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The Constancy of Contest with Okinawa

by Sheila A. Smith
January 23, 2014

Coral reefs are seen along the coast near the U.S. Marine base Camp Schwab, off the tiny hamlet of Henoko in Nago on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa, in this aerial photo taken by Kyodo on January 14, 2014. (Kyodo/Courtesy Reuters) Coral reefs are seen along the coast near the U.S. Marine base Camp Schwab, off the tiny hamlet of Henoko in Nago on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa, in this aerial photo taken on January 14, 2014. (Kyodo/Courtesy Reuters)


On Sunday, voters in Nago City re-elected their mayor, Susumu Inamine. Compared with his predecessors, Inamine’s margin of victory was high—more than 4,000 votes more than his challenger. Unlike his predecessors, however, Inamine campaigned solidly against the relocation of the U.S. Marine airfield to his community, a policy advocated by Japan’s prime minister. Despite the Okinawa governor’s decision to approve construction of a new runway just weeks earlier, Inamine proclaimed that he would do all that he can to thwart the construction of the runway for the U.S. Marines in his city.

The Japanese chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, announced immediately that the results will not change Tokyo’s policy. Futenma Marine Air Station will be closed, and a new runway will be built at Camp Schwab in Nago. The Okinawa prefectural government also stated that this would not change the governor’s decision. But everyone understands that Inamine’s re-election highlights the continued resistance to government plans, and will complicate construction plans in coming months.

This year’s Nago municipal election is another in a long series of local elections where base relocation plans were a focal point. Throughout the seventeen year effort to persuade local residents to accept Nago City as the site for relocating the U.S. Marines, citizen activism as well as local elections have slowed base consolidation in Okinawa. Long characterized by policymakers and media alike as a battle between pro-base conservatives and anti-base progressives, the political struggle over Futenma relocation has often been characterized as evidence of ideological rather than policy difference.

But this explanation misreads the history of local debate over base relocation to Nago. A quick look at Nago’s past elections reveals a more complex story. Since the idea of relocating the Marines to Nago surfaced in 1997, Nago has had five elections. Tokyo presented Nago City with the idea of an offshore base, a novel vision of a floating base structure anchored to the ocean floor by pylons. Local opposition was widespread, and yet the mayor at the time, Tetsuya Higa, finally accepted the government plan and promptly resigned. His successor, Tateo Kishimoto, was elected into office with a wide margin of support despite local contention over the plan to move the Marines to his city, and served two terms as Nago’s mayor, navigating the difficult currents of opposition within his city as well as within Okinawa prefecture. At the time, it was Okinawa’s governor, Masahide Ota, who opposed relocation of Futenma air station to Nago City. Kishimoto’s successor, Yoshikazu Shimabukuro, another advocate of compromise with Tokyo, presided over Nago City offices when Japan’s ruling party changed in the historic 2009 election.

Ideology has not been the driving force in voter preferences in Nago. Rather the question has been whether Nago residents had a choice, and what sort of choice that was. Early on, a local Nago referendum movement in December 1997 reflected the complexity of local sentiment, and ultimately revealed a majority in favor of refusing Tokyo’s plan to expand the U.S. military presence in their community. A second factor was the economic benefits to be had from cooperating with Tokyo’s plan. The enticement of subsidies and tax breaks initially raised interest in the base relocation plan, but over time this incentive dimmed. Differences emerged between residents along the sparsely populated eastern coast and those on the western coast who had better alternative sources of revenue.

The complexion of protest in Okinawa has changed considerably over the past decade and a half. Today it is municipal mayors and assembly members that lead the effort to oppose the terms of base relocation in Okinawa. Last January, forty-one elected mayors from Okinawa traveled to Tokyo to protest relocation within Okinawa prefecture. At a rally in Hibiya Park, attracting around 4,000 supporters, the mayors called upon all Japanese to consider basing of U.S. forces in Japan. Naha city mayor Takeshi Onaga said, “You cannot restore Japan by continuing to place the burden of Japanese security only on Okinawa. All the people in the main islands of Japan need to take part in discussion on Japan-U.S. security arrangements.”

Moreover, the terms of compromise have also changed. Economic subsidies remain central to local consent. The ten-year Okinawa Development Plan offers the most important opportunity to negotiate the economic bargain between Okinawa and Tokyo. The Abe cabinet has just raised its payments to Okinawa considerably, committing to an annual flow of $3 billion to the prefecture through this decade. The amount requested by Okinawa for long-term development planning was not only larger, but also included greater latitude for local discretion over development priorities. In a system of tight central government control, the Okinawa governor was given latitude for projects conceived of and designed by Okinawans. The ability of the governor to shape municipal priorities was also enhanced.

But other local concerns also factored into the conversation with Tokyo. Successive governors in Okinawa have argued for greater policy attention to the needs of local municipalities who must manage the U.S. military presence. The return of base land is also in play for other bases in central Okinawa. Operations of U.S. forces in Okinawa, including the newly deployed Osprey helicopters, are being redeployed for training on the main Japanese islands.

