Preliminary work on a controversial new US Marine Corps base on the strategically important Japanese island of Okinawa took a blow Sunday when voters there elected a new governor who is fiercely opposed to the base.
The election was dominated by the US military presence, including the long-planned closure of Futenma, a base and runway situated in the midst of a densely populated city, and the construction of a new Marine air base in a remote and pristine offshore location farther north.
But the election of Takeshi Onaga may cast doubt on the base move, which has been the subject of wrangling for nearly 20 years.
Mr. Onaga would like to move the US base entirely off Okinawa. He is the first candidate for governor to openly oppose the US military base and win an election.
Onaga in fact easily defeated the incumbent governor, Hirokazu Nakaima. Mr. Nakaima, a political ally of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, had tacitly opposed the new US base until late last year, when he angered many Okinawans by suddenly giving approval for landfill drilling to begin at the proposed new site.
Opponents say the new base – a V-shaped runway just off the coast of the village of Henoko – will threaten the safety of villagers and destroy the area’s marine ecosystem. Instead, they want Futenma’s functions moved completely off Okinawa.
Mr. Onaga’s victory is not good news for Mr. Abe, who shares Washington’s view that the Marines need to maintain a strong presence on the island to safeguard regional security.
Okinawa is located near territories in the East China Sea that are administered by Japan but also claimed by China. In addition, local US forces would be among the first to respond to any conflict involving North Korea.
But Onaga’s win, by almost 100,000 votes, doesn’t necessarily mean relocation plans will be scrapped.
Much will depend Mr. Abe's response. He has the authority to go over the heads of Okinawa's elected officials, but at a price. Only four lawmakers from his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) represent constituencies in Okinawa. But any mishandling of a security issue with the potential to sour US-Japan ties could lead to more widespread discontent in the LDP, and the emergence of a potential challenger in leadership elections due next year. An authoritarian approach by Abe could backfire, if it results in a confrontation in the waters off Henoko between authorities and protesters, many of whom are elderly and have vowed to take to their kayaks to block construction.
Onaga marked his win by vowing to withdraw approval for landfill drilling – a move that would effectively halt construction.
But some questioned his authority to reverse his predecessor’s decision. “We’re not yet sure exactly what Onaga will do,” a source familiar with the relocation, who did not wish to be named, told the Monitor.
“He says he will review the whole process to see if he can cancel the authorization given by [former] Gov. Nakaima, but whatever the outcome of his review, he still doesn’t have the authority to overwrite the decision.”
Anti-base campaigners insist they have the momentum to derail the relocation plans. “Regardless of what Prime Minister Abe decides to do, local people are more determined than ever to stop this,” says Hideki Yoshikawa of the Citizens' Network for Biodiversity in Okinawa.
Futenma’s future has long been an irritant in Japan-US ties. The countries agreed to close the base after the abduction and rape of a 12-year-old girl by three US servicemen prompted a wave of anti-base sentiment. Yet moving the base was seen as contingent on finding new space.
The base quickly became the came the focus of local resentment over Okinawa’s military burden. While it accounts for less than 1 percent of Japan’s landmass, the island hosts more than half the US military personnel stationed in the country and three-quarters of its bases.
To address concerns about crime, noise pollution, and potential aircraft accidents, Tokyo and Washington opted for the pristine waters off Henoko as an alternative location. In a further concession, Washington agreed to move 8,000 US troops and their families from Okinawa to Guam and Hawaii.
Japan has asked that Futenma be vacated by 2019. But on Sunday, Voice of America quoted unnamed US military sources saying a departure from Futenma prior to 2022 is "fanciful speculation."
Peter Ennis, an analyst of Japan-US relations, noted on his Dispatch Japan blog that Onaga had proposed opening an office in Washington to facilitate dialog with US authorities. As gestures go, that is the best the Pentagon can expect for now from Okinawa’s firebrand governor.