No. 4 — January 28, 2000

Feature Article


Barbara Wanner

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Residents of Okinawa long have complained about being forced to bear the lion's share of the burden of hosting U.S. forces based in Japan. The September 1995 abduction and rape of an Okinawan schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen, however, sparked such a virulent antibase outcry throughout Japan that Tokyo and Washington had little choice but to develop a plan to address the islanders' concerns.

Officials on both sides of the Pacific now have their fingers crossed that the alleged attempted rape of an Okinawan woman in mid-January by an American serviceman — the first such episode since the 1995 tragedy — will not so inflame the atmosphere as to set back a three-year effort to consolidate the U.S. base presence on the small Ryukyuan island chain that makes up Japan's southernmost prefecture.

As it is, implementation of the 1996 accord developed by the Special Action Committee on Okinawa, under which the United States agreed to return to residents approximately 21 percent of the land used by the American military, has been problematic. The islanders' tolerance for the daily intrusions caused by having U.S. military personnel and equipment literally in their backyards has reached the breaking point. Added to this, long-strained relations between Tokyo and Naha, the Okinawan capital, have complicated the central government's efforts to buy the islanders' cooperation with economic assistance.

The main sticking point continues to be the relocation of a major military heliport at the Futenma Air Station in crowded Ginowan to another site in the prefecture. The Japanese media hyped as a breakthrough Okinawan Gov. Keiichi Inamine's late November 1999 announcement that Nago, a small town on the northern shore of the main island, would host the heliport. But American observers have offered a more sobering assessment of this development, noting that such key issues as the facility's design and the conditions under which it would operate are controversial. Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi's selection of Nago to host the July 2000 summit of the Group of Seven industrial nations plus Russia and President Clinton's stated preference to have the heliport logjam resolved by then have turned up the heat under negotiators even more.

Defense experts stress that resolution of the Okinawan base conundrum is critical to continued U.S.-Japan defense cooperation and to peace and stability in the Asian Pacific. These analysts also note that Tokyo's manner of accommodating Naha will have important implications for the central government's dealings with other prefectures, whose support will be necessary to ensure that Japan effectively plays its part as spelled out in the 1997 U.S.-Japan guidelines for defense cooperation.

Given the Obuchi government's preoccupation with hosting a successful G-8 summit, Tokyo may be tempted to do nothing on the heliport relocation that would risk controversy. While such a strategy might keep the lid on the issue in the near future, it may not be in Japan's security interests over the longer term.


Tragedy Prompts Review Of Okinawan Base Burden

The prevailing view in both Washington and Tokyo for the past half-century has been that the presence of the American military on Japanese soil is crucial to the defense of the home islands and to U.S. diplomatic policy and strategic engagement in the region. Article VI of the U.S.-Japan Mutual Security Treaty, in fact, obliges Japan to provide its most important ally with "the use by its land, air and naval forces of facilities and areas in Japan."1

Developments during the past decade, such as North Korea's suspected efforts to develop a nuclear weapons capability and the tense relations between the People's Republic of China and Taiwan, have heightened the potential for regional upset. In view of these situations in particular, U.S. defense officials have stressed that the 47,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan play a key role in Washington's forward deployment strategy. This approach, which positions American forces close to potential hot spots, has helped to maintain stability in the Asian Pacific by discouraging — although not entirely preventing — provocative actions by certain countries.2 In the words of one U.S. defense analyst, American installations in Japan represent the most important element of Tokyo'scontribution to the bilateral security relationship; the bases "give substance to Japan's role as an alliance partner."3

It is no wonder, then, that Washington was anxious to quell the fire storm of antibase sentiment that swept through Japan five years ago following the rape of an Okinawan schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen.4 Within days of this tragedy, pacifist forces rallied — not only in the southernmost prefecture but also in the communities throughout Japan that host American bases — demanding the removal of U.S. troops from Japanese territory. The last thing Washington wanted was for the outrage generated by the horrific crime to force reductions that would undermine American's broader regional security goals.

U.S. officials quickly sought to defuse this time bomb by cracking down on potential disciplinary problems at American bases in Japan, imposing curfews and instituting programs aimed at heightening U.S. forces' sensitivity to local conditions (see JEI Report No. 37B, October 6, 1995). In addition, Washington agreed to soften certain terms of the Status of Forces Agreement, the bilateral accord governing the operations of American military installations in Japan. Under the SOFA, a U.S. service person who is accused of a crime remains in the custody of American military authorities until Japanese prosecutors serve an indictment.

