The Futenma Relocation Controversy and Okinawa’s Gubernatorial Election

Politics Society

For almost 20 years, administrations in Tokyo have struggled with the issue of relocating the US Marines Futenma air station in Okinawa. The plan to set up a replacement facility in Henoko has run into a new roadblock with the recent election of a governor opposed to the plan. Miyagi Taizō explains the background to this intractable controversy.

The Historical Significance of the November 2014 Gubernatorial Election

In Okinawa Prefecture’s gubernatorial election on November 16, 2014, Onaga Takeshi, former mayor of Naha (the prefecture’s capital), defeated incumbent Governor Nakaima Hirokazu. Onaga’s campaign platform featured opposition to the plan for relocation of US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to a new site within Okinawa. His victory over Nakaima marks a milestone in the controversy over relocation of the Futenma facility, which has dragged on for almost 20 years. In this article I will review the history of this controversy and consider the significance of the recent election.

Results of the Okinawa Gubernatorial Election, November 2014

(final count from the electoral commission)

Candidate Votes
Onaga Takeshi 360,820
Nakaima Hirokazu 261,076
Shimoji Mikio 69,447
Kina Shōkichi 7,821

This issue dates back to April 1996, when Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryūtarō and US Ambassador Walter Mondale announced an agreement on reversion to Japan of the Futenma facility. The agreement came as a great surprise to people around the country. Located in the middle of an urban area with many homes and a university campus, Futenma air station had been labeled the world’s most dangerous military base. No concrete plan for reversion had been adopted, though, and the sudden, dramatic announcement generated incredulity.

Why did the Japanese and US governments act at that time? It is often suggested that the move was prompted by a horrible incident in Okinawa the preceding September, when US servicemen abducted and raped a local schoolgirl. However, this interpretation is not entirely correct.

The End of the Cold War Calls Futenma’s Role into Question

When the Cold War ended, people around the world started talking about the prospects for a “peace dividend.” The hope, though betrayed by subsequent developments, was that the inputs of resources and effort that had been devoted to the East-West conflict could be scaled down or redirected to other uses. At the time (around the beginning of the 1990s) concern over China’s rise was still far in the future.

Some of America’s allies, including Japan, however, reacted to this talk with alarm. The Cold War might have come to a clear end in Europe with the collapse of the Soviet Union, but there still seemed to be destabilizing factors in the Asia-Pacific region. Foreign policy and defense officials in countries around the region worried that calls to cash in on the “peace dividend” would lead to unilateral moves by the United States to reduce its military presence or withdraw its forces entirely.

These concerns led to the drafting of a policy document that came to be known as the Nye Report, after Joseph Nye, who was then serving as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. The February 1995 document, officially titled “United States Security Strategy for the East Asia Pacific Region,” aimed to reassure America’s allies of its commitment to the region, recommending that the United States keep 100,000 troops stationed in the Asia-Pacific region. The sharpest response to this report came from Okinawa’s governor at the time, Ōta Masahide.

A Top-Down Decision on Reversion

Ōta feared that if the opportunity of the “peace dividend” from the end of the Cold War were lost, there would never come another chance to achieve a major reduction in the scale of the US bases in Okinawa, and so he was alarmed at the Nye Report’s talk of keeping 100,000 troops in East Asia. In Tokyo, successive administrations had made noises about downsizing the US military presence in Okinawa, but there had been no sign of serious efforts to achieve this. Ōta decided that he would refuse to sign the documentation for the compulsory leasing of land for military use, and in the summer of 1995 he reported this intention to a senior member of Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi’s administration.

The US bases in Okinawa were originally built on land taken by the US forces during the Battle of Okinawa toward the end of World War II. The Americans set up bases as they pleased, and they subsequently expanded them “with guns, swords, and bulldozers”—in other words, by forcing unwilling landowners to vacate their property. Most of this land is still owned by private citizens. If the owners refuse to extend the leases for its use by the US forces, the prefectural governor has the authority to sign on their behalf. But Ōta resolved not to do so.

