Okinawa 50 yrs since return: National political affairs / Japanese PM conveyed to Clinton ‘hope’ for return of Futenma in 1996

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, left, and U.S. Ambassador Walter Mondale announce the agreement to return the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station, at the Prime Minister’s Office on April 12, 1996.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Okinawa’s return to Japan. This is the third installment of a series that looks at the politics surrounding Okinawa’s subsequent development and issues relating to the presence of U.S. bases.

“Just getting the president to hear the unfamiliar word ‘Futenma’ was enough to make it a great success.”

Asked for his candid opinion, this is what Kenji Eda told then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto in Santa Monica, Calif., on Feb. 23, 1996.

Earlier in the day, Hashimoto, who had taken office just over a month earlier, had met then U.S. President Bill Clinton in his first Japan-U.S. summit meeting. Hashimoto told Clinton during their talks that “the people of Okinawa Prefecture earnestly hope for the return” of the area occupied by the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station, located in the central part of Ginowan in the prefecture.

Hashimoto struggled until the last minute to decide whether to raise the base issue at the meeting, recalled Eda, now 65, who was Hashimoto’s policy secretary at that time. Eda is currently a Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker in the House of Representatives.

In 1996, Eda was 39 years old and hot-blooded. He prodded Hashimoto, telling him, “You have to bring it up.” However, the Foreign Ministry was adamantly against it, as some ministry officials thought Hashimoto might leave the impression that he knew nothing about security.

However, a month later, the United States responded, saying it would agree to the return of the Futenma base. This led to the April 12 announcement of a historic accord between the Japanese and U.S. governments for the full return of the base.

Hashimoto had special feelings for Okinawa. A cousin of his died in the Battle of Okinawa, and he was devoted to recovering the skeletal remains of the war dead. When Hashimoto became prime minister, anti-base sentiment had been inflamed by the 1995 rape of a local schoolgirl by U.S. servicemen, making the Okinawa issue his highest priority.

Hashimoto brought Okinawa-related books and materials to the prime minister’s official residence and immersed himself in the matter. Following the agreement, however, turmoil erupted over the issue of constructing “replacement facilities” in Okinawa, on which the return of the base was premised.

“I want to assist the prime minister, who has recognized the suffering caused by the Futenma issue,” said then Nago Mayor Tetsuya Higa in December 1997. “In turn, I will sacrifice myself.” The mayor then announced his resignation in exchange for accepting the construction of a replacement facility in the Henoko district of his city in the prefecture.

However, then Okinawa Gov. Masahide Ota, a reformist who had long respected the wishes of local residents, maintained his cautious stance. In February 1998, Ota informed Eda by phone that the relocation of the Futenma base to the Henoko district “can never be approved.”

Hashimoto believed he had built a relationship of trust with Ota through dialogue, and complained to Eda, “It was easier for Ota to oppose the base.”

More than 25 years have passed since the 1996 agreement that stipulated the return of the Futenma base “within five to seven years.” With the dispute over the planned relocation of the base to the Henoko district unresolved, U.S. jets continue to fly out of the base regarded as the most dangerous airfield in the world.