However, in exercising this proviso in the 1995 rape case — by declining to turn over the accused to Japanese police when presented with an arrest warrant — American authorities further inflamed the situation. Their action fostered a perception among Okinawans that the U.S. government was shielding the servicemen from the Japanese criminal justice system. Thus, U.S. participants in a special bilateral study group that was formed after the incident to examine the SOFA agreed to incorporate language that obliges American officials to give "sympathetic consideration" to Japanese requests for custody of American suspects in "heinous crimes, such as murder and rape" before indictment (see JEI Report No. 41B, November 3, 1995).

Perhaps the most significant undertaking by the two governments in terms of American basing needs was the formation of a special panel — the Special Action Committee on Okinawa5 — to undertake a year-long examination of how the U.S. base presence in the southernmost prefecture might be consolidated and generally made less intrusive. In addition to expressing outrage concerning the threats to physical welfare associated with some of the crimes perpetrated by American military personnel, Okinawan residents had complained for years about noise and other disruptions that generally had degraded their quality of life.

The U.S. government was open to considering how the daily lives of the southern islanders might be improved and how the host burden might be shifted from Okinawa to other parts of Japan. However, Washington was adamant that proposed solutions not involve reducing American troop strength on Japanese soil below 47,000 or otherwise diminishing current military capabilities and readiness.6


Reversion of Land

After six months of often protracted and technically very complicated discussions, the SACO panel produced a preliminary plan that both governments hailed as an important step in adapting U.S.-Japan defense relations to the new world order. The SACO interim report was issued on the mid-April 1996 eve of a much-anticipated meeting in Tokyo between then-Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and President Clinton at which the two leaders reaffirmed the importance of the U.S.-Japan security alliance. The timing of the plan's announcement contributed greatly to the success of this summit by providing the substance that supported the leaders' positive rhetoric (see JEI Report No. 15B, April 19, 1996).

The centerpiece of the SACO interim report was the plan for the reversion, over the course of five to seven years, of Futenma Air Station to local landowners. This 1,200-acre facility, which occupies about 45 percent of the city of Ginowan and is located alongside the main Okinawan island's most-used commuter highway, has served as a flash point for residents' demands for the scaling back of American military facilities. Islanders long have complained about noise, traffic tie-ups and other daily inconveniences caused by the airport's dominant position in the community.

In this regard, the April 1996 interim report also sought to address the southern islanders' quality-of-life complaints. It reiterated a bilateral agreement that obliges the United States during the transition phase to reduce noise at the Futenma and the Kadena Air Stations by limiting both flight and ground operations in the late evening and early morning hours. It also reaffirmed Washington's commitment to discontinue off-base military training marches and to cease artillery practice over a public highway.

In addition, Washington agreed to cutbacks at 10 additional Okinawan locations. The combined reductions represented about 21 percent of all land occupied by U.S. forces. Bases also targeted for reversion included the Marine Corps' 18,500-acre Northern Training Area in northern Okinawa, half of which will be returned to Okinawan landowners, and the Sobe Communications Site in Yomitan village.


Tokyo Assumes Reversion Costs

The Japanese government, in return, agreed to assume the costs associated with the land reversion, including moving U.S. military personnel and equipment to other locations on Okinawa or elsewhere in Japan. Specifically, this meant shouldering the not-insignificant expenses associated with transferring more than a dozen Futenma-based tanker aircraft to the Iwakuni Air Base in Yamaguchi prefecture in western Japan.

However, this commitment proved to be far less daunting than the prospect of building a new heliport on an existing U.S. base on Okinawa to replace the Marine Corps' training facility at Futenma. As will be examined below, Tokyo's subsequent efforts to make good on its side of the bargain on Futenma heliport relocation hit a wall of local resistance so immutable as to nearly derail the entire SACO process.

Two major antibase referendums, a gubernatorial election upset in 1998, Tokyo's campaign to buy Okinawan support with offerings of economic assistance and the myriad proposals tabled in the effort to resolve the impasse over the new heliport all basically were influenced by the reciprocal element of the accord. Looking back at these pressure-packed negotiating sessions, Japanese officials may not have realized the broader, political significance of their SACO responsibilities.


