The government on April 25 started building a seawall off the coast of Henoko in the city of Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, the planned relocation site of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.
The work began in blatant disregard of opposition from the Okinawa prefectural government and many citizens.
Unlike past construction work on land or the placement of flotation devices on the sea, the building of a seawall around the planned reclamation site entails filling the water with massive volumes of rocks and sand. If the work continues, it will be difficult to restore the area to its original state.
The Henoko relocation project has entered a crossroads.
The very principles of our nation’s democracy and local autonomy are being tested.
STARTING POINT WAS TO EASE BURDENS
The central government stresses the necessity of U.S. military bases for Japan’s security. But the Okinawa prefectural government demands a reduction in the bases for the safety and peace of mind of its citizens.
How can the central government and a local government reconcile after clashing over the idea of “public interest”?
It is surely the duty of politics to explore areas where they can reach an agreement through dialogue.
But in its consistent reluctance for dialogue with the Okinawa prefectural government, the Abe administration has abandoned the duty of politics to seek a compromise.
The net result is the forcible start of the reclamation work.
The Henoko relocation project first came up 21 years ago. Let us backtrack to the starting point.
In the final months of World War II, Okinawa was sacrificed for the defense of the Japanese mainland, and it experienced a gruesome ground battle. Although the presence of U.S. military bases shrank on the mainland after the war, the bases expanded in Okinawa under the U.S. military’s authoritarian rule.
Even after the much-awaited reversion of Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty, accidents and crimes by U.S. service members continued to plague Okinawans because of the existence of bases. When a young girl was raped by three U.S. servicemen in 1995, the ire of the long-suffering citizens reached the boiling point.
This resulted in the Japan-U.S. agreement to return the Futenma air base to Japan in the name of doing everything possible to reduce Okinawa’s burden for hosting a predominantly heavy concentration of U.S. bases.
Through twists and turns in the negotiation process, the central government and Okinawa were supposed to have agreed on certain conditions, including a 15-year limit on the use of the Henoko site, and both military and civilian use of the new air base.
But without paying sufficient regard to the voices of Okinawa, Tokyo overturned such conditions to give top priority to the Japan-U.S. relationship.
‘MILITARY ISLAND’ IDENTITY STRENGTHENED
Moreover, under the relocation plan, Henoko is to be equipped with functions absent at the Futenma air base, such as a wharf for large vessels and an ammunition loading facility.
Many Okinawans are outraged that “a new base” is being built, and that their burden is not being eased at all.
With tensions rising over the North Korean situation, U.S. forces stressed their combat-readiness by lining up F-15 fighters at the Kadena Base. With the construction of the new base accentuating Okinawa’s identity as a “military island,” the citizens’ burden is only growing.
Where else in the world has such a high concentration of foreign military bases? How long does Tokyo intend to force Okinawa to continue bearing an excessive burden and perpetuate this history of discrimination?
The Abe administration just doesn’t care.
The Okinawa prefectural government demanded prior negotiations that were promised to a previous governor as a condition for approving the reclamation project. Tokyo, however, only said that the negotiations were over.
Okinawa also continues to assert that permission for destroying coral reefs expired at the end of March and must be renewed under prefectural rules. Tokyo said there is no need to renew the permission.
The central government’s main defense is that a court ruling has already deemed illegal Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga’s cancellation of the prefecture’s approval of the reclamation work.
To counter, Okinawa underscores the “will of the people” as shown in the victories of anti-relocation candidates in the Nago mayoral election, the gubernatorial election and the Lower House and Upper House elections.
According to the latest opinion poll of citizens in Okinawa conducted by The Asahi Shimbun and other organizations, 65 percent of respondents said the reclamation work at Henoko is “inappropriate,” and 61 percent were opposed to the relocation project itself.
QUESTION POSED TO MAINLAND JAPANESE, TOO
The matter is not just Okinawa’s problem.
When the Local Autonomy Law was substantially revised in 1999, the relationship between the central and local governments was supposed to have changed from that of “superior and subordinates” to that of “equal partners cooperating with one another.”
The principal behind this change was that all regions must make their own judgments on regional issues, and that a region’s right to self-determination must be honored and respected to the utmost.
But if Tokyo can get away with dealing high-handedly with Okinawa for having different thoughts, the central government may well repeat such action with any other local government.
What is the backdrop to Tokyo’s continued hard-line position in disregard of Okinawa’s objections?
The opinion poll conducted by The Asahi Shimbun and other organizations found that only 27 percent of Okinawans believe the Abe Cabinet “heeds Okinawa’s voice” about easing the base burden. A separate survey by The Asahi Shimbun found that 41 percent of Japanese nationwide gave the same answer.
This gap in stances toward the Abe administration seems to reveal a lack of interest or concern among mainland Japanese about the history and reality of Okinawa’s severe burden in hosting U.S. military bases.
Onaga is considering his next move, including filing a lawsuit to demand suspension of the reclamation work. The confrontation between Tokyo and Okinawa will likely go to court again.
Oura Bay, where the seawall is being erected, is a habitat for dugongs and coral colonies. Crabs and other species that are found nowhere else in the world are being discovered there.
Onaga asked rhetorically, “Does Tokyo mean to reclaim Lake Towadako, Matsushima Bay or Lake Biwako (all on the mainland) for national defense?”
Tokyo must take this question seriously and rethink its ways.
The same question also goes for anyone on the mainland who relies on Okinawa to bear the excessive burden for the country.
--The Asahi Shimbun, April 26