US Marines cleared to land on Okinawa landfill? Not so fast

Relocating US Marines on the Japanese island is a political hot potato that has been tossed before. 

Greg Baker/AP
In this Aug. 16, 2012 photo, a C-130 transport plane takes off from the US Marine Corps base in Futenma, in Okinawa, Japan. Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima signed off Dec. 27, 2013, on the long-awaited relocation of the base, a major step toward allowing the US to move forward with plans to consolidate its troops in Okinawa and move some to Guam.

Testing the assumptions behind the headlines

Will the Okinawa governor’s long-stalled agreement to approve the relocation of a US Marine base finally pull one of the sharpest thorns in the side of Washington’s relationship with Japan?

Not necessarily. And even if the move goes ahead, Friday’s announcement is likely to mark another phase of a controversy that has lasted nearly two decades. 

Ever since Tokyo and Washington agreed in 1996 to move the Marine base from Futenma, located in the heart of the city of Ginowan, to the seaside village of Henoko, the plan has been stymied by opposition from the people and government of Okinawa, the southern island that is home to most US troops in Japan.

The inability of Japan's central government to implement its deal with the US has been a regular source of tension in the alliance. The US has around 50,000 troops in Japan, and Okinawa is a key location. 

The 18,000 Marines on Okinawa and their machinery are not popular; most Okinawans are fed up with the noise, the potential danger, and the occasional friction between soldiers and citizenry. They would like to see all US troops move off the island altogether. 

US military planners say that is not possible, though they are as keen as anyone to close Futenma. They insist that building an airstrip on landfill in the bay of Henoko is the best solution to the problem.

Okinawa governor Hirokazu Nakaima, a long time opponent of that project, said on Friday he had finally approved a central government proposal for such an airstrip. “The government has recently met our requests in compiling a plan to reinvigorate Okinawa,” he told reporters.

Premier Shinzo Abe’s government has earmarked $3.35 billion in next year’s draft budget for Okinawan economic development, a 15.3 percent increase on 2013’s figure.

But that is not an end to it. Susumu Inamine, the Mayor of Nago City, which has jurisdiction over Henoko, and a fierce opponent of the runway plan, is up for re-election next month; if he wins he will be in a strong position to scuttle the project.

Demonstrators who have been camped out on Henoko beach for nearly a decade say they will seek to block any construction and they have a record of success: they physically confronted building workers trying to start an earlier project eight years ago and forced them to give up.

Airstrip construction jobs

And there are doubts too about the terms of the Okinawa governor’s deal with Tokyo. At a Dec. 25 meeting with Mr. Nakaima, Mr. Abe said he would take steps to respond to Okinawans’ requests that Futenma be closed within five years and, crucially, that noisy Osprey helicopter training operations are moved off the island.

But for the US Marines, the whole point of building an airstrip in Henoko bay would be to ensure that the Ospreys could train with the Marines that they are meant to transport. 

In Henoko itself, and in neighboring Nago City, neither of them prosperous places, many local residents told me when I visited in 2010 that the prospect of jobs and economic renewal that a major construction project would bring outweighs the potential nuisance and the noise.

If they still feel that way, and if the government ensures that they get a generous share of Okinawa’s new development budget, Abe may just have taken a key step towards resolving one of the most awkward issues in Japan’s relationship with the US.

But if Mr. Inamine wins re-election as Mayor of Nago next month he will surely find broad support among Okinawans for his efforts to stall the airstrip. 

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