SACO Follow-Through Hits Bumps

The final SACO report, issued in December 1996, went a few steps further than the interim plan in spelling out timetables for the return of land, adjustments to training and operational procedures, and improvements to certain other SOFA procedures. But the most controversial feature of the accord was the plan to relocate the Futenma heliport to a sea-based, floating facility off the northern coast of the main Okinawan island. A bilateral team of technical experts — the Futenma Implementation Group — was established to develop a design and construction plan for the innovative sea-based heliport (see JEI Report No. 45B, December 6, 1996).

To this day, informed observers are unclear as to how and why the sea-based facility became the sole option for the Futenma heliport relocation in the final SACO report. Central government officials initially had proposed building a new heliport and landing strip at Kadena Base. However, this plan was nipped in the bud by local political leaders, who strongly objected to the buildup of U.S. military operations in their constituency.

American defense officials also effectively shot down the Kadena proposal. Their concerns evidently related to operational and safety risks; Kadena already was the site of enormous activity created by the arrivals and departures of Air Force and Navy fighters, tankers, and C-130 transport planes. American authorities instead expressed a preference for basing the heliport on a landfill at Camp Schwab. Echoing objections raised by Okinawans in pre-1996 discussions aimed at beefing up facilities at this base to include a new port, storage facility and some sort of airfield, SACO's Japanese participants countered that such an alternative would extract too high a price in environmental terms.7

Insiders propose that the sea-based option was sold to Mr. Hashimoto as a politically expedient solution, which not only responded to grass-roots opposition to the intrusiveness of a new heliport but also served a key LDP constituency that would be the principal beneficiary of this unprecedented public works program — Honshu-based contractors.8 Today, however, the pendulum appears to have swung back in favor of the landfill at Camp Schwab, although experts say that the floating-heliport proposal has not been killed formally.

From the Pentagon's perspective, the bottom line is that three and a half years later, Tokyo remains unable to deliver its end of the SACO bargain. Analysts see an interplay of forces at work that has shaped the volatile heliport-relocation debate and has generally bedeviled full SACO implementation. Any viable compromise must in some way address these issues.


Grass-Roots Objections

To the chagrin — and to some extent, the bewilderment — of hard-working American and Japanese negotiators, the grass-roots outcry against the U.S. base presence on Okinawa actually intensified after the April 1996 announcement of the reversion. At about the same time as the historic alliance-reaffirming summit between Mr. Clinton and Mr. Hashimoto, sizable rallies were held in Okinawa, Tokyo and elsewhere in which protesters demanded the closure of all U.S. bases in Japan.

Southern islanders, in particular, argued that the proposed reversions would not amount to a down-scaling of the U.S. military presence on Okinawa at all since Tokyo was obliged to relocate these troops to another site on the island. The SACO process simply focused on reducing the amount of land used by the American military, they railed, rather than establish a foundation for the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops from Okinawa. Insiders say that it is precisely this divergence of the central government's expectations and goals from those of its Okinawan constituents that has frustrated subsequent efforts to find a viable compromise.9

The disconnect also seemed to validate the long-held view of Okinawan residents that Tokyo was not overly concerned about their welfare. When the United States returned Okinawa to Japan in 1972 after some 27 years of administration by U.S. military authorities, the Diet adopted a resolution to reduce the number of military bases there. In the intervening years, however, Tokyo made no serious efforts to implement the legislature's declaration, thus creating the impression that the central government was happy to continue foisting the majority of the U.S. base burden on the small southern prefecture. In an area where natural resources and habitable land are limited, the fact that U.S. military facilities occupy almost 10 percent of all prefectural land and about 20 percent of the main island, including some of the choicest coastal real estate, stuck in the craw of local populace.

The Okinawans' feeling that they were regarded as second-class citizens also was fed by Tokyo's apparent disinterest their economic development needs. Many Japanese currently are struggling to cope with the effects of a prolonged recession. However, times always have been tough for the Okinawan citizenry — even during the high-growth days of the 1960s through the 1980s when their cousins on Honshu were enjoying progressively higher living standards and ever-increasing wealth.

