A base draws ire - so US looks to sea
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The Futenma base is "an accident waiting to happen" says Mike Mochizuki, a political scientist at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. "The main point of [the sea base plan] is to find an alternative."Skip to next paragraph
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The Special Action Committee on Okinawa, a joint US-Japan project, decided in 1996 that the best option was to replace it with an offshore base, so the military could maintain its troop levels while minimizing local impacts. The extensive land used by the military, and a series of widely reported rapes by American servicemen, have contributed to a vigorous antibase attitude in Okinawa.
The base's environmental risks worry people far outside Okinawa. The island's reefs support an array of marine life, second only to Australia's Great Barrier Reef in terms of diversity.
Okinawa is "the Galápagos of the East," says Peter Galvin of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of six conservation groups suing the US Department of Defense in an attempt to halt the new base. Nine endangered species - among them three species of sea turtle and the critically endangered dugong - rely on the site where the base will be built. Construction will eliminate the most important habitat and food source for the 50 or so dugong manatees that remain alive.
"The environmental losses are likely to be far greater than what little economic gains Nago residents may reap," says Koji Taira, founder of an Okinawan studies journal called The Ryukyuanist.
Some defense experts also question the plan. "Overall, I think most Okinawans will say, 'We got a tiny little benefit here: We moved this out of the city,' " says Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. "But the overall presence of the US in Okinawa will still be visible ... and a bit much for the size of the island."
Nevertheless, the base plan enjoys considerable support, including that of the US military and the Japanese government. The Marines will carry out the move "as soon as [Japan] has built a new facility that meets all of the air station's needs," says a Marine spokesman, Capt. Christopher Perrine. Japan's prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, often voices support for the plan to show that his administration will "sincerely make efforts to reduce" Okinawa's "heavy burden."
"The Marines don't need to move - they're perfectly happy where they are now," says John Purves, a historian on the island. But "the Japanese government wants [the base] moved up north, to a more remote area, because there will be fewer people complaining about it." Japanese construction firms are also eager for the billion-dollar contracts the high-tech base promises, he adds.
Henoko's economy, too, is expected to gain, which is why a significant portion of the local populace backs the project. A 1997 referendum conducted in the affected Nago area showed the public split (53 percent opposed the base, 45 percent approved). But only 8 percent of voters said they unambiguously supported building the facility, while the rest said they approved because they expected economic benefits for the Nago region. Polls of the entire island suggested substantially more opposition.
Whether the Japanese government will listen is another matter. The island has little political clout. Of 452 representatives in Japan's Diet, just five represent Okinawa. That's one large reason the vast majority of American bases in Japan are sited there.
"If [the bases] were located in Kanagawa Prefecture rather than in Okinawa, [Japan] would have thrown us out years ago," says Chalmers Johnson, head of the Japan Policy Research Institute. "With 38 military bases occupying 20 percent of the best land in Okinawa, it seems to me a crime to build a 39th."