Editorial: Twenty years wasted since Futenma closure agreement

April 12, 2016 Ryukyu Shimpo

In twenty years, a newborn infant grows into a full-fledged adult. If a policy cannot be implemented over the course of two decades, there is something fundamentally wrong with that policy.

Today marks twenty years since the day that representatives of the U.S. and Japanese governments agreed to close and return U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. Despite this agreement, Futenma has not budged an inch. This is nothing if not proof that the terms of the agreement were misguided from the start.

The mistake was to demand a replacement facility within Okinawa as a condition for closing Futenma.

The agreement aimed to reduce the burden of U.S. military bases on Okinawa. To condition a reduction of burden on the addition of yet another burden defeats the purpose entirely. Both the U.S. and Japanese governments should squarely face the error of their decision to insist on relocating Futenma within Okinawa.

Hidden truths

Twenty years ago, Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and U.S. Ambassador to Japan Walter Mondale made a spectacle of announcing Futenma’s return. But the return was conditioned on building a replacement facility elsewhere in Okinawa. At the time, everyone both in Okinawa and in the rest of Japan assumed that this condition was nonnegotiable.

This assumption was based on the premise that the U.S. Marine Corps’ main unit was inseparable from the Marine Corps aviation unit and air field, which serves as the main unit’s primary form of transportation.
However, the Marine Corps aviation unit stationed at Futenma was moved there from Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Prime Minister Abe’s home prefecture of Yamaguchi in 1976, after Okinawa was returned to Japan. The rest of the Marines had been moved to Okinawa from the mainland Japanese prefectures of Gifu and Yamanashi in the 1950s. In other words, for two decades from the 1950s to the 1970s, the Marines’ main unit and aviation unit were separated, with the main unit in Okinawa and the aviation unit in mainland Japan.

This fact was disregarded twenty years ago, when the original agreement was made, as well as during the 2005 U.S.-Japan realignment talks and during Yukio Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan administration. At each of these points, negotiators failed because they could not rid themselves of the assumption that the Marine Corps aviation unit could not be separated from other units.

Amphibious assault ships are used to transport the U.S. Marines. These ships are homeported at Sasebo in Nagasaki, in the northern part of Kyushu. Thus, when considering ease of transportation, it would be more rational to base the Marines in the Kyushu, Chugoku, or Shikoku regions.

Furthermore, the role of the U.S. Marine Corps is to engage in sudden attacks on enemy territory. This contradicts Japan’s national policy of maintaining strictly defensive military forces. Even if one were to accept the premise that the Marines play a role in the defense of Japan, flexibility of execution is the Marines’ main selling point. Thus, it is logical to conclude that they do not need to be permanently stationed in a single location.

Japan’s foreign affairs and defense officials must be aware of these facts. Recently revealed diplomatic documents and first-hand testimony show that the U.S. government at one point suggested relocating the Marines to Kyushu or one of Japan’s other main islands. However, the Japanese government desperately concealed this fact from the population. Taking advantage of the average person’s lack of knowledge about security matters, the Japanese government pretended that Okinawa was the only option, not bothering to conduct serious negotiations either with the United States or with other prefectures that could potentially host the Marines.

No longer resigned to discrimination

The reason Okinawan people have resolutely opposed the relocation of Futenma within Okinawa in recent years is because we have become aware of this previously hidden context. We realized that Okinawa has long been sacrificed as host to the majority of U.S. bases in Japan not out of geostrategical necessity, but due to the Japanese government’s negligence. To resign ourselves to meaningless sacrifice would be to accept our position as victims of discrimination. The answer is clear. Okinawa will never accept the relocation of Futenma within the prefecture.

Yet, the Japanese government is digging in its heels. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has said that the closure of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma is contingent on the prefectural government’s cooperation in moving forward with the Henoko relocation. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida has once again repeated that Henoko is the only solution. If the government maintains its stance of simply demanding sacrifice from Okinawa, the next twenty years will only mirror the past two decades of unproductive stagnation.

The United States cannot act like a mere bystander. The area around the runways at Futenma have been a center of Okinawan life since ancient times. The United States violated the Hague Convention on land war when it unilaterally turned Okinawan land into military bases while Okinawans had evacuated from their homes during battle or were confined in internment camps after the war. After defying international law and occupying Okinawan land for seventy years, for the United States to demand new land in exchange for the return of that stolen land is to behave like a thief who turns aggressive when caught in the act.

The will of the Okinawan people is unshakeable. Denial of popular will is a denial of local self-government and democracy. If the United States and Japan do not wish to be criticized as barbaric, pre-modern states, they have no choice but to abide by the will of the Okinawan people.

(English translation by T&CT and Sandi Aritza)

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