Fully consider residents’ wishes to expedite relocation of Futenma base

The relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station in Okinawa Prefecture to the Henoko district in Nago in the same prefecture is the only solution that strikes a balance between maintaining deterrence and reducing the base-related burden on the prefecture. The central government needs to steadily facilitate the relocation project while giving sufficient consideration to local residents’ wishes.

In the mayoral election for Nago in the prefecture, incumbent Taketoyo Toguchi won a second term with the support of political parties that promote the base relocation project, including the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Toguchi defeated a former city assembly member, a first-time candidate who opposed the project.

Toguchi did not address the relocation issue during the election campaign, instead touting to voters the welfare measures he implemented during his first term, such as free nursing care for preschool children, free school lunches and medical services for children, as well as his achievements in regional development.

These policies are financed mostly by the central government’s subsidies for U.S. military realignment, which were not provided during the terms of the former mayor who opposed the relocation project.

The pouring of earth and sand into the coastal area of Henoko began in 2018 when Toguchi took office as mayor, and slightly less than 30% of the area to be reclaimed has already been turned into land.

Residents may have decided that they should vitalize their communities rather than bog down city politics through confrontations with the central government.

Regarding the outcome of the mayoral election, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said at the Budget Committee of the House of Representatives, “[The government] will continue to work on the development of Nago and the northern parts [of Okinawa Prefecture] in close cooperation with the mayor.” The central government needs to listen to requests from the city government and expand its understanding of the base relocation project.

Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki provided his full support to the former city assembly member running in the election. Tamaki has clarified his intention to stop the relocation project, for example when he rejected the central government’s application for design changes in November last year to strengthen the soft seabed that was detected off the coast of Henoko. He will be forced to reconsider this approach.

Taking advantage of this election victory, the ruling parties intend to promote the relocation project by also winning the gubernatorial election slated for this autumn.

If the base relocation project is realized, it would be possible to remove the danger of the Futenma air base, which is located in a densely populated area, and use the land for other purposes. The central government must tenaciously convey to the prefecture how the relocation project will bring significant benefits as a whole.

The spread of the omicron variant around U.S. military bases in the prefecture has caused anxiety among residents. Accidents related to the U.S. military also continue to occur there.

As China and North Korea increase their military provocations, the presence of U.S. forces based in Japan is increasingly important. The Japanese and U.S. governments need to pay more attention to ensuring that U.S. forces are smoothly and stably stationed in Japan.

This year marks a turning point with the 50th anniversary of Okinawa’s return to Japan’s control. There is an urgent need to reduce the overall burden on Okinawa, which is home to about 70% of all the land exclusively used by U.S. military facilities in Japan. The Japanese government must continue to consider how to reorganize U.S. bases in the prefecture and shift their training sites to other locations, among other steps.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Jan. 25, 2022.