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Editorial: Politicians need to tackle burden posed by U.S. bases in Okinawa

  • October 28, 2021
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 1:13 p.m.
  • English Press

Okinawa is a mirror that reflects the flaws and poverty of politics in Japan.


Do political leaders develop policies while paying serious attention to public opinion? Do they heed dissenting voices and make sincere efforts to harmonize the complicated and conflicting interests of various parties? Do they really understand the rule of law and operate the government according to appropriate procedures?


The actions taken by the administrations of former Prime Ministers Shinzo Abe and Yoshihide Suga in dealing with the controversial plan to build a new U.S. military base in the Henoko district of Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, ran counter to these basic principles of democratic policy development and execution.

The envisioned new base is to take over the functions of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which is located in the crowded city of Ginowan, also in the prefecture.


The Oct. 31 Lower House election will offer a valuable opportunity for voters to examine afresh problems with politics in Japan from the viewpoint of what would be their responses to these actions if they had been taken in their own areas and to make choices that could help rectify the problems.


Voters in Okinawa have repeatedly and emphatically expressed their objections to the plan through elections and a prefectural referendum. In view of this fact, Asahi Shimbun editorials have called for a fundamental review of the Futenma relocation plan.


We have taken exception to each of the legally dubious policy actions the government has taken to promote the land reclamation to build the new base.

Our case against the Henoko installation plan is based on the belief that the plan and the way it is being promoted is not just threatening democracy but also creating a serious problem for the future of Japan’s security policy.


The deep rift between the national government and people in Okinawa over the issue makes it difficult to secure stable operation of the U.S. bases in Okinawa.

Since Okinawa hosts a large portion of all the U.S. military facilities in Japan, this situation could have immeasurable negative repercussions on the bilateral alliance and Japan’s security policy.


During its election campaign, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has only repeated its old argument that building the Henoko base as a replacement for the Futenma air station is “the only solution” to the danger posed to local residents by the air base.


As for the extremely soft seafloor in reclamation areas off the shore of Henoko, the LDP claims it is possible to solidify the seafloor enough to support the planned base. Even if that is the case, it has been estimated that completing the new facility will take as long as 12 years.


The ruling party offers no clear plan for pursuing the original goal of removing the safety threat posed by the Futenma base during the 12 years.


Some opposition parties have promised to scrap or suspend the Henoko plan and hold fresh negotiations with the United States over the matter. In response to the changing global landscape and progress in China’s missile capabilities, the United States is making a major shift in its military strategy focused on downsizing and more dispersed deployment of the Marines for flexible operations.


The opposition parties need to offer more detailed plans and road maps for taking advantage of the U.S. strategy shift to deliver on their promises to scrap the Henoko project and start fresh negotiations with Washington.


Another important question is what to do with the bilateral Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). Toxic substances have been discovered around U.S. bases in Okinawa, raising health concerns among local residents.


The SOFA often works to hamper Japan’s responses to such environmental problems related to U.S. bases or crimes and accidents involving U.S. service members. 


Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, while serving as foreign minister under Abe, led the negotiations between the two governments to conclude a supplementary agreement to the SOFA for sharing information concerning environmental problems related to U.S. military facilities.


But the deal has not made the U.S. military more willing to give local authorities access to its facilities to identify the causes of pollution. The agreement does not make any difference unless it is enforceable.


All parties call for improving the SOFA, albeit with different degrees of enthusiasm. They have the responsibility to continue their own efforts to sort this problem out after the election without forgetting their promises to the public.


Next year, Okinawa will mark the 50th anniversary of its return to Japan. Japanese political leaders need to accept the onus of tackling the tough and vital challenge of reducing the burden of the heavy U.S. military presence borne by Okinawa and allay local people’s anxieties regarding related issues.


–The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 28

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