Tamaki’s stance on Futenma relocation casts shadow over Okinawa promotion budget

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
The construction site for a runway is seen off the Henoko district of Nago, Okinawa Prefecture.

The budget to promote Okinawa Prefecture for fiscal 2022 has fallen below ¥300 billion for the first time in 10 years, allegedly due to Gov. Denny Tamaki’s opposition to the relocation of the U.S. Futenma Air Station in Ginowan to Henoko in the city of Nago — a move that has been backed by the central government.

At the Okinawa promotion and expansion conference on April 22, Tamaki was blamed for the budget cuts by the central government. Comments from the attendees included such remarks as “How will you make up for the reduced budget?” and “Can’t you explain why the budget has been reduced?”

The Okinawa Prefectural Budokan in Naha is normally a place for enjoying sports, but it was enveloped in tension during the conference, which was attended by the leaders of all 41 municipalities in the prefecture. The attendees took particular issue with the reduction of lump-sum grants, money that prefectures and municipalities can decide themselves how to spend.

Block grants totaled ¥175.9 billion in fiscal 2014, but decreased to ¥76.2 billion in fiscal 2022.

Tamaki could only say, “We have begun requesting the budget for next fiscal year.”

The aftermath of the budget cut will have repercussions for residents’ daily lives. Tsukazan Park along National Highway Route 507 in the town of Haebaru was scheduled for completion in fiscal 2021, with the help of a lump-sum grant. With the exception of a parking lot, however, the park is a barren area, with ropes prohibiting entry. There are many similar cases in the prefecture.

The budget to promote Okinawa Prefecture was introduced under a unique system upon Okinawa’s reversion to Japan, with the aim of correcting its disparities with other prefectures and achieving economic independence.

Funds decreased from ¥350.1 billion in fiscal 2014 to ¥334 billion in fiscal 2015, and have continued to decline.

Taking into account Okinawa’s special circumstances, the governmental subsidizes as much as 90% of some projects. Half a century after Okinawa’s reversion to Japan, however, some see this as a problem.

“Preferential treatment is preventing Okinawa Prefecture from becoming self-sufficient,” a former Cabinet member of the Liberal Democratic Party said.

The central government’s position is that the budget reduction was based on a “close examination of the necessity of the projects,” but few people take this at face value.

Referring to Tamaki’s opposition to the relocation of the U.S. Futenma Air Station to Henoko, Ishigaki Mayor Yoshitaka Nakayama said the government and the prefecture have yet to cooperate with each other.

Tamaki was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2009, having run under the banner of the Democratic Party of Japan, and shared political activities with lower house lawmaker Ichiro Ozawa. He won the gubernatorial election in 2018 after being nominated as the de facto successor by then Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga, who had collapsed from illness.

His support base is the “All Okinawa” movement, a union of both conservative and progressive voters that refuses to compromise in any way regarding its opposition to the Henoko relocation.

Successive Okinawa governors have struggled with the theory that the budget for the promotion of the prefecture is linked to the provision of land for U.S. bases.

Former Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima — who formed a strong connection with the central government — was no exception. In 2013, when Nakaima was Okinawa governor, he held behind-the-scenes last-minute negotiations with then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga over the Henoko issue and the promotion of the prefecture.

Following the proposal by the Democratic Party of Japan’s administration to relocate Futenma Air Station out of the prefecture, Nakaima also explored the possibility of doing so, as opposition to such a move to Henoko erupted.

However, Suga did not soften his stance that the Henoko relocation was the only option. With no choice, Nakaima devoted all his efforts to obtaining as many favors as possible in return for approving the landfill for the Henoko relocation.

When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Nakaima at the Prime Minister’s Office on Dec. 25, 2013, Abe promised to promote various measures to reduce the burden of hosting U.S. military bases. Abe also proposed to secure a promotion budget of more than ¥300 billion until fiscal 2021, the period of the promotion plan at that time.

However, the situation took a turn for the worse when Nakaima immediately announced his approval of the landfill at Henoko. Criticism was rampant throughout the prefecture, with some local papers claiming that Nakaima had sold out Okinawa Prefecture for money.

Nakaima seemed unperturbed, saying: “A governor’s first job is to promote regional development. I’ll take the budget that I can get.” However, he was defeated by Onaga in the November 2014 gubernatorial election.

Nakaima’s predecessor, former Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine, said: “The central government and Okinawa Prefecture’s views do not coincide on some points. I’ve been pondering which is better.”

Some former senior prefectural officials have said that Inamine sometimes leaned toward a wait-and-see approach. But Inamine focused on finding a compromise with the central government that would not harm the interests of the Okinawa people.

When Tamaki visited the Prime Minister’s Office on May 10, he handed Prime Minister Fumio Kishida a document titled “A new proposal for the realization of a peaceful and prosperous Okinawa.”

The new proposal is in line with a 1971 proposal by Chobyo Yara, the last chief executive of the Ryukyu Islands under U.S. control, calling for the central government to realize Okinawa’s “reversion to Japan as an island of peace, free of bases.”

The new proposal included greater promotion of the prefecture and opposition to the Henoko relocation plan, reflecting Tamaki’s intention to denounce the theory linking the promotion budget to U.S. bases.

Tamaki will run again for governor in September and cannot afford to back down on the base issue.

A senior official who supports Tamaki’s administration stressed: “The prefectural and central governments are on the same page 99% of the time, but as long as we have the support of the All Okinawa movement, relocation to Henoko is unacceptable.”

That “1%” is a significant factor.