Nakaima’s approval on Henoko to reinforce Japan-U.S. alliance
It was an important advance toward solving the issue of relocating the functions of Futenma Air Station in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, which has faced various twists and turns since Japan and the United States agreed in 1996 on the return of the air station’s site to Japan.
Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima has approved the central government’s request to carry out a land reclamation project in publicly owned waters off the Henoko district in Nago in the prefecture, a necessary step for ultimately relocating the air station to the district.
The Futenma issue has been the biggest pending issue between the two countries for the last 17 years. A huge amount of time and energy has been devoted to it. The problem can be likened to a difficult simultaneous equation, in which many parties such as the Japanese and U.S. governments, Okinawa Prefecture, the city of Nago and the U.S. military have complicated circumstances.
Resolving this difficult issue without nullifying the past laborious efforts will have the highly significant effect of making the bilateral alliance stronger and more sustainable at a time when Japan’s security environment has been worsening.
Okinawa Gov.’s determination
It seems Nakaima finally decided to bite the bullet.
At first he conditionally supported the Henoko relocation, but he had to raise “relocation outside the prefecture” as an election campaign pledge when running for a second term since Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama of the Democratic Party of Japan inflamed prefectural citizens’ expectations in an irresponsible manner during his 2009-10 administration, calling for “relocation at least outside the prefecture.”
However, it is crystal clear that the dangerous situation of Futenma Air Station, located in a densely populated area, would persist for a long time if the reclamation request was not approved.
During a press conference Friday, Nakaima said he judged that the government’s measures, including those to preserve the environment, “meet the standards [under the law]” for reasons of his approval. But he also emphasized, “My view that relocation of the air station outside the prefecture would be faster has not changed.”
The issue of bases in Okinawa Prefecture always involves conflicting approaches—whether to aim at drastic removal of bases or to promote a gradual reduction of base-hosting burdens. We praise Nakaima’s decision as a practical choice, giving top priority to steady reduction of the burden.
The Henoko relocation plan itself is significant, as it will remove a huge airfield from the densely populated area to a sparsely populated district. In addition, it will have the secondary effect of promoting the transfer of U.S. marines stationed in the prefecture to Guam. The relocation will consequently result in a major reduction in the base-hosting burden for the entire prefecture, leading to economic development of the prefecture as well.
The prefectural governor’s brave decision has been criticized by those opposing the Henoko relocation plan, but we are sure even such people will highly evaluate his decision in the future.
Abe takes a risk
We also praise the efforts of the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which created conditions to facilitate Nakaima’s decision.
It listed a number of measures to ease Okinawa Prefecture’s burden in hosting many U.S. bases. These included advancing the deadline for returning land used by Futenma Air Station and the Makiminato Service Area to the prefecture, the transfer of military training activities to various locations outside the prefecture and the start of negotiations on a new Japan-U.S. agreement concerning on-site environmental surveys by Japanese authorities on the U.S. bases.
The planned return of Futenma Air Station, targeted for fiscal 2022 at the earliest, was the result of arduous negotiations between Japan and the United States. It will not be easy to advance this timetable as requested by the governor, but Tokyo and Washington should make utmost efforts to do so.
Concerning the issue of moving the training areas for MV-22 Osprey transport aircraft outside Okinawa Prefecture, the local governments concerned are urged to offer cooperation proactively to share the burdens now heavily shouldered by the prefecture.
Washington had been wary about revising the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement, but agreed to enter negotiations on a new agreement that would supplement the SOFA. Environmental surveys of U.S. bases ahead of their return are expected to aid the eventual utilization of their sites. Efforts must be made to work out an agreement under which surveys can be started as early as possible.
As measures to promote the development of Okinawa Prefecture, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pledged to secure a budget of the \300 billion level annually up until fiscal 2021, in addition to making an additional allocation in the fiscal 2014 budget, thus showing maximum consideration to the prefecture. For promotion of the prefecture’s northern areas, \5 billion will be earmarked every year.
With state finances in dire straits, these funds represent exceptionally preferential treatment for the prefecture. But it is an unavoidable step to break the stalemate on the Futenma relocation issue. If the DPJ-led government had not put the issue on such a serpentine path, the people of the nation would not have to bear such a huge expenditure of taxpayers’ money.
The Abe administration was able to obtain the prefecture’s approval on the Futenma relocation plan largely because it consistently worked toward building a relationship of trust with Nakaima even at the political risk of the prefecture’s disapproval. That is why the governor became willing to face criticism from the local people.
Abe must make all-out efforts to secure the continuing deterrent effect of the U.S. military presence in Japan while also reducing burdens on Okinawa and continuing to nurture the relationship of trust with the governor.