The U.S. and Japan face another obstacle on the way to construction of a new U.S. marine air station in the village of Henoko on the northeast coast of Okinawa. That’s because voters in Nago City, which includes Henoko, have voted by a decisive margin, in the face of intense pressure by Japan’s ruling Liberal-Democratic Party, to reelect a mayor who’s adamantly opposed to base construction.
The victory of Susumu Inamine to a second four-year term over a candidate handpicked by the LDP to try to throw him out of office adds fuel to the fire of long-boiling protests against building the base on landfill off the beach at Henoko. The vote count, 19,839 to 15,684, small though the numbers might appear, has repercussions far beyond Nago city.
Inamine defeated Bunshin Suematsu despite promises by Japan’s conservative prime minister, Shinzo Abe, of $300 million annually in aid for the next eight years along with a special $50 million package for Nago, covering a small port, forest and farmland beyond the urban sprawl around the Okinawa capital of Naha. Now the question is how or whether the central government can go ahead with the plan to extend land off the beach to build the base in place of a marine air station in Futenma in the city of Ginowan in the densely populated area north of Naha.
The government is counting on the support of the governor of Okinawa, Hirokazu Nakaima, who has endorsed the Henoko project. Abe won Nakaima’s approval in December after dangling the prospect of a significant increase in the aid that the government for years has been pouring into Okinawa, a relatively poor prefecture with little major industry.
Strategically, Okinawa’s main significance is the presence of 28,000 of the 50,000 U.S. troops in Japan. The U.S. Air Force operates a critical base at Kadena, north of Naha, and U.S. marines are stationed at a number of others bases, including Camp Schwab on the northeast coast, from which marines deploy on missions from east Asia to the middle east. The Henoko air station would be an extension of Camp Schwab.
In the aftermath of the vote, the government may attempt eventually to exercise its power to staunch the protest, removing demonstrators from a camp that they have set up on the beach at Henoko and barring them from the village. Nago Mayor Inamine can frustrate efforts to bring equipment and supplies to the beach but may not have the power to cut them off entirely.
Although anti-base forces would appear to have scored a major triumph, the base also has its advocates. Some local merchants see it as a source of much needed income for an area that’s suffered economically.
The concept of a base at Henoko has been a focal point of protest ever since the U.S. and Japan agreed in 2006 to move the marine air station there from Futenma. That deal came a decade after the two nations agreed in principle on the need to relocate the marine air station after massive protests over the rape in September 1995 of a 12-year-old girl by a sailor and two marines from Futenma.
The protest has not diminished despite plans to relocate about 10,000 marines to Pacific bases elsewhere, including Guam, Australia and Hawaii. Over the past year, Okinawa officials have expressed fears about what they see as the dangers posed by the marines’ new Osprey helicopters, whose tilt rotors enable them to take off vertically and then tilt forward for horizontal flight.
At the same time, pressure for building the base has mounted as tensions rise around the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea about 250 miles southwest of Naha. China also claims the islands, called the Diaoyu in Chinese, and has included them in an Air Defense Identification Zone that conflicts with Japan’s ADIZ.
Chinese aircraft have flown into air space around the islands while Chinese fishing boats regularly go into surrounding waters patrolled by the Japanese Coast Guard. The islands, uninhabited but formally part of Okinawa prefecture, are 185 miles east of the mainland China coast, 105 miles from the northeastern corner of Taiwan, which also claims the islands for the “Republic of China,” and 110 miles west of the nearest Japanese island.
Historical issues lie at the crux of the protest. The U.S. military presence on Okinawa dates to the battle for the island in the Spring of 1945 in which more than 200,000 people died, including 94,000 civilians. The battle, the bloodiest of the war in the Pacific, cost the lives of 94,000 Japanese soldiers and 12,400 U.S. marines, army soldiers and sailors.
Okinawan people, although Japanese citizens, often feel estranged from “mainland” Japan, which annexed Okinawa, formerly the Ryukyu kingdom, in 1879 after having dominated the Ryukyu island chain for more than 250 years. Okinawans fear the presence of the bases exposes them to another war in which they would again be caught in the crossfire.
Source: Forbes Business