Editorial: Fresh start is needed for U.S.-Japan bilateral agreement on military base in Okinawa

New developments within the Japanese government have been announced regarding the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan City, Okinawa. An environmental impact statement based on the bilateral agreement stipulating that the airfield will be relocated to Henoko, Nago City will be submitted within the year.

However, many residents of Okinawa are opposed to this relocation plan. If the government continues its “bulldozing” of the people’s wishes, a resolution will remain out of reach.

The government should instead hear out the views of the people of Okinawa, and begin this process anew, bearing in mind the possibility that the bilateral agreement should be completely revoked.

How would the relocation affect the environment surrounding Henoko? The impact statement will include the results of such an assessment.

If Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima indicates his dissent, changes will be made to the statement. It appears that the plan involves requesting a coastal reclamation license from the governor following the changes.

Prompting by the United States seems to lie behind this sudden decision. The U.S. Congress is reluctant to provide funds for the relocation of the Marines from Okinawa to Guam due to the standstill involving the Futenma issue. It is said that President Obama asked Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda for “developments” during last month’s bilateral summit as a means of dealing with Congress.

However, the local people are expressing resentment over the government’s compliant attitude toward the United States. Even if the impact statement is completed, the relocation plan will grind to a halt if the governor chooses not to authorize the reclamation. The possibility exists that the dangers of the Futenma airfield, located in the midst of an urban setting, will be ignored.

It even seems as if the government is pushing forward with its plans even while predicting this sort of outcome. We cannot help but criticize the practice of foisting all responsibility on the local population by saying “It’s Okinawa’s fault that there’s no progress.”

In reality, it is the Democratic Party of Japan that must be blamed for these complications. Former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama declared that the base would be moved “outside the prefecture at the very least,” yet this promise has proved to be empty words. Even now, negotiations between the two governments are conducted with no consideration for the local people, and the new location has reverted from “outside Okinawa” to Henoko.

Moreover, it is worrying that Minister of Defense Yasuo Ichikawa has stated that the usage of the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey, notorious for numerous crashes during its development, “will be included in the assessment.”

The planes are scheduled to be deployed to Futenma next year, and many residents are opposed to this move. In the first place, it is questionable whether the government is able to accurately estimate the level of noise pollution when the actual planes are not yet available.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government plans to cut that nation’s defense budget by some 450 billion dollars within the next ten years due to economic woes. Voices within the U.S. Congress have even called for further reductions beyond this figure. Such financial conditions are one reason some powerful members of the Senate have proposed the idea of merging Futenma with the Kadena Air Base.

The Japanese government, too, does not have the time or money to waste on considering the relocation to Henoko when the chances of this move are so slim. Above all, they must not continue this fruitless method of disregarding the will of the local people.

How can the reduction of U.S. bases in Okinawa and the burden they create be realized? This situation should be viewed as an opportunity to formulate independent proposals that are based on overall conditions in East Asia, as opposed to simply rubber-stamping the strategies of the U.S. military.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta will visit Japan soon. Next month, a Japan-U.S. Summit is scheduled. We call on the Noda administration to respond in a way that respects the wishes of the Okinawan people for relocating the base outside of Okinawa.

(Originally published on October 19, 2011)