Strains between Okinawa and Tokyo worsen

A tug of war within Japan over a US base on the islands of Okinawa continues

Okinawa governor Takeshi Onaga speaks at the Foreign Correpondents Club of Japan in Tokyo this week. Mr Onaga wants to revoke permits for construction of the US military base given by his predecessor as relocation site for the US Marines Futenma Air Base in Okinawa. Photograph: Kimimasa Mayama/EPA

Earlier this week, a Japanese political leader took the extraordinary step of going to the United Nations to criticise his own central government for human rights violations.

Takeshi Onaga, governor of the southern prefecture of Okinawa, told the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva that a plan to build a huge American base in his constituency was unjust and would be stopped.

"Can a country serve values such as freedom, equality, human rights and democracy with other nations when that country cannot guarantee those values for its own people?" he asked rhetorically of Japan.

The speech signalled a new low in Okinawa’s already strained relationship with Tokyo. The sub-tropical prefecture is home to more than a dozen US facilities, built on land seized after the second World War.

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Many Okinawans resent that their tiny main island, accounting for just 0.6 per cent of Japan's territory, is forced to bear most of the burden of the nation's defence pact with Washington. These frustrations have come to a head over the new facility: two 1,800-metre runways built on an elevated concrete platform over the pristine Oura Bay.

The base is supposed to replace the ageing Futenma air station in the crowded Okinawan city of Ginowan. However local protesters have blocked plans to build it near the fishing village of Henoko for 17 years.

Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe promised the US government in April that he would break the deadlock.

Onaga is a key obstacle. He was elected last year to stop the base. A lifelong conservative, he nevertheless embodies the sentiment of many Okinawans, that their objections are perpetually subordinate to military plans drawn up in Tokyo and Washington.

Onaga followed Abe to Washington earlier this year, but whereas the prime minister trumpeted deepening economic and defence ties, the Okinawa governor had a starker message: his constituents will not tolerate any more construction.

Building is already ongoing. Workers have begun stripping mountains and coastal sands for landfill to be poured into the waters off Henoko. Concrete blocks have been dropped on to coral reefs in Oura Bay.

Protesters, though, including elderly veterans of the Battle of Okinawa, which left a quarter of the island’s civilian population dead in 1945, are blocking the base. Riot police arrived this week in a shock-and-awe tactic to show them that Tokyo intends to win.

Abe’s government hoped it had settled the Henoko problem in December 2013, when Onaga’s predecessor, Hirokazu Nakaima, issued permits for construction. Now Onaga is threatening to revoke those permits, possibly next week.

The stakes are high. Strategists say the Okinawan islands, stretching from southern Japan to a few hundred kilometres off China’s coast, are a lynchpin of Japan and America’s strategy for dealing with Beijing’s growing assertiveness in east Asia.

For the Chinese, says Gavan McCormack, perhaps the leading English-language authority on the Okinawan controversy, the islands are “potentially a maritime Great Wall controlling access to the Pacific, so their status is crucial to any east Asian order”.

The official response to Onaga's Geneva speech, however, was not encouraging. Japan's ambassador to the UN, Misako Kaji, said the base was the only way to ensure both the "maintenance of deterrence" and the safety of local people.

“The government of Japan will continue to provide a thorough explanation in order to obtain understanding from Okinawa on the matter,” she said.

There is little sign, however, that Okinawans, most of whom reject the base, are ready to change their minds. The stage seems set for a showdown. Onaga says he hopes it will be non-violent but frustrations may grow. “Whatever happens, we will not accept this plan,” he says.

David McNeill

David McNeill

David McNeill, a contributor to The Irish Times, is based in Tokyo