Japan Behind the News >> A Modest Proposal: Direct Negotiations between Okinawa and the U.S. Government

Cultural News, 2010 October Issue

Motoaki Kamiura

Motoaki Kamiura

By Motoaki Kamiura

Translated by Alan Gleason

The dispute over relocation of a U.S. Marine Corps air station from Futenma, Okinawa grew more complicated on September 12, when candidates opposing the base’s transfer to the Henoko district of Nago City won a majority of seats in the Nago Municipal Assembly election.

Nago already has an anti-relocation mayor, Susumu Inamine, who defeated pro-Henoko incumbent Yoshikazu Shimabukuro in the January mayoral election.

With gubernatorial elections looming in November, the odds now look high that Okinawans will elect an anti-relocation governor. Indeed, not one of the current candidates has expressed support for transfer of the base to Henoko.

Meanwhile, a multipartisan coalition of legislators has already passed a resolution opposing the Henoko base in the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly. It is now impossible to win an election in Okinawa without taking an anti-base stance.

The administration of Prime Minister Naoto Kan, however, has announced that it will adhere to the previous U.S.-Japan agreement to relocate Futenma operations to Henoko, thus putting the central government on a collision course with local sentiment in Okinawa.

A major reason for the political quagmire that Futenma has become is the fact that Japan’s Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry have run out of solutions to the base relocation problem.

Until now, the Foreign Ministry has followed America’s lead on security issues, while the Defense Ministry has suppressed anti-base sentiment by throwing money at the locals under the name of economic stimulation measures. But this approach no longer works.

That is because Okinawans have come to realize that in terms of economic prosperity as well as safety and security, the presence of American bases has hindered, not enhanced, their prefecture’s development. Consequently they no longer put up with the Japanese government’s old carrot-and-stick tactics regarding the bases.

At the same time, the U.S. government has grown increasingly impatient with the Japanese government’s response to the base controversy.

For example, the U.S. side has informed Japan that it will deploy new MV22 Osprey aircraft to Marine installations in Okinawa, but the Defense Ministry, fearing the move will add fuel to the anti-base fire, has concealed the plan from the public. This irks the Americans, who do not want to be accused of lying to the locals when the Ospreys are eventually deployed.

At this point, the Foreign and Defense Ministries are incapable of resolving the Futenma issue on their own.

I therefore propose that Okinawa and the U.S. government talk directly with one another. When the government is incapable of solving a problem like this, it makes no sense to insist that diplomatic and defense matters are the sole purview of the central ministries, even while paying lip service to regional autonomy.

Okinawa should take this opportunity to form a “council of the wise” that can negotiate directly with the U.S. on behalf of the government. That, I believe, is the only way to ensure the removal of Futenma — the world’s most hazardous airfield — to a safer location.

Mutual security is an important matter for both the U.S. and Japan, and the U.S. bases in Okinawa can contribute to the stability and prosperity of the region. For these very reasons, it makes eminent sense for Okinawans and Americans to talk directly with each other about how the bases and local residents can coexist and thrive together.

Indeed, if they do not, there is a real danger that the rage of Okinawans against the bases could explode into an uncontrollable conflagration.

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.