After 17 Years of Stalemate, Breakthrough in Okinawa

Demanding Okinawa Governor's resignation
After 17 Years of Stalemate, Breakthrough in Okinawa - Emily Olsson

Okinawa’s Governor, Hirokazu Nakaima, recently approved plans for landfill work to begin on the Henoko coast, which will permit the US Marine Corps Futenma Air Station to relocate to the less densely populated area. The location of this base has been a thorn in US-Japan relations for 17 years now. The two countries signed an agreement to close the Futenma Air Station in 1996 after three US servicemen raped a 12-year-old Japanese schoolgirl, and then in 2006, they decided to move the base to the Henoko coast. The project had been stalled recently by then-Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama who attempted to move it completely out of Okinawa at the high cost of his political career.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was able to persuade Nakaima to sign off on the deal by promising a generous stimulus package that includes infrastructure and other development projects for the governor’s poor prefecture. This concession was a big achievement for Abe’s government and demonstrates the strategic importance of continued US military presence in Japan.

Since taking office in 2012, Abe has focused on strengthening Japan’s defense capabilities and, as part of that effort, its ties with the US. Rising tensions with China have only increased his desire to do so. The most recent flare-up between the two countries occurred in November when China created the Air Defense Identification Zone, which has been viewed as another attempt to assert territorial claim over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. With a relocation plan now approved, Abe can continue working to improve the US-Japan security alliance and his other nationalistic policies.

The longstanding dispute has also complicated US efforts to create a broader policy framework for the Asian region. In a statement about the relocation plan, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said, “The realignment effort is absolutely critical to the United States' ongoing rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region and our ability to maintain a geographically distributed, operationally resilient, and politically sustainable force posture in the region.” Now, the US can start moving forward with its pivot towards Asia. Over the next several years the Pentagon will cut the number of Marines stationed on Okinawa by almost half and move them to other bases in Australia, Hawaii, and Guam.

While Nakaima’s decision was welcomed by both US and Japanese leaders, it sparked anger in Okinawa, where many people want the base moved out of the prefecture entirely. The US military currently has more than 30 bases in Okinawa and around half of its 50,000 troops in the Asia-Pacific are stationed in those bases. The locals often complain of a number of issues. They are concerned with the noise and environmental pollution that US military bases cause as well as the physical safety hazards of having planes and helicopters flying close to local buildings. There have also been several cases of sexual assault by US servicemen. The Okinawans feel as though they have been left to shoulder an undue portion of the US-Japan security relationship. Such intense local opposition could lead to further complications in the base’s relocation process; it most likely will not make for a smooth transition as opponents have already begun preparing lawsuits against the move.

The landfill work approval is strategically useful for both the US and Japan, and it could be the beginning of an even stronger security alliance between the two countries. With the region’s politics under greater focus and strain, their ability to keep relocation plans moving forward in spite of strong local opposition will be an important test of their relationship.