Ace of Base

Can Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe finally close down a problematic U.S. air station in Okinawa?


The wit and wisdom of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is not much in vogue these days. But along the fences surrounding the Futenma Air Station in Okinawa, a base of roughly 4,000 U.S. Marines, he retains an unlikely following. The small number of protesters who regularly gather here invoke Rumsfeld and quote his alleged assertion that Futenma is "the world’s most dangerous base," due to its location in the middle of Ginowan City, a town of 95,000 residents in southern Japan.

Whether Futenma is really that dangerous — and the Marines insist it isn’t — the base’s opponents appear to have finally gotten their way. In late December, the governor of Okinawa prefecture, Hirokazu Nakaima, approved a U.S.-Japanese plan to build a new offshore air base on a remote spot in the island’s north. It’s an important step in the 17-year saga of closing Futenma: U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called Nakaima’s decision a "milestone." (Capt. Caleb Eames, a public affairs liaison officer in Okinawa, said, "We will go wherever the U.S. and Japanese governments agree to send us.")

But even if the move comes off as planned, the end goal is still probably years away. In 1996, Tokyo and Washington first agreed to move the base, in the wake of an uproar caused when three U.S. Marines raped a local girl. The governments soon jointly identified a site, now called the Futenma Relocation Facility (FRF), near the small village of Henoko (which itself already hosts the U.S. Marine base Camp Schwab). But the project soon stalled — discussed and then ignored by subsequent Japanese administrations. Yukio Hatoyama, elected prime minister in 2009, tried to resurrect the issue and boldly pledged in his election campaign to relocate Futenma outside of Okinawa. After admitting that he couldn’t, he resigned, just eight months after taking office.

Current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe breathed new life into the relocation plan upon returning to office in December 2012; he dreams of a deeper and better U.S.-Japan alliance and regards Futenma’s relocation as a removable irritant. He thus pressured Nakaima — who is a member of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party — to sign off on the relocation.

The 1.4 million islanders potentially stand to gain: Nakaima only relented after handing Abe a lengthy wish list — conditions, effectively, for his approval. According to an emailed release sent out by the prefectural government, these include the accelerated closure of Futenma by 2019, regardless of whether the FRF has been built by then, and a range of measures designed to boost the local economy, which lags behind the rest of Japan’s.

The people of Ginowan, who have long grumbled about aircraft noise, as well as safety concerns, will be happy enough to see the end of Futenma. But many Okinawans don’t want to see Futenma relocated to another part of their island — they want to see it closed for good. Okinawans point out their island already hosts roughly 75 percent of the U.S. military bases in Japan: Futenma is just one of nine major Marine Corps facilities on Okinawa; the sprawling U.S. Kadena Air Base sits just a few miles to Futenma’s north.

At Henoko, home to the proposed air base, protesters have been steeling themselves for this moment for a very long time. Hiroshi Ashitomi, a retired government worker, has been demonstrating against FRF since it was first conceived.

"Abe is not as strong as he looks," said Ashitomi with a smile. A tent sit-in, which Ashitomi helps to organize near the FRF site, is nearing its 10th anniversary, and the protesters’ mood is determined, he says. "About 2,000 people pass through here each month," he estimates, with supporters coming from across the island and even mainland Japan. Their long-held opposition is unlikely to wane simply because Nakaima has managed to extract some concessions from the central government. Indeed, Nakaima had always styled himself an opponent of Futenma’s relocation. His approval provoked around 2,000 protesters to descend on the prefectural government office shortly after his Dec. 27 announcement; they accused him of selling out the Okinawan people and called for his resignation.

The timing of Nakaima’s decision was no accident. After the initial flurry of protest, the island — including its characteristically anti-base media — mostly shut down for the New Year vacation. Yet this may only be a temporary lull. Further protests and legal challenges are already being planned. The local assembly called a special session for Jan. 9 to debate Nakaima’s move, though its members lack the power to reverse his decision. Yuichi Higa, the head of the town of Nago’s local assembly, has even suggested that local residents will resort to blocking roads to prevent the construction from happening.

It is too early to say whether the protests will be substantial enough to stop what Nakaima and Abe have set in motion. A combination of local protest and international action — such as filing an official complaint to UNESCO about the damage the new base would cause to the local ecosystem — could potentially delay plans. But beyond the hard-core protesters — most of whom are avowedly nonviolent — ordinary Okinawans seldom take to the streets.

If Abe can demonstrate that Okinawa will promptly and tangibly benefit from Futenma’s relocation, then he should be able to succeed in moving Futenma where so many previous prime ministers have failed. Despite Nakaima’s green light, the United States and Japan may still face a battle to see their new base built. The question — for Okinawans, the U.S. Marines, and American and Japanese taxpayers, and one that Rumsfeld knew all along — is whether the FRF is really worth fighting for.

Nika Nashiro contributed research to this report.

Trefor Moss is a Hong Kong-based journalist and a former Asia-Pacific editor at Jane's Defence Weekly. He can be followed on Twitter @Trefor1.