The operation of the Japan-US security partnership, which serves as a mighty bulwark not just for Japan but for the entire Asia-Pacific region, depends greatly on the leasing of land for the US bases in Japan, which are heavily concentrated in Okinawa. If the prefectural governor actually refused to sign the leases on behalf of unwilling landowners, the lease periods would eventually expire, and much of the land on which the bases are located would end up being illegally occupied. So Ōta’s decision had grave implications. On top of this came the rape incident that I mentioned above. This September 1995 incident was like a condensed version of the various US-base-related incidents and accidents that had occurred in Okinawa over the years, and it produced both sorrow and intense anger among the people of the prefecture. This wave of sentiment was certainly a factor that supported the governor’s resolve not to sign the lease papers, which he announced that same month.

For Prime Minister Hashimoto, who succeeded Murayama in January 1996, the governor’s refusal was a major problem, posing a potentially serious threat to the Japan-US alliance. Enacting legislation that would allow the national government to overrule the governor’s veto was not a practical option, since the idea was bound to run into opposition from the Social Democratic Party, the junior party in the ruling coalition, and cause the coalition to come apart. So Hashimoto resorted to the surprise tactic of announcing the agreement on reversion of the Futenma facility. This was a solo decision by the prime minister; the entire foreign policy and defense establishments within the government opposed it and tried to persuade him that it would not work.

A Meandering Course, as Anticipated

As noted above, the agreement between Prime Minister Hashimoto and Ambassador Mondale was announced in April 1996. But the issue of finding a new site to replace the Futenma air station was a knotty one, and it has continued to dog successive administrations to this day. At the time of the agreement, the idea was to build a new heliport at Kadena Air Base or some other US base in Okinawa and to move a portion of the operations being conducted at Futenma to another location, such as Iwakuni Air Base in Yamaguchi Prefecture. The plans had not been thought through, though, as is clear from the fact that this issue has remained unresolved over the period of almost 20 years since then.

Reflecting on this point, Hashimoto later explained that there had not been time to have Japan’s Defense Agency and the top officers of the US forces in Japan coordinate their positions because the news of the agreement leaked and was printed as a scoop by a major daily newspaper (causing a rush to release the official announcement). Hashimoto said that he greatly regretted the resulting loss of several days of final negotiations on the agreement (Asahi Shimbun, November 11, 1999).

But as a person well versed in policy matters, Hashimoto surely realized that the biggest hurdle in efforts to reduce the US forces’ footprint in Okinawa is resistance to moving functions from existing bases to other locations within the prefecture. For example, an agreement was reached between Japan and the United States in 1974 on the reversion of the Naha Port military facility, which is located near the central district of the prefectural capital. But since the reversion was conditional on providing a replacement within Okinawa, it has not been accomplished to this day, more than 40 years later. If the idea was to find a replacement site for Futenma within the prefecture, it would surely not have been possible to come up with a plausible prospect over the few days of talks lost because of the newspaper scoop.

In that sense, the Futenma reversion agreement was of dubious feasibility from the start, and the subsequent confused meandering over the matter was only to be expected. But Hashimoto was under pressure and saw no other way out. He subsequently jumped on the idea of using a mega-float as the replacement facility, but this ended up only adding to the muddle over finding a site on land.

The Deepening Divide Between Okinawa and the Mainland

Ōta’s decision not to sign lease papers on behalf of the landowners led to a series of judicial decisions that concluded with an August 1996 ruling by the Supreme Court against the governor, and he subsequently went ahead and signed them. Around the same time, the national government proposed, and the governor accepted, a generous package of measures to boost the Okinawan economy; this confluence of events led to complaints from within the prefecture that Ōta had sold out to Tokyo. In Nago, the city whose district of Henoko became the leading candidate as a replacement site, a referendum on the issue produced a majority opposed to accepting the move. But the city’s mayor then expressed his willingness to entertain the proposal. These contradictory developments left the governor in an awkward position. Eventually Ōta came out against the move to Henoko, but he had already lost his power to lead public opinion within the prefecture.

In the November 1998 gubernatorial election, Ōta lost to Inamine Keiichi. The new governor declared his willingness to approve the proposed move to Henoko as a temporary measure provided the term was limited to 15 years and the facility was made available for joint military-civilian use. During the term of Inamine’s successor, Nakaima Hirokazu, there was a period when both the prefectural and municipal government heads concerned were agreed that the move to Henoko should be accepted as something that could not be helped. Foreign policy and defense officials at the national level regret that this rare opportunity to settle the matter was not seized. But then the long-ruling Liberal Democrats were voted out of power in 2009, and the Democratic Party of Japan formed a government headed by Hatoyama Yukio, who declared that the Futenma replacement site must be “at least outside of the prefecture.”

