Tiny Okinawa throws spanner in US-Japan military alliance

Election of Takeshi Onaga as governor gets world’s attention


With his strained, unsmiling features beneath a salt-and-pepper toupee, Takeshi Onaga inspires unexpected passions. As news arrives that he has won the governorship of Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture, his packed campaign office erupts into ecstatic cheers.

“I’m very proud to be Okinawan tonight,” says Yorie Aragaki, a woman who campaigned for his election. “We have won by sticking together. Now I want Mr Onaga to fight for us and our children.”

A speck in the Pacific 1,000 miles from Tokyo, Okinawa rarely rises above a nagging murmur in Japan’s national consciousness, but Sunday’s victory has got the world’s attention.

Onaga (64) has promised to block construction of US military base backed by Tokyo and Washington, tapping into a rich vein of resentment against the heavy US military presence – 19,000 marines and 75 per cent of the US army’s footprint in Japan are based on Okinawa’s tiny main island.

Local anger is focused on the Futenma air base, squatting like a giant doughnut hole in the centre of crowded Ginowan city. The facility has generated decades of complaints about noise and crime. After a history of accidents, many locals say it is a matter of time before a military aircraft ploughs into local houses or schools.

In 2006, the two governments finally agreed to replace the ageing facility with a runway off a base near the sleepy fishing village of Henoko in Okinawa’s less populated north. The agreement however has proved bitterly controversial.

Opponents insist Futenma be moved out of Okinawa, part of a bigger demand that Japan’s mainland shares the burden of the country’s military alliance with Washington. Local opinion polls put opposition to building off Henoko at 80 percent.

Sunday’s election was essentially a referendum on the base between Onaga and two-time incumbent Hirokazu Nakaima, who reversed course last year and approved the creation a large landfill offshore at the Henoko site. Onaga harvested the political rebound from the decision, seen by many Okinawans as a betrayal. “I’ve made it my goal to not to allow the construction of a new base,” Onaga said Sunday after his victory. “I will do everything in my power to keep that pledge.”

Okinawa’s strategic importance has grown with President Barack Obama’s so-called pivot to Asia and the eruption of a territorial dispute in 2012 over tiny islands in the East China Sea, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.

US marines might be ordered to help retake the islands, just 270 nautical miles from Okinawa’s main island, in the unlikely event that Chinese troops launch an invasion.

Under prime minister Shinzo Abe, Japan is slowly beefing up its defences in the isolated Okinawan chain and is building an amphibious force based on the US marines.

Obama sent a veiled warning to Beijing last week that security in Asia must not be based on “intimidation” by large nations and said there was “no question” of US commitment to its regional allies.

Privately, US defence experts express weariness at the tug-of-war over Futenma/Henoko but say closing the base would send “the wrong signal” to Beijing.

After decades of strained relations, the US military insists that the tide has turned: more locals now reject pacifist claims that the bases are a provocation that puts Okinawa in the frontline of a future conflict.

“Public opinion is changing for the better,” says Dr Robert Eldridge, deputy for government and external affairs with the US Marine Corps on Okinawa. “The once silent majority is coming out.”

It was Onaga’s supporters, however, who turned out in strength on Sunday, sending him into power with 100,000 more votes than his opponent.

Okinawa was occupied by the US military after the second World War until the early 1970s. The battle to take the island in 1945 left up to 100,000 civilians dead along with 100,000 Japanese soldiers and over 12,000 Americans.

Many islanders were forced to kill themselves by the Japanese military. Okinawans, once part of an independent kingdom, believe they were sacrificed as a buffer between the invading Americans and the Japanese mainland. Several generations have grown up since vowing “never again”.

The silver-haired inheritors of that tradition have been camped out on Henoko beach for years. Hideo Yamamoto is contemptuous of claims that Chinese Red Army troops will march into Okinawa if the US military leaves.

“It’s ridiculous,” he spits. “Neither side will go to war because they know it would be the end of both. We have to work out our differences.” Etsuko Urashima says she will stay until the base plan is scrapped. “I don’t think we can stop it from being built . . . but we can slow it down and make the US fed up.”

Onaga’s victory deepens the stalemate. In 2012, Abe promised Okinawa at least $2.6 billion (€2.07 billion) every year until 2021 in what critics call a bribe. Japanese government officials now say Nakaima’s approval has given them the mandate they need and have pledged to “solemnly” push on with construction. However, with both the prefectural governor and local mayor against the base, delays are inevitable.

Onaga has vowed to explore every legal nook and cranny to block construction. Most observers now believe the battle will move to the courts and from there – if prime minister Abe barges ahead – to scuffles or worse on Henoko beach.

Supporters of the US military presence argue that China’s rise has changed the game; they note that support for Nakaima was higher in Okinawa’s more isolated outlying islands. At Onaga’s rally, Yorie Aragaki says she feels no threat from Okinawa’s giant neighbour.

“I have friends from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan – many of them come here;” politicians are cooking up the threat, she says. In her view, the election is only the first stage in shrinking the US military footprint and returning Okinawa to its non-aligned roots. “The battle starts now.”

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