For the most part, the southern islands have been forced to make due with what one analyst has called a "Caribbean-like economy" of sugar cane and pineapple farms and a meager tourism industry.10 Unemployment is about 9 percent, twice the current national average, and roughly three-quarters of the jobless are under 35. Wages traditionally have been well below what is the norm elsewhere in Japan. And, while approximately 7,800 residents hold decent-paying jobs at the U.S. bases, America money now accounts for only 5 percent of the local economy, down from a high of 20 percent in the 1970s.11

The 1995 rape galvanized Okinawans' long-simmering outrage at being neglected and generally put-upon by the central government. The fact that the SACO process had produced a plan that, from the islanders' standpoint, simply would move the chess pieces around rather than clear the board, only served to fuel resentment of Tokyo's high-handed and ambivalent handling of the southern islands' interests.

In the months following the April 1996 release of the SACO interim report, residents of the southern island let it be known in no uncertain terms that they wanted their host burden reduced. In mid-July 1996, the Okinawan prefectural assembly adopted a resolution that called for the return of the territory occupied by the Futenma Air Station while opposing its relocation elsewhere in the prefecture. At about the same time, the prefectural assembly also passed a bill calling for a referendum that would combine the questions of whether U.S. military facilities on Okinawa should be reduced and whether the SOFA should be revised still further.

Two months later, 59 percent of registered voters turned out for this precedent-setting prefectural challenge to central government policy. About 89 percent of those who participated favored a reduction in U.S. military bases on their island.12 Voters in Nago followed suit when the Futenma Implementation Group recommended basing the floating heliport offshore of their small seaside town on the northern end of the main island. Local residents registered an unequivocal no to that proposal in yet another base-related plebiscite in late December 1997 (see JEI Report No. 1B, January 9, 1998).

In analyzing the results of both antibase referendums, experts have noted that by no means were the southern islanders unified in their desire for a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops. Individuals employed at the bases and local business owners whose revenues largely depended on dealings with the military or with its personnel were concerned about the negative financial impact of base closings. In fact, a number of groups representing such interests called for a boycott of the referendum.13

Similar divisions were apparent in Nago. Although a majority of residents voted against basing the heliport off their town's shores, Tokyo's promise of economic rewards created a dilemma for Nago business leaders anxious to improve the local economy.14 Some observers were not surprised, then, when a candidate backed by the pro-heliport lobby was elected major in early February 1998 (see JEI Report No. 6B, February 13, 1998).

Given the evidence of mixed sentiments among Okinawans as well as the fact that turnout for the September 1996 prefectural plebiscite, in particular, was lower than anticipated, some experts argued that these votes served more as an escape valve for long pent-up feelings than a mandate to the central government to renegotiate the SACO deal.15 Nevertheless, polling data suggests that a deep-seated not-in-my-backyard attitude persists in the southern prefecture.

A December 1999 survey by Asahi Shimbun,16 a leading Japanese daily, revealed that 45 percent of respondents opposed the relocation of the heliport to Nago as had been proposed by Okinawan Gov. Keiichi Inamine a month earlier. Only 32 percent of those surveyed supported the governor's plan, which included the "nonnegotiable conditions" that the air station would be open for use by both the U.S. military and commercial and business aircraft and that military access to the facility would be limited to 15 years (see JEI Report No. 45B, December 3, 1999).

These results may explain, in part, Nago Mayor Takeo Kishimoto's conditional acceptance of the new heliport in his constituency. The town chief also insisted on the 15-year limit for the U.S. military's use of the dual-purpose airfield and assurances from Tokyo that steps would be taken to minimize the potential adverse effects of the airport on the environment and the residents' quality of life (see JEI Report No. 2B, January 14, 2000). Unfortunately for central government officials who are anxious to resolve this nettlesome aspect of the SACO accord, Washington has indicated, in turn, that it objects to any time limits on U.S.-Japan security planning. All of this suggests that grass-roots pressures will continue to complicate Tokyo's efforts to find an alternative site for the Futenma heliport.


Obstructionist Governor

The actions of former Okinawan Gov. Masahide Ota also helped to protract the consideration of alternative heliport sites. A staunch pacifist and longtime critic of the U.S. base presence in his prefecture, Mr. Ota took advantage of the nationwide expression of sympathy and outrage over the 1995 rape to press his case for a change in Tokyo's policy on U.S. bases in Japan. He used some of the most confrontational tactics ever employed by a prefectural chief in dealing with the central government, including legal challenges, aggressive negotiations with top government officials and the unprecedented action of a direct appeal to the U.S. government.

