Futenma Base Debate Reaches 20th Year

An MV-22 Osprey squadron is stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa, Japan. A lawsuit has been filed to stop the base's relocation. (Marine Corps/Benjamin Pryer)
An MV-22 Osprey squadron is stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa, Japan. A lawsuit has been filed to stop the base's relocation. (Marine Corps/Benjamin Pryer)

TOKYO -- Tuesday marked 20 years since Japan and the United States agreed on the return of the US Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture. However, the confrontation between the central government and Okinawa Prefecture over the relocation of Futenma's functions to the Henoko district of Nago in the prefecture has been hindering efforts to return the base, said to be the "most dangerous air station in the world."

The debate is framed by Japan's shifting security environment and changes in the will of the people of Okinawa Prefecture.

"The Futenma base, which is surrounded by houses and schools and located in the central part of the city, is very dangerous, and we should absolutely avoid a situation in which the use of the base will be perpetuated," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a press conference Monday, again calling for a consensus in support of relocating the base at the earliest possible date.

Suga offered strong words regarding a requirement by the Okinawa prefectural government that Futenma operations be suspended within five years, saying, "That is premised on the cooperation of the prefecture."

In response, Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga on Tuesday issued a statement saying, "The central government has been trying to resolve the problem based on the assumption that the Futenma base would be relocated within the prefecture, and this attitude has led to today's problem."

Return delayed On April 12, 1996, the Japanese and US governments agreed to return Futenma air base within "five to seven years." Then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and then US Ambassador to Japan Walter Mondale held a joint press conference in which they referred to a replacement facility, saying, "A new heliport will be constructed at a base that currently exists in Okinawa."

From the outset, the opinions of the people of Okinawa Prefecture over the relocation of the Futenma base to the Henoko district were divided, forcing the government to review the plan. The timing of the return of the Futenma base was postponed from the "by 2014" stipulated in the initial plan to "fiscal 2022 or later."

In November last year, a court held a hearing on a lawsuit filed by the central government to repeal the prefectural government's nullification of a permit for landfill work related to the relocation. It was the first court battle in the nearly 20-year history of the dispute.

In March, the central government accepted a court-mediated settlement, suspended the relocation work and launched negotiations with the Okinawa prefectural government. However, many believe it will be difficult for the two sides to reach an agreement.

'Out of the prefecture at least' Public opinion in Okinawa Prefecture has become more complex since the base relocation was first proposed.

"Twenty years ago, there was a clear picture of 'conservatives' supporting the relocation within the prefecture and 'progressives' opposing it," a source close to the central government said.

Opponents of relocation gained momentum in 2009, when the administration of then Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who pushed for achieving "relocation outside the prefecture at least," was formed. Though Hatoyama subsequently withdrew the plan, a majority of residents in Okinawa Prefecture continued to call for relocating the base "outside the prefecture."

Under such circumstances, Onaga, a former secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party's Okinawa prefectural chapter and onetime supporter of the relocation plan, was elected governor of the prefecture in 2014 by declaring opposition to the relocation of the Futenma base to the Henoko district. His election has clouded the view that the current state of affairs reflects a division between conservatives and progressives, according to a senior official at the prefectural government.

Meanwhile, Japan faces an evolving security environment. China is aggressively expanding its maritime activities around the Senkaku Islands, while North Korea's nuclear and missile development poses a threat to Japan.

According to the Defense Ministry, China's defense spending increased nearly 13.6 times from 70.2 billion yuan in fiscal 1996 to 954.4 billion yuan in fiscal 2016.

"The strategic importance of Okinawa Prefecture has increased significantly," a senior Defense Ministry official said.

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