In the final stages of negotiations with Prime Minister Abe, Governor Nakaima put forward his conditions for accepting the new Marine runway. Alongside his request for funding of prefectural initiatives, Nakaima asked for the prime minister’s promise to close Futenma Marine Air Station within five years. No matter how quickly the new runway is built, it will not be completed within five years. Thus, the challenge to the prime minister was to commit to a date for closure no matter what happened to construction plans in Nago City. Two other requests were notable: the first was to allow an amendment to the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that provides for environmental protection oversight for U.S. military bases in Okinawa; and, second, that half of the Osprey helicopters introduced recently into Okinawa would be deployed elsewhere in Japan. The prime minister took on the governor’s challenge, and the bargain was struck.

At the end of 2013, Governor Hirokazu Nakaima finally announced his consent to allow the Nago City relocation move forward, a major breakthrough after years of stalemate between Tokyo and Naha. On December 27, Governor Nakaima approved the landfill permit for building the new V-shaped runway in Oura Bay on the east coast of Nago City. Excitement among policymakers in Tokyo and Washington was palpable, but Prime Minister Abe’s surprise visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine eclipsed their celebration.

Within hours of his announcement that he would approve the landfill permit, 700 protestors appeared in Nakaima’s prefectural office demanding that the governor rescind his permission. In the prefectural assembly, a resolution calling for his resignation was approved 24–21, with the vote falling predictably along party lines. This was non-binding, but an unprecedented censure of a sitting governor in Okinawa.

As Okinawa’s governor moved slowly toward compromise with Tokyo, however, Nago City moved away from compromise on the relocation of the Marines to their community. Ever since Mayor Higa resigned sixteen years ago, Nago residents have elected candidates for mayor that have campaigned on working with Tokyo on the relocation plan for the U.S. Marines. The citizen led municipal referendum challenged this approach, but ultimately the voters chose compromise—until they elected Inamine, that is.

Mayor Inamine’s candidacy and his first electoral victory in 2010 reflected a fundamental change. Saturated with subsidies from Tokyo, and fed up with the national political battleground their community had become, the residents of this small northern municipality turned against compromise. Last Sunday, they reaffirmed that choice, and sustained in office the quiet but determined man who refused the economic subsidies and whose mayoral office is covered with reminders of the pristine waters and natural habitat that still remains in Nago.

In the much more populated and built up south, the mayor of Ginowan City, Atsushi Sakima, refused to comment on the outcome of Nago’s election. But he pointedly reminded reporters that the task at hand was to close Futenma. Looking ahead, the next opportunity for electoral contest comes in the fall, when Okinawa will hold its next gubernatorial race. Nakaima will not seek re-election, and speculation is already circulating on who will run. The man widely seen as the frontrunner, Mayor Onaga of Naha City, is an outspoken critic of the Tokyo government’s relocation plan.

As mayor, Inamine has less power than the governor to influence Tokyo’s decision-making. He has said he will use all municipal authority at his disposal to oppose construction, but municipal authority is far more limited than prefectural authority in Japan. Now that the governor has approved the landfill plan, the national government has no further legal hurdles to construction.

Mayor Inamine’s re-election has put Tokyo on notice that construction of the new runway will incur local opposition. The strength of that opposition, however, remains to be seen. Seventeen years after the initial idea of building a replacement facility for Futenma within Okinawa prefecture drew protest and citizen activism, it is hard to know if there is enough energy left to mobilize citizen protest against government bulldozers.

For the first time since Futenma’s return was announced in 1997, Tokyo has successfully divided opinion in Okinawa, and today Tokyo and Naha are partners in favor of relocating the U.S. Marine base in central Okinawa to the less populated north. But the Nago election demonstrates that the local will to contest national government plans on the U.S. bases is alive and well, even in a community where the economic pay-offs would be considerable.

For Mayor Inamine, however, the future of his platform of opposition will depend largely on the willingness of others to support his cause. Will other localities join Inamine in opposition to the governor? Or will Governor Nakaima’s decision to accept construction carry the day? The weeks and months ahead leading up to the gubernatorial election will reveal the next phase of Okinawan contest over the U.S. military bases.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Ken

    Nakaima betrayed the Okinawan people.
    LDP will not be able to win the next election for the governer.
    The solution is simple.
    Withdrawal all U.S. military forces and return the occupied land to the local people.
    United States should not be involved the tensions on East Asia, and should not spend the budget as a target by a missile.
    If the U.S. forces will withdraw from Okinawa, it must be a card to negotiate for de-militarizing East Asia.
    It is the time to change Okinawa from military key stone to the center of Asian peace by disarming.


    1. Thank you very much for your chronological and systematic analysis on the political dynamics of the Futenma relocation issue. I think your article is the most comprehensive analysis regarding the political ramifications of the Nago City mayoral election so far by an expert.

