TOKYO — The governor of southern Japan's Okinawa prefecture said Wednesday he would travel to the United States to convey local objections to the relocation of a U.S. air base as protests intensify over the plan seen as being forced onto the island.
A plan formulated in 1996 between the Japanese and American governments would move U.S. Marine Air Station Futenma from a populated neighborhood to a less developed area, but Okinawans worried about safety, crime and noise want the base moved off the island altogether.
Gov. Takeshi Onaga, who was elected in November on promises to fight the move, said in an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday that he hopes to present his case to officials in Washington later this month.
"Only Okinawa is burdened with this heavy load, and I want to let the United States, a democratic nation, know about this unfair situation," Onaga said. "Okinawa is such a small island, and we have long suffered while being constantly tossed about like a leaf in the wind by two big countries, Japan and the U.S."
Anti-military sentiment is high on Okinawa, which houses the majority of the 50,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan. In terms of space, 73.8 percent of U.S. bases are on the island that has only 0.6 percent of Japan's land. Protests have gained momentum, with about 35,000 people turning out Sunday.
Onaga declined to give details on his U.S. itinerary apart from a visit May 27-29 to Hawaii and a planned meeting with its Gov. David Ige, who is of Okinawan descent. He said setting up meetings in Washington is not easy, apparently due to the sensitivity of the base issue.
The dispute over relocating Futenma symbolizes deeper tensions between Okinawa and the Japanese mainland, which annexed the islands, formerly the independent kingdom of the Ryukyus, in 1879, he said.
In the final days of World War II, Okinawa became Japan's only home battleground. Half of the 200,000 people who died in the fighting were local residents, and the islands remained under U.S.-rule for 20 years longer than Japan's own emergence from the American occupation in 1952.
Japan has hosted U.S. troops under a postwar alliance in which Japan renounced war except to defend itself while the U.S. agreed to provide security. Okinawa's southern location is a strategic advantage with proximity to other U.S. military positions, as well as geopolitical importance in the Asia-Pacific region.
Okinawa's sacrifice has provided Japan's defensive deterrent since World War II, said Onaga, 65, a rare gadfly in a country that puts a high premium on harmony.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants Japan to have a bigger military role at home and internationally and says the base relocation is vital for its alliance with the U.S.
Onaga has called Abe "stubborn" and other top officials "high-handed." He also said he will do whatever he can to prevent Futenma's relocation, though it is unclear whether he can stop it. The preliminary steps to move the base to quiet Henoko Bay have already begun after Onaga's predecessor, under pressure from Tokyo, signed the go-ahead.
With Okinawans' intensifying frustration and sense of being discriminated against, the anti-base sentiments could turn anti-American, if Japan and the U.S. push too far, Onaga said, adding that he believed America is aware of that risk.
A former member of Abe's conservative Liberal Democratic Party, Onaga is now an independent. His opposition to the Futenma plan and emphasis on Okinawa's struggle have tapped support across Japan's traditional ideological divides. Onaga says moving bases out of Okinawa could also increase business opportunities for a region whose economy has lagged.
"I do acknowledge the importance of the U.S.-Japan security alliance, but I must say the Henoko relocation is too unreasonable and it's not going to happen," he said.
Koichi Nakano, an international politics professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, says the friction with Okinawa reflects Tokyo's excessively dependent relationship with the U.S. It is in the American interest, he said, to listen to Onaga.
"U.S. military bases in Japan are very important to Japan-U.S. relations, and the U.S. government should be aware that intensifying anti-U.S. military sentiment on Okinawa is not good for them," he said. "In order to get them aware of the risk, Gov. Onaga should keep raising his voice."