Both within the national government and among the general public on the Japanese mainland, the prevailing view seems to be that Hatoyama’s statement was an uncalled-for, counterproductive intervention. For the people of Okinawa, however, the real shock probably came from the rash of rejections from mainlanders that came out in quick response to Hatoyama’s idea of moving operations from Futenma to a site or sites “outside the prefecture”—meaning somewhere on the mainland. After all, the Japan-US alliance is supposed to be for the defense not of Okinawa but of all of Japan. Though some have attempted to explain the need to keep the operations of the Futenma air station in Okinawa on the basis of geopolitical considerations, in the end it seems to come down to what former Defense Minister Morimoto Satoshi, an expert on defense affairs, admitted: “Militarily, the site [of the replacement facility] doesn’t have to be in Okinawa, but politically, Okinawa is the most suitable place.”

Prime Ministers’ Interventions Aggravate the Issue

Looking back over the almost 20 years since the Hashimoto-Mondale agreement on reversion of the Futenma facility, it seems to me that the idea of building a replacement at Henoko was unrealistic from the start. But in order to gloss over the problems with this plan and move toward its implementation, the national government has offered all sorts of economic support to Okinawa Prefecture.

In the past, the government took considerable care to avoid the appearance of linkage between the burden borne by Okinawa in hosting US bases and the provision of funding to promote the prefecture’s economy. More recently, though, the linkage has come into clear view, as if Tokyo is saying, “Take this money and put up with the bases.” This has aggravated the friction between Okinawa and the mainland and deepened the gap between the two sides.
Prime Minister Hashimoto, facing the threat to the Japan-US alliance from Governor Ōta’s refusal to sign lease papers for the US base sites, came out with his surprise announcement on reversion of Futenma. And Prime Minister Hatoyama, pushing for an “equal” relationship between Japan and the United States, declared that the replacement site needed to be outside the prefecture without having given the matter sufficient consideration. The politicization of this issue resulting from the direct intervention of these two prime ministers appears to have made its resolution even more difficult. Though it ought to be possible to achieve a substantial alleviation of the burden that the US bases impose on Okinawa through moves at the operational level, unfortunately this burden has now become an icon, and nobody wants to take it on.

The Danger of a Third Bout of Politicization

In the December 2014 general election for the House of Representatives held in the wake of Okinawa’s gubernatorial election, the candidates of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which supports the existing relocation plan, were defeated in every one of the prefecture’s electoral districts. It is clear that even after some 20 years of efforts by the national government, the people of Okinawa are unwilling to accept this plan. We should note that this does not mean they are seeking the immediate removal of all the US military facilities from Okinawa. It simply means that they are saying they have reached their limit and will not accept the idea of creating a new facility within the prefecture, even as a replacement for an existing one.

If the national government pushes ahead with the proposed move to Henoko despite the opposition expressed by Okinawan voters in the recent pair of elections, I fear that it may end up causing a third bout of politicization of this issue, turning it into a symbolic cause that will severely shake the bonds between Okinawa and the mainland. Such a development could also rock the foundations of the Japan-US security partnership.

Futenma has developed into an extraordinarily sticky issue for the Japanese government. Former US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage has suggested that the problem would not have become this difficult if the US and Japanese governments had seriously tackled the issue of the bases on Okinawa at the time of the prefecture’s reversion from US to Japanese administration in the early 1970s. What is the essence of the overdue homework that needs to be cleared away? If the national government continues to proceed on the current course on the grounds that a decision has already been reached, the problem is likely to become even more serious and to end up being passed on to the next generation in a more intractable form.

(Originally written in Japanese on December 10, 2014. Title photos: Onaga Takeshi [left] hugs his daughter following his victory in the Okinawa gubernatorial election on November 16, 2014. © Jiji; [right]. US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma [right] adjoins a populous urban area, but plans to relocate the facility have been stalled for over 20 years.)

Hatoyama Yukio Hashimoto Ryutaro Futenma Joseph Nye Okinawa’s Gubernatorial Election Nakaima Hirokazu the Nye Report move to Henoko Onaga Takeshi