    2. Allow me to add three factors to supplement.

    First, as Mr. Inamine, re-elected Mayor of Nago City, mentioned after his victory, the memories of Okinawa history are working here.

    In the last phase of the Second World War, as the Allied forces were converging toward the Japanese mainland, the Japanese Imperial High Command decided to use Okinawa to buy time. They dispatched the Army from the Japanese mainland and ordered the Commander to resist as long as possible so that an attack against the Japanese mainland would be delayed. Consequently, despite being overwhelmed by the Allied forces, the Japanese Commander refused to surrender and, instead, moved the Japanese Army into the area where local Okinawa people were evacuated. As a result of that, Okinawa people were caught in crossfire and a hundred of thousands of Okinawa people were killed.

    The attitude of the current Japanese central government sacrificing Okinawa overlaps with the attitude of the Japanese Imperial High Command for the eyes of people of Nago City and Okinawa.

    Secondly, as Mayor Inamine mentioned, the principles of democracy and human rights are working here. The will of people of Nago City was clearly indicated. The majority of people of Nago City opposes to the military base. They demand the right to live peacefully.

    Of course, even under Federalism, defense issues are left to the central government. However, the central government is not entitled to force their defense policies against democratic will and human rights of local people. If the Japanese government destroys democracy and human rights domestically, it can’t advocate democracy and human rights overseas.

    Thirdly, a striking phenomenon regarding the Futenma relocation issue is a lack of national debate. In other words, lack of sense of responsibilities of local governments of the Japanese mainland.

    For the purpose of national security and balance of power, Japan needs US military forces to protect herself. The local governments of Japanese mainland need to share the responsibilities.

    Debate and discussion should be made at the National Governor’s Association and regional blocks of Governor’s Associations regarding how to accommodate the functions of the Futenma Air Station.

    3. As you precisely point out in your article, the next Okinawa gubernatorial election of November 2014 will be decisive on the Futenma relocation issue. I agree with you that Mayor Onaga of Naha City who is an outspoken critic of the Tokyo government’s relocation plan is a frontrunner.

    Given the likelihood of Mayor Onaga of Naha City will become the next Okinawa Governor, Washington and Tokyo should start discussion on alternatives for the Futenma relocation in case the relocation to Nago City wouldn’t work. Alternatives of outside of Okinawa, i.e., relocation to the mainland of Japan should be discussed.

    Also, national debate and debate among local governments should be made as to which sites should take responsibilities of accommodating the functions of the Futenma Air Station.

    Proposals and suggestions for the alternatives can be made from Japanese opposition parties, or from Japanese local governments, or from the US government, or from academic communities, or from NPO/NGO including think-tanks.

    I am afraid that the Japanese central government is dysfunctional on the Futenma relocation issue. The Japanese central government defiantly indicated that they would go forward with the relocation to Nago City despite the victory of Mr. Inamine in the mayoral election of Nago City. With their stove-pipe inflexible bureaucratic system, the Japanese central government would only exacerbate the issue.

    Thank you.


    I don’t think that the executive branch of the Japanese government is an appropriate entity to handle the Futenma relocation issue.

    The Japanese central government defiantly indicated that they would go forward with the relocation of Futenma Air Station to Nago City despite the victory of Mr. Inamine in the mayoral election of Nago City who definitely opposes to the relocation. With their stove-pipe inflexible bureaucratic system, the Japanese central government would only exacerbate the issue.

    Instead of the executive branch of the government, it is the legislature that should be the principal forum for deliberating, debating, and resolving the issue of Futenma relocation. A special legislative committee should be set up to specifically handle the issue.

    By its nature, the Futenma relocation issue is very complicated with mixed, sometimes opposing interests among various factors and parties. Solutions to such issues can only be achieved through democratic, free, and open debate.

    National security issues, of course, require secrecy of information. However, detailed and effectual debate can be made publicly even on national security issues as exemplified by US Senate Armed Services Committee and US House Armed Services Committee.

    The committee should conduct hearings by inviting witnesses from local governments, the US government, academic communities, and NGO/NPO including think-tanks domestically and internationally.

    Also, the members of the committee should be dispatched to various prefectures to publicly discuss the issue with local government officials including Governors in front of local people.

    The committee would submit a report with recommendations to the executive branch of the government. The executive branch would respect the recommendations and carry them out. If the executive branch is not willing to follow, the committee would put up the issue to the upper and lower chambers of the legislature and pass a binding resolution.

    Public debate ensures people’s participation in the process of solution. Also, it encourages people to express their views and provide their suggestions to facilitate the solution of the issue.

    By watching the debate, the Japanese people will learn the meaning of national security, responsibilities of local governments, and above all democratic civilian control over the military, all of which will in turn contribute to stable, practical execution of national security policies.

    In democracies, it is the people who hold sovereign power over legislator and the government. In a democracy, it is the people who ultimately determine the nation’s policies including national security policies.

    Thank you.

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