The government and Okinawa are again likely to be deep divided over the U.S. base issue. Okinawa will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its reversion to Japanese administration next year amid escalating tensions between the U.S. and China over the Taiwan Strait. To make progress on the base issue and envision a bright future for Okinawa, the central and local governments should make efforts to hold dialogue.
The prefecture recently decided to reject the government’s application for approval of design changes to reinforce the soft seabed in the area designated for the construction of the Futenma replacement facility in Nago’s Henoko district. Because the decision hampers the construction work, the central government will likely take countermeasures and bring the case to court.
Okinawa will hold a series of elections next year. In January, the Nago mayoral election will take place, followed by the Upper House election in the summer and the gubernatorial race in the autumn. The central and local governments will likely each be aggressive with an eye on these elections, but they must act in a coolheaded fashion.
Okinawa rejected the design change application because it deems construction involving soft seabed 90 meters under the sea to be difficult from the technical perspective. The government must endeavor to win local residents’ understanding by providing thorough explanations. Both sides have many things they must do before the matter can be handed to the court.
During the Abe and Suga administrations, the central government took a rather cold approach to the relocation project, simply commenting that the “relocation will be carried out steadily.” Within the government, fewer want to stand by Okinawa, and public interest in Okinawan issues has waned. This is one reason why Okinawans have pushed back and taken a rigid stance on the Futenma relocation.
Kochikai, led by Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, has traditionally dealt with Okinawa issues with care, as it values the Japan-U.S. alliance. Kishida should demonstrate his “ability to listen” especially in handling Okinawa issues. In November, Chief Cabinet Secretary Matsuno Hirokazu, who also oversees Okinawa affairs, visited the prefecture and held informal roundtable discussions with local people. Having contact with local residents as frequently as possible is key.
The government must also work hard to reduce the prefecture’s base-hosting burden. Finding a way to share the burden across the country would be a fast way to win the understanding of Okinawans.
Twenty-five years have passed since Japan and the U.S. agreed on the return of the Futenma base, and 15 years have passed since the reclamation project in its present form was approved. It is also the responsibility of politics to create an environment where the Okinawans can truly celebrate their 50th anniversary.