Japan Behind the News >> Have They Cancelled the Relocation of Futenma Air Station?

Cultural News, 2009 October Issue

By Motoaki Kamiura, Military Analyst

Translated by Alan Gleason

Motoaki Kamiura

Motoaki Kamiura

The odds are growing that the controversial 2006 agreement between the U.S. and Japanese governments to move the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station to another location on the island of Okinawa will be cancelled. Indeed, perhaps it already has been.

Located in the midst of a densely populated residential area in the central part of the island, Futenma has long been a sore point with Okinawans because of the potentially catastrophic consequences of an air crash in the neighborhood. The two governments therefore agreed to build a new air base to replace Futenma further up the coast at Camp Schwab, another Marine Corps facility.

However, in the national parliamentary elections that took place on August 30, all four pro-relocation candidates for Okinawa’s single-seat constituencies were defeated by four candidates who oppose building the new base.

Local elections in June 2008 had already given anti-base candidates a majority over pro-base legislators in the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly. In July that year the Assembly passed a resolution opposing the new base construction.

Local opposition has also forced suspension of the environmental assessment legally required before the base can be built, and no date has been set for construction to begin.

It was amid this impasse that some unexpected news suddenly put a new spin on the situation. In April this year, the U.S. proposed to Japan that it remove some of the fifty F-15 fighter aircraft deployed at Kadena Air Base, the largest military facility on Okinawa. The U.S. also indicated it was planning to remove all forty F-16 fighters from Misawa Air Base in northern Japan.

Until now the conventional wisdom had been that the U.S. would not withdraw its fighters from Misawa and Kadena before the collapse of the North Korean regime. Now, however, it appears that the Americans have concluded that North Korea no longer poses enough of a military threat to warrant deployment of these aircraft.

If a number of F-15s are removed from Kadena, that would provide room for the base to absorb the aircraft currently at Futenma, obviating the need for construction of a new facility. From the standpoint of military operations, that is clearly the more efficient solution.

Besides, if the North Korean threat has really subsided to that degree, the necessity of spending an estimated 1 trillion yen (over US$10 billion) to build a new base seems increasingly open to question. For one thing, Okinawa is too close to China to serve effectively as a bulwark against that country’s military.

Thus it seems likely that the Camp Schwab construction project will be cancelled, if it has not in fact been already.

Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada of the newly installed Hatoyama Cabinet recently stated that, whereas the manifesto of the now-ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) until last year included language declaring that Futenma should be moved “out of the prefecture or out of Japan,” the revised manifesto issued for the August general election did not include the words “out of the prefecture.”

All signs, then, would seem to point to a neat resolution of the Futenma relocation problem that has vexed Okinawans for so many years: it will simply be absorbed into Kadena.

Motoaki Kamiura is a Tokyo-based military analyst. He appears frequently on national television programs.

Alan Gleason is an editor, writer, and Japanese-English translator. He lives in Tokyo.