Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki, center, speaks to journalists after meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo on Oct 12. Photo: Eugene Hoshiko / AFP
Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki, center, speaks to journalists after meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo on Oct 12. Photo: Eugene Hoshiko / AFP

Trucks carrying earth and landfill rumble daily through the tropical heat as they drop off materials needed to create a new, artificial air base at Henoko off the northeast coast of Okinawa. On November 1, Japan’s Ministry of Land ordered construction, suspended since the summer, to resume.

Tokyo’s action looks like a rebuke to the Okinawans who elected Governor Denny Tamaki in a special election held following the death of former governor Takeshi Onaga in August.

Tamaki was elected on a strong anti-US base platform but if he is to halt the work, he must move fast. A seawall is already in place, and the reclamation work should be finished by the end of the year – less than two months away. (Although there will still be much work to be done before the reclaimed land is a fully-fledged air base.)

And he is talking tough. At a press conference held in Tokyo last week before leaving to fly to the United States to advance the cause, Tamaki said: “It is unrealistic to think we are giving up.”

If nothing else, Tamaki’s election has galvanized an electorate that had become apathetic and resigned to the new base project. “In a sense, it has given us hope,” said Masaaki Gabe, a professor of International Affairs at the University of the Ryukyus.

A place surrounded by a revetment that is scheduled to be filled is pictured at Henoko coastal area in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture on Oct.8, 2018. Japan's central government plans to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station, located in a congested area in the Okinawa city of Ginowan, to the Henoko coastal district. Denny Tamaki, who opposes the base relocation, won the Okinawa gubernatorial election in September.( The Yomiuri Shimbun )
A seawall surrounds an area to be filled for the Henoko airbase in Nago, Okinawa on Oct 8. Japan plans to relocate US Marines from Futenma to the Henoko coastal district. Governor Tamaki opposes the relocation.Photo: AFP / Yomiuri Shimbun

Base grievances

Henoko is meant to replace the Futenma Marine Corps Air Station near Naha, Okinawa’s capital. Futenma mostly serves helicopters and light aircraft, including the controversial Osprey vertical take-off aircraft. Over the years, a town call Ginowan has organically grown up to entirely surround the base, making it one of the most dangerous air stations in the world.

Every side in the base dispute agrees that Futenma must close before a military craft crashes, killing civilians. The differing views are over where to base the aircraft.

Some have suggested moving the planes to the massive Kadena Airbase, but Washington opposes this option: Kadena is air force, while Futenma is Marines.

Yukio Hatoyama, the first prime minister in the short-lived opposition government in Tokyo in 2008, tried to find a suitable replacement base on the mainland but failed to find any willing host. His quixotic quest ruined his premiership – and possibly his party too.

The base relocation issue is only one element of a sweeping relocation plan that goes back to the mid-1990s following the notorious case of a 12-year-old girl gang-raped by American Marines based on the island.

Perhaps ironically, Tamaki is himself the son of an American Marine based on Okinawa – a father he never met. That makes him a hafu, a bastardization of the English word “half,” and the term Japanese use for the offspring of Japanese and foreign relationships.

Island vs mainland

The base issue is just one of several that make ordinary Okinawans feel that they are shouldering an unfair burden in Japan’s defense. Tamaki noted that his island comprises just 0.6% of Japan’s land mass, but hosts 74% of all American military installations nationwide.

Besides closing Futenma and building a replacement base in a less populated part of Okinawa, the plan agreed by Tokyo and Washington involves moving thousands of the Marines based there to locations outside Japan, such as Guam or Australia. Tamaki stressed that he supports the US security alliance and presence. He just wants a fairer distribution of troops.

This puts him at odds with the mainland establishment. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has shown himself implacably opposed to any compromise that would stop the base reclamation and seems more willing to alienate Okinawans than to jeopardize the alliance with the United States.

Soon after his election, Tamaki met with Abe. He got no satisfaction. Abe merely repeated the Tokyo-Washington formula that Henoko is the “only” solution for base relocation.

And Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who personally campaigned for Tamaki’s opponent, strongly asserted that regardless of the gubernatorial election, the government does not intend to change its position on the base relocation.

Tamaki’s tactics

How can the Okinawan governor stop what seems to be unstoppable?

Tamaki said his first steps will be to take his case to Japan’s Central and Local Dispute Management Council to seek a judgment. If he gets no joy there, he could take the matter to the nation’s High Court.

Tamaki has also indicated that he might seek approval from the local assembly to hold a referendum on the subject next spring. The feelings of the local people have been ignored by the central government, he believes. “So we need a referendum to make our position clear.”

Washington is keeping it low-key. Following his election win, a spokesman for the Secretary of State issued a bland statement: “We congratulate Denny Tamaki on his election and look forward to working with him,” it read. It did not touch on the base issue.

With Donald Trump in the White House, Tokyo most certainly does not want to make it seem that Japan is not willing to pull its weight as an alliance partner. An added factor is China’s intentions in the waters near Okinawa.

Okinawa lies north of the uninhabited Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands that are maintained by Japan, but whose ownership is claimed by both countries. Okinawa is also a stepping stone to the mainland for an invader – as it was in 1945, when the Americans landed during World War II.

The 1945 Battle of Okinawa, in which hundreds of thousands of civilians perished, is still a running sore between Okinawa and mainland Japan. In the recent race for leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, Abe opponent Shigeru Ishida said that Tokyo must “never forget” what Okinawa suffered during the war.

Given the opposition to his stance in Tokyo, the old enemy, the United States, might be Tamaki’s only potential ally. On his US trip, he plans to lobby Congressmen and other Americans in Washington, and to deliver a related lecture at New York University.

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