In the final analysis, Mr. Ota's envelope-pushing strategy shut the aid valve from Tokyo and cost him the governorship in the November 1998 election. Nevertheless, observers of the Okinawan base imbroglio point out that the former governor's legacy may be that he provoked an examination of the social impact of the U.S. base presence in Japan. Until then, given the southernmost prefecture's geographic distance from the main Japanese islands, it was hard for policymakers and citizens alike to fathom the extent of the intrusions the Okinawans faced on a daily basis.17 Perhaps more significant in the longer term, however, Mr. Ota successfully questioned the basic premise that informs the current policymaking process in Tokyo — namely, that national security provisions supersede local interests. Mr. Ota may have set an example for other prefectural chiefs who are dissatisfied with the central government's domestic or foreign policies or with their roles in shaping those policies.18

As his first shot across the bow, Mr. Ota refused to exercise his gubernatorial prerogative to sign documents that would renew local landowners' contracts with the central government. To express their outrage over the rape tragedy, the nearly 3,000 Okinawans who own what amounts to 96 acres of land inside 13 U.S. military installations had declined to renew their leases with Tokyo, which, in turn, authorizes American use of as much as 58,000 acres of land on the southern island. Under Japanese law, the prefectural chief may sign a lease if a constituent refuses, and, after a trip to court, the prime minister may do so if the governor resists.19

Mr. Ota's unwillingness to cooperate prompted Tokyo in November 1995 to initiate unprecedented legal action against him. In hearings before the Naha branch of the Fukuoka High Court, central government lawyers argued that Mr. Ota's obstinacy made it difficult for Tokyo to carry out its duties under the U.S.-Japan security treaty. Prefectural attorneys countered that the continued use of land by the U.S. military infringed on the southern islanders' right to their own property and that the concentration of U.S. bases on Okinawa threatened residents' prerogative to live in peace as guaranteed under the constitution. The defense also argued that forcing the governor to sign such documents ran counter to the principle of local autonomy.

The high court ruled against Mr. Ota in late March 1996 and ordered him to sign the relevant documents. However, the prefectural chief stood his ground and refused to abide by the court's ruling. His nose-thumbing response, in turn, precipitated a legal battle that escalated until August 1996, when Japan's Supreme Court upheld the Naha branch's decision and ordered Mr. Ota to renew the contracts.

While the ex-governor ultimately failed to shake Tokyo's authority, some experts regard his courtroom battles as a politically savvy way of raising important questions about the role of local government in implementing national policy. Mr. Ota posed the question of who, if not elected officials, is responsible for representing constituent interests. He highlighted, as few other prefectural chiefs have, the dilemma faced by all local leaders who must implement a national policy that is opposed by their constituents.20

Other analysts have proposed that Mr. Ota's obstructionist tactics may have been motivated by factors other than his desire to rectify an imbalance in power between the central government and the prefectures. Specifically, they say, the governor may have viewed the lease-renewal issue as a way to leverage support from the central government for his "grand design" for restructuring Okinawa's economy.

Herein lies the problem posed by the prefecture's dire economic circumstances. Although they resent the central government's neglect and the intrusion of U.S. military bases and personnel, most Okinawans — including Mr. Ota — seem to recognize that any hope for a better economic future depends on maintaining the lifeline between Tokyo and Naha. Moreover, as much as the southern islanders would like a scaled-back American base presence, the less-than-expected voter turnout in the prefectural and Nago plebiscites suggests that the Okinawans also recognize that the greater the reduction of American troops, the greater the need for more interaction with Tokyo, particularly if they want, at least, to hold their own economically.

In a January 1996 meeting in Tokyo with central government officials charged with resolving the Okinawan base controversy, prefectural officials unveiled Mr. Ota's comprehensive outline to completely phase out the U.S. military presence in the southernmost prefecture by 2015. An important element of this plan was the international city that would be created out of lands that the local government would have the U.S. government return. The proposal also called for the expansion of a free-trade zone, an upgrading of the role for the Naha port in cargo transportation and other measures aimed at developing the islands as a major tourist destination.

The potential linkage between a resolution of the lease-renewal issue and Okinawa's economic development evidently was abundantly clear to senior government officials. The Hashimoto administration agreed just before the August 1996 Supreme Court ruling to earmark special funds to study the expansion of Okinawa's free-trade zone as well as to subsidize airport fees to give domestic airlines leeway in slashing ticket prices on flights to the southern island. Mr. Ota did not reciprocate immediately, apparently awaiting the outcome of the September 1996 prefectural referendum before revealing his stand on the lease-renewal issue.

