches all around for both Tokyo and Washington.

"Some in the U.S. have recently been promoting, a little too loudly, 2010 as the 50th anniversary of the security treaty. Given the current political atmosphere in Tokyo and Okinawa, this is a mistake and may further strengthen opposition in Okinawa and to the Henoko facility," said one Japan-based U.S. government official, speaking anonymously.

In the meantime, the sit-in protest at Henoko continues. Protesters say they will take to their boats again if construction proceeds. But despite the recent political changes that appear to favor their cause, none of those camping out there are ready to declare victory.

"We've been here for more than 2,000 days and have heard lots of promises from politicians in Okinawa and Tokyo, none of which have panned out. While we are hopeful the Hatoyama government will eventually close Futenma and relocate it outside the prefecture, nobody expects that to happen soon," said Ashitomi.

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