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25 years after Japan-U.S. SACO agreement, return of Okinawa bases remains incomplete

By Kawase Hiroyuki


It has been 25 years since the final report of the Special Action Committee on Okinawa (SACO) was released in 1996. In the report, the Japanese and U.S. governments agreed to return a total of 5,000 hectares occupied by 11 U.S. military bases in Okinawa.


Over the 25 years, a total of six facilities accounting altogether for more than 4,400 hectares have been returned, but the return of Air Station Futenma (Ginowan City), which is considered the centerpiece of the agreement, has not yet been realized, and the reduction of the base burden [on Okinawa] is still nowhere near complete.


Next year, there will be a mayoral election in Nago City, the municipality where Air Station Futenma is to be relocated, and a gubernatorial election of Okinawa Prefecture. Depending on the outcomes of these elections, there may be a significant change in Okinawa’s base issues.


Remaining 10%


“A quarter of a century has passed since the agreement was reached,” said a senior Defense Ministry official. “There have been many challenges, but the return of base facilities has advanced steadily.”


Of the 11 facilities specified in the SACO, six facilities have been returned so far, including the Aha Training Area and the majority of the Northern Training Area. In terms of area, about 90% of the agreement has been accomplished.


However, there is still no sign of when Air Station Futenma will be returned. Futenma is said to be the most dangerous airfield in the world.


In 1999, a Cabinet decision was made to relocate the Futenma facility to Henoko in Nago City, but the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) came to power in 2009 with the goal of relocating the Futenma airfield “at least outside of Okinawa Prefecture.” This disrupted the original SACO agreement. In 2014, the “All Okinawa” group, which opposes the Henoko relocation, became the prefecture’s ruling party. The national and prefectural governments have been locked in confrontation since that time.


In 2013, the Japanese and U.S. governments presented a new plan for the return of Futenma to Japan. It was decided that Air Station Futenma will be returned to Japan “in 2022 or later.” The government started the relocation work in Henoko, but it has not progressed [as anticipated] because the government has had to change the design due to the discovery of soft seabed.


Governor Tamaki rejects application for approval of design change


“I will not allow a pointless (relocation) project to continue,” declared Okinawa Governor Tamaki Denny.


On Nov. 25, Governor Tamaki announced that he will not approve the request for approval of a design change submitted by the national government, and he strongly urged that the construction be halted.


The administration is considering how to address the Okinawa governor’s rejection of the application, and a new court battle is anticipated.


The central government expected Governor Tamaki to dismiss the application. Some Liberal Democratic Party officials criticized the timing of the governor’s announcement, with one of them saying, “The governor’s disapproval was aimed at gaining an advantage in the upcoming elections,” referring to January 2022 Nago mayoral election and the autumn 2022 gubernatorial election.


Governor Tamaki’s disapproval could delay the relocation work and make it more difficult to fulfill the SACO agreement.


“We cannot turn back the clock 25 years,” said commentator Ushio Masato. “Both the Japanese and U.S. governments have stated that the Henoko relocation is the only viable solution, so steady progress in the relocation work is what will lead to the elimination of the danger of Futenma airfield at an early date.” (Abridged)

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