However, Tokyo's ostensible receptivity to Mr. Ota's economic designs for his constituency seemed to improve somewhat the tenor of relations between the central and local governments. During the FY 1999 budget compilation process, Mr. Obuchi had made it a point to include ¥10 billion ($83.3 million at ¥120=$1.00) "to be used flexibly to promote the island prefecture's industries and its economy."21

In addition to his reported 17 separate meetings with Mr. Hashimoto, the Okinawan governor sought to boost his position by taking his case to Washington. In June 1996, he met with then-Defense Secretary William Perry and his staff to argue his case for reducing the U.S. military presence on Okinawa as part of a broader public relations campaign, which also included speeches to influential policymaking groups and meetings with leading members of Congress. This was the first time a Japanese governor had moved outside the traditional diplomatic channels to make a direct appeal to a foreign government on a national policy matter.22 While Mr. Ota's activism impressed his constituents, subsequent remarks by U.S. officials suggest that Washington did not appreciate being dragged into the middle of what essentially was another country's internal disagreement. Thus, in certain American quarters, the prospect of a similar lobbying campaign by Mr. Inamine is a disconcerting one.

Notwithstanding Mr. Ota's efforts to amass additional political capital through his diplomatic foray, Tokyo and Naha remained poles apart in terms of their fundamental policy agendas. Tokyo was bound and determined to maintain the U.S. military presence on Okinawa, while Mr. Ota was every bit as resolute in his mission to rid his constituency of American troops. Using the Nago vote against the heliport as justification, the Okinawan governor abruptly announced in early February 1998 that he would reject any further attempt by Tokyo to relocate the Futenma heliport or any other bases within his prefecture.

The Hashimoto government, in response, immediately froze pending legislation that had been designed to implement certain aspects of the Okinawan economic development plan. With the subsequent election of the pro-heliport Mr. Kishimoto as Nago mayor, however, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party flip-flopped and allowed the legislation to pass the Diet.23 However, Mr. Ota's envelope-pushing strategy proved to be too much for Mr. Hashimoto and the bureaucracies managing the Okinawan base reversion issue. Notwithstanding the Diet's action, central government support for Mr. Ota's economic development plans effectively evaporated.

Southern islanders — who, two years ago, no doubt were experiencing the pain of the economic recession even more acutely than were mainland residents — feared even bleaker prospects. Most commentators attributed the Okinawan vote in November 1998 to remove Mr. Ota from the prefectural helm and install Mr. Inamine, a local businessman and pro-base advocate, to the islanders' worries about their economic future absent help from Tokyo (see JEI Report No. 43B, November 13, 1998).

As will be examined, since Mr. Inamine's election, relations between Tokyo and Naha have gotten much warmer and offerings of economic support have become increasingly generous. However, Mr. Ota's refusal to compromise on base relocation, for all intents and purposes, suspended progress on SACO implementation for the better part of a year. In the meantime, the SACO deadline for returning the land occupied by the Futenma facility between 2001 and 2003 looms closer and closer.


Tokyo's Economic Carrots Encourage Pragmatism On SACO Plan

The full extent of the Okinawans' concerns about their economic future became even more apparent after Mr. Inamine's election. In addition to Tokyo's ¥10 billion ($83.3 million) aid package to the comparatively impoverished prefecture, the central government will distribute ¥2.5 billion ($20.8 million) annually for the next five years to towns that cooperate with the SACO relocation plan. Although branded by critics as blatant "base-for-money tactics," local officials nevertheless decided that, in terms of the economic and financial welfare of their constituencies, the subsidy was too tempting to pass up.

In early 1999, several Okinawan communities applied for and received grants from Tokyo in exchange for agreeing to host U.S. base components:24

  • Kin, a central Okinawan town near Camp Hansen, indicated it would accept the relocation of the U.S. Navy's Sobe Communication Site as stipulated in the SACO accord.
  • Ie-son, which hosts the Ie Jima Auxiliary Airfield on a small island west of the main island, announced that it would accept the U.S. parachute drills currently conducted at Yomitan Auxiliary Airfield.
  • Chatan and Kitanakagusuku, also located in central Okinawa, agreed to host the SACO-proposed consolidation of U.S. military housing currently at Camp Lester and Camp Foster.
  • Urasoe, a small town near Naha, announced that it would accept the relocation of the U.S. Naval Station currently at Naha in exchange for Tokyo's help in implementing the local chamber of commerce's plan for a huge dock-development project. The project evidently encompasses a leisure resort and a new dock complex, complete with international trade center and warehouse. It has been proposed as a civilian facility that American armed forces can share rather than use exclusively. Nevertheless, the town's willingness to accommodate the U.S. Navy's need for a supply port apparently satisfied the terms of the SACO relocation plan.

