Approval for Relocation to Henoko: An Important Step toward Strengthening US-Japan Alliance

Wanting to Hasten the Reduction of Okinawa’s Burdens

After the various derailments that have come to pass since the U.S.-Japan joint agreement in 1996, this is an important step toward resolving the problem of relocating the U.S. military’s Futenma airfield. Hirokazu Nakaima, the governor of the Okinawa prefecture, approved the reclamation of public waterways to facilitate the relocation of Futenma airfield to Henoko, Nago City.

In the past 17 years, as the biggest unaddressed issue between the U.S. and Japan, much time and effort was poured into the problem that Futenma poses. There are complexities to consider for the Japanese and U.S. governments, Okinawa prefecture, Nago City, the U.S. military and several other places; it is a difficult problem for many.

Definitively putting an end to the problem, without squandering the hardships encountered up until now, holds great significance for building a stronger and more sustainable alliance amidst the deteriorating conditions of Japan’s national security.

Evaluating the Governor’s Decision

This was likely a bitter decision for Governor Nakaima. At first he supported relocation to Henoko under certain conditions. However, because former Democratic Prime Minister Hatoyama irresponsibly raised the hopes and expectations of the prefecture’s citizens by promising that Henoko would “at the very least [be relocated] outside of the prefecture,” he had no choice but to tout this as a public promise for his second-term gubernatorial election.

It is certain, however, that if Hatoyama does not approve the reclamation project, Futenma airfield’s hazardous current condition could become permanent.

At a press conference, in regard to his approving the reclamation project, Hatoyama stressed that his “thinking that relocating outside of the prefecture would be faster remains unchanged.” He also stated that they have “determined that the project conforms to the standards” set by the government’s environmental conservation measures.

Regarding the problem of Okinawa’s U.S. military bases, there is a conflict between two methodologies: one aims for a radical withdrawal of the bases, while the other promotes a gradual reduction of their burdens. The governor gives preference to a steady burden reduction, and we’d like to appreciate the fact that he made a practical choice.

Relocating to Henoko not only distances the massive Futenma airfield from a densely populated area, it also accelerates the transfer of Marines in Okinawa to Guam. This will lead to a large-scale reduction of burdens throughout the entire prefecture and will also be helpful for the development of Okinawa.

The governor’s decision is being criticized by those opposed to the relocation to Henoko; however, it can be expected that the future [that this decision brings about] will be highly esteemed.

The Risk that the Abe Administration Took

We would also like to support the efforts of the Abe administration, which backed the governor’s decision.

Things such as the opening of negotiations for a new U.S.-Japan joint agreement regarding environmental research within U.S. military bases, the relocation of training exercises and shortening the time frame for the restoration of Futenma airfield and Camp Kinser have been indicated as plans to reduce the burden of military bases.

The objective of restoration after nine to 12 years is the result of fierce U.S.-Japan negotiation; the acceleration of that time frame that the governor is pushing for is no simple matter. Nevertheless, the Japanese and U.S. governments should invest their greatest possible effort into the endeavor.

The relocation of the Osprey — a U.S. military transport vehicle — training exercises to outside of the prefecture was also meant to share Okinawa’s burden with the entirety of Japan. They would like the assertive cooperation of all municipalities involved.

The U.S. government has been very discreet in its revisions of the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement. However, negotiations for a new arrangement to complement the existing SOFA will be made to address that point. Prior environmental research, conducted within U.S. military bases slated for restoration, supports the utilization of those sites. We’d like to see them aim for an agreement that allows them to investigate at a quicker pace.

As a plan to promote Okinawa, Prime Minister Abe has promised to add to next year’s budget things that indicate the utmost consideration. There is a guaranteed annual budget in the area of 300 billion yen; an annual sum of 5 billion yen will also be included in the calculation for a plan to promote the northern part of the prefecture.

These are unprecedentedly generous measures to take in such a strict economic climate, but to resolve a difficult problem, they may be unavoidable. However, had the Democratic administration stopped the Futenma problem from straying as it did, such an egregiously large burden would probably never have been placed on the citizenry.

That the Abe administration was able to acquire the approval of Okinawa prefecture is big in that it developed a trusting relationship with Governor Nakaima and prepared for the risk of a strike against the administration in a time of dissent. For that reason in particular, the governor also took the risk of being criticized by the people of his prefecture.

The prime minister, while valuing the trust he has with the governor, ought to invest all of his power into both reducing the burden on Okinawa and maintaining the U.S. military’s ability to deter incoming attacks.

To Put Forth an Effort To Attain the Understanding of the Local Areas Involved

There are still issues that will exist until the relocation of the Futenma airfield actually comes about. The mayoral election on Jan. 19 appears as though it will come to a one-on-one showdown between the incumbent, who is opposed to relocation, and the prefectural assembly before approval.

The previous mayor has withdrawn his name from the race, and the group in favor of approval is unified; nonetheless, there’s no way to predict the outcome of the election.

Essentially, a situation in which regional elections affect the course of Japan’s national security ought to be avoided. Bearing that in mind, that the mayor set the approval period to within the year before the mayoral election was appropriate.

Granted, the mayor of Nago City has no power to stop the relocation to Henoko, but to say that it would be preferable to receive Nago City’s cooperation in the smooth construction of provisional facilities is only natural.

It can only be hoped that the government and party in power will continue to politely explain the significance and usefulness of relocating to Henoko, and to exhaust all their efforts at expanding a sense of understanding among the people of those areas.

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