U.S. Okinawa Base Relocation Hits a Snag

The controversial planned relocation of a U.S. military base on the Japanese island Okinawa may have hit a snag with the re-election of a mayor opposed to it in his city. Political analysts say local politicians and activists could affect the plan and put a dent in Japan-U.S. relations.

Nago mayor Susumu Inamine said his re-election, in the northern Okinawa city, is a clear sign from voters on one issue -- saying no to a U.S. military base that was to be relocated to Nago from its current location in Futenma in south Okinawa.

In his victory speech Sunday night, Mayor Inamine not only rejected a plan for his city to host a relocated base but also vowed to shut down the current base in Futenma.

He said the local residents, the people of this prefecture, are so much against this plan, so they must start with a clean slate and return to the discussion of moving the base off the prefecture, or away from this country. He said their basic principle on Futenma is to immediately close down the base. 

The U.S. and Japan have for years struggled to negotiate a new location for the Marine Corps Air Station in Futenma, south Okinawa. In densely populated Ginowan City, the base has long raised concerns about overburdening locals with the large military presence.

Washington hailed a breakthrough in December when Okinawa's Governor granted permission for a landfill for part of the base in Nago's Henoko Bay.

The agreement came just days after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered the governor $300 million a year in economic aid for eight years. Base opponents criticized that as a pay-off for a governor who had initially opposed the relocation.

Nago City Mayor Susumu Inamine (center) celebrates after he was re-elected in the mayoral election in Nago on the Japanese southern island of Okinawa on Jan. 19, 2014. /Reuters Nago City Mayor Susumu Inamine (center) celebrates after he was re-elected in the mayoral election in Nago on the Japanese southern island of Okinawa on Jan. 19, 2014. /Reuters

Many Okinawa locals have concerns over noise as well as increased crime that usually comes with bases. Environmentalists worry construction and base activities in Nago's port could affect the habitat of the endangered Du-gong, a relative of the manatee or sea cow. 

Tetsuo Kotani is a research fellow at Japan's Institute of International Affairs who said the fate of the base relocation remains unclear following the mayor's re-election. "It's very difficult to tell. We are still not sure how much authority he has to stop the base relocation. And, even if he has certain authority, the government can still overrule his authority by passing a law," Kotani stated.

Regardless, the vocal opposition to the base is putting Washington in a tough spot. Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies at Japan's Temple University. "The real quandary in Washington is whether it makes sense to proceed in this relocation given the prospects of strong local resistance and whether or not respecting the democratic voice of the people of Nago actually will hurt American interests in Japan," he noted.

The U.S. and Japan have for decades sought a solution to Okinawa's disproportionate burden of hosting U.S. soldiers. 

Okinawa has only 1 percent of Japan's land but hosts most of the 86,000 U.S. military personnel (38,000), dependents (43,000), and civilian employees (5,000).

The U.S. plans to move 9,000 U.S. troops out of Okinawa in the next decade to the U.S. Pacific island territory of Guam. But, thousands more would remain as part of a U.S. security commitment to Japan.

Kotani said the U.S. military presence in Okinawa is critical and supported by most Japanese. "Especially when the rise of China is posing difficult challenges and opportunities we need a stronger U.S. presence on Okinawa to discourage any Chinese aggressive movement," Kotani explained.

If the Futenma relocation to Nago falls through, there are few options.

Kingston said if the base remains in Ginowan City it would be a political "ticking time bomb." "So, the only alternative that has been proposed that a lot of people believe makes sense is integrating the marine air base into the large U.S. air force base at Kadena," he said. "And, three U.S. Senators-McCain, Levin, and Webb, have all recommended that option.  But, that has not gone down well with the Pentagon or Air Force."

The U.S. military has said relocating to Kadena Air Base, just seven miles away, would only serve to kick the burden of Futenma down the road.

VOA News / Jan. 22, 2014 08:13 KST