Editorial: Okinawa governor approves land reclamation off Henoko, creates confusion with his remarks

The day will no doubt go down in history in Okinawa, Japan’s island prefecture which hosts a large number of U.S. military facilities.

Yesterday Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima approved the plan to reclaim land off Nago’s Henoko district. Despite once calling for the removal of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which is located in Gionowan, from the whole of Okinawa Prefecture, he has now changed course and accepted the plan to move the base to Henoko.

At a news conference, however, Mr. Nakaima reiterated that he is still sticking to his campaign pledge of urging the government to move the base outside of Okinawa Prefecture. His contradictory remarks are confusing not only Okinawa residents, but the general public as well.

This decision is so fundamental in shaping the future of Okinawa that the governor must fulfill his responsibility by providing a clear explanation. In the first place, it appears Mr. Nakaima is being negligent in his basic duties: instead of resolving the problem, his decision has fueled confusion.

Seventeen years have passed since the initial agreement was made to relocate the air station. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe must be feeling some relief now that this longstanding issue is finally moving forward. The government tried every trick in the book to push ahead with the relocation plan, which included putting pressure on members of the prefectural chapter of the Liberal Democratic Party, who had supported removing the air station from the prefecture, to change their minds. The central government also promised to pour some 300 billion yen a year into the prefecture to promote local development.

In signaling his approval for the plan, Mr. Nakaima claimed that he had won concessions in last-minute negotiations with Mr. Abe, which include reducing the prefecture’s burden. He sought the understanding of the prefecture’s residents during his press conference, but his explanation was bewildering.

He said that the land reclamation plan must be approved because it meets environmental standards. This part is understandable, because the plan is either right or wrong from this perspective. But his reasoning can only be questioned considering the following line of argument.

Mr. Nakaima said that the relocation of the air station will not be an easy venture, taking nearly 10 years to complete, and, further, that there remains strong opposition. In the meantime, it would be completely unacceptable to allow the dangerous Futenma air station to continue operating. Therefore, he said, the realistic alternative would be to relocate the air station’s functions out of Okinawa Prefecture.

This argument may seem sound, but if the air station should be relocated outside of Okinawa, there would be no need to reclaim land off Henoko. In effect, Mr. Nakaima does not want to admit that his decision is nothing more than a broken promise that will lead to the building of a new military base in Okinawa, something the majority of the prefecture’s citizens do not want.

The central government is poised to push past this excuse. Following the governor’s approval, the government expressed the intention of launching the relocation project at an early date.

The differences in the attitudes of the central and prefectural governments, which were exposed at the last moment, may have a lasting impact on this problem.

For example, as one of his conditions, Mr. Nakaima asked that the Futenma air station be closed within five years. At the press conference, he said confidently that this prospect is growing more likely under the leadership of the prime minister.

But the fact is, the prime minister has avoided committing himself to this goal, and will only be setting up a task force to deal with this issue. There is also the possibility that the U.S. government will simply refuse this idea flat out. If that happens, what will the prefectural government do, having already approved the land reclamation?

We can at least appreciate Mr. Nakaima’s awareness that the relocation of the air station to Henoko will not easily move forward.

First, the mayoral election in Nago is scheduled for January. The governor’s term of office ends next December, but there may be strong calls for his resignation if this confusion over his decision cannot be cleared up. In addition to the election, where the people will pass judgment, there are unresolved issues involving the protection of the area’s rich flora and fauna, including the dugong.

The starting point of the campaign to call for the removal of Futenma was the outrage expressed by Okinawa citizens over the rape of a school girl by U.S. servicemen in 1995. For this reason, we must prioritize the feelings of the prefecture’s residents, who have been toyed with by the nation’s security policy and suffer unease, rather than putting our focus on enhancing the Japan-U.S. alliance or promoting regional development. The central government and prefectural government must not forget this.

(Originally published on December 28, 2013)