In early March 1999, at the same time the local officials were lining up for central government money, Tokyo launched a support group to study ways to implement the relocation of U.S. military facilities on Okinawa and to interface with a project team established for the same purpose at about the same time by the prefecture. In addition to examining the needs of the towns that had agreed to host U.S. base components, the two groups, which meet at least weekly, also agreed to thrash out the troublesome Futenma heliport problem.

Soon after his election, Mr. Inamine described himself as a "base realist," who aimed to develop a compromise on Futenma and other relocation issues that was acceptable to Tokyo and Washington as well as to his constituency. Specifically, in contrast to Mr. Ota's over-the-top demands, the new governor did not call for the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from his prefecture. Nevertheless, ever-attuned to the sentiments of the voters who put him in power, Mr. Inamine has indicated that he would like to see a "reduction" in American service personnel based on Okinawa. Perhaps in an effort to keep the negotiating door open, the new prefectural chief did not specify the size of the reduction or set a time limit.

Also important to the future of base consolidation, Mr. Inamine ran on a platform that called for the relocation of the Futenma heliport to Nago, but attached certain "nonnegotiable conditions." As mentioned, he proposed that the air station be open for use by both the U.S. military and commercial and business aircraft and that military access be limited to 15 years. Washington has hinted that the latter condition is unacceptable.

During early January discussions in Washington between Secretary of Defense William Cohen and Japan Defense Agency Director General Tsutomu Kawara, Mr. Cohen would not comment directly on the 15-year limit, saying only that the matter should be considered within the context of the April 1996 U.S.-Japan security declaration. That statement includes language directing the two countries to continue to discuss how changes in the international situation might influence developments in the U.S. force structure in Japan (see JEI Report No. 2B, January 14, 2000).

Experts have suggested that Mr. Cohen was indicating that the terms governing the use of the new heliport should be decided on the basis of regional developments rather than local pressure. According to one news source, the defense chief also said that "talks with the United States on whether to set a time limit should come after views on the issue are coordinated domestically."25

If resolving this point of contention were not demanding enough, the design of the facility apparently also still is up in the air. When Mr. Inamine first entered office, he seemed to favor the plan that would construct the heliport on coastal landfill at Camp Schwab. Insiders speculate that his preference for this scheme no doubt was influenced by local business leaders, who would be the principal beneficiaries of such a public works project. The technically more complex sea-based alternative would be a boon to contractors based on Honshu, who have stepped up their lobbying activities in the southernmost prefecture.

When Mr. Inamine announced in late November 1999 that Nago, indeed, would host the heliport, he did not specify the facility's design. This omission suggests that the prefectural chief may be under pressure from both sides. Thus, given the continued uncertainties concerning the heliport design and the terms for its use, longtime observers of the Okinawan base controversy are not very optimistic that Mr. Inamine's tenure will prove much more productive in facilitating this aspect of the SACO accord than that of the obstructionist Mr. Ota.

In addition, Nago's residents, many of whom make their livings from the sea, by no means have embraced the prospect of hosting the heliport. They are concerned about the potential environmental costs of both the sea-based and landfill design options and have positioned antibase banners up and down the city's main streets. In a reprise — on a much smaller scale — of the demonstrations staged at last November's World Trade Organization Meeting in Seattle, local groups plan to hold protests during the G-8 summit meeting in July.

Nago Mayor Kishimoto, in endorsing the selection of his town as the host site, attached provisos that aim to address potential environmental impacts as well as limit the U.S. military's access to 15 years. Nevertheless, the town chief is regarded as having sold out to Tokyo. Some disgruntled voters even have gone so far as to propose a recall initiative to unseat him.26

As mentioned, in an effort to grease the SACO process, the central government awarded Nago the prize of hosting the next G-8 summit. President Clinton then upped the ante by indicating at last year's summit that he would like the Futenma issue resolved in time for the July 2000 meeting on Okinawa. But in view of the unresolved issues related to the heliport's design and use as well as the potency of the grass-roots opposition, the G-8 deadline may come and go, leaving the two countries no closer to implementation of the Futenma reversion than they were three years ago.


Outlook: G-8 Spotlight May Help, Hinder Process

Okinawa did not seem to enjoy the inside track in early 1999 when the government was considering possible sites for the next G-8 summit. Major urban and commercial centers like Yokohama and Osaka were under consideration as were Sapporo on the northern island of Hokkaido and Fukuoka on Kyushu in the south.

Although those responsible for summit planning raised concerns about the adequacy of Okinawa's hotels and highway infrastructure and the ability of its limited police force to ensure top-level security for the world's most important leaders, Mr. Obuchi nevertheless gave the nod to Okinawa. Then-Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura explained the Japanese leader's seemingly flawed choice by saying that Tokyo wanted "to make the [G-8] event an opportunity to show to the world the richness of Okinawan culture as well as our Asian perspective."27

Mr. Komura also noted the event's official title: the Kyushu-Okinawa Summit. The G-8 foreign ministers will meet in Fukuoka prefecture and the finance ministers will convene in Miyazaki prefecture, both of which are on Kyushu, the largest of Japan's southern islands. Insiders say that concerns about Okinawa's infrastructural shortcomings influenced the decision to spread the proceedings over three separate venues.

Some observers suggest that Mr. Obuchi may have selected the southernmost prefecture to host the summit as a way to make amends for the suffering endured by the Okinawans at the close of World War II and for the daily sacrifices they make in dealing with the heavy concentration of U.S. military facilities.28 Most other analysts viewed the selection as a transparent effort by Tokyo to extract concessions on the base consolidation problem in return for extra money to underwrite the costs of constructing appropriate conference facilities and other much-needed renovations. But again, since many of the hotels and businesses that cater to tourists are owned by mainland interests, the question of who really benefits remains.

Yet another group of experts have noted that the decision to select Okinawa to host the July 2000 summit actually has been in the works for the past three years. The idea emerged as the Hashimoto government was developing a package of carrots to induce greater cooperation from then-Gov. Ota. A final decision on the matter was suspended, however, when relations between Tokyo and Naha went into a deep freeze in early 1998.29

Whatever influenced Mr. Obuchi's decision, some of his advisers recently have suggested that he has come to regret his choice because it does not seem to have had any bearing at all on the prefecture's position on the Futenma relocation issue. In fact, the prospect of embarrassing demonstrations by outraged local residents prompted a recent press leak that indicated that Tokyo suddenly may change the summit venue.30 But execution of such a move would pose daunting logistical challenges, not to mention create an embarrassing situation for the already-beleaguered Obuchi government.

Mr. Obuchi's approval ratings have been slipping due to voter dissatisfaction with his decision late last year to form a governing coalition of his Liberal Democratic Party, the Liberal Party and the New Komeito. He apparently has been counting on the summit as a means of boosting his image as a leader whose peers include the some of the most powerful and influential individuals in the world.

The prevailing view in Washington policymaking circles is that the Japanese leader simply may hold off in trying to reconcile the positions of Tokyo and Naha on the 15-year time limit proviso and other sticking points until after the G-8 performance. The do-nothing approach presumably would provide less incentive for citizens' groups to mount disruptive and politically embarrassing protests. However, by putting off resolution of the issue until the fall, Tokyo runs the risk of letting the base-relocation controversy become embroiled in U.S. presidential election politics. No matter how Mr. Obuchi attempts to manage the Futenma heliport issue to minimize controversy, contention seems to be unavoidable.

Some optimists are hoping that Okinawa's hosting of the summit will impact favorably on SACO implementation. After all, this event will give President Clinton the opportunity to speak directly to the Okinawan people about the importance of Japan-based U.S. forces to the security of the home islands and the region at large and to thank them for their contributions. By the same token, the southern islanders presumably will get the chance to communicate directly with Mr. Clinton about the sacrifices they have borne and their egregiously inequitable burden. As the official summit motto goes, Okinawans will "open their hearts to the world." This dialogue may not produce an immediate solution to heliport relocation, but some commentators suggest that it could create an atmosphere more conducive to compromise.31

In the meantime, officials on both sides of the Pacific are anxious about the fallout from the mid-January arrest of a U.S. serviceman for the attempted rape of an Okinawan woman. At the moment, the lid is still on — this episode does not seem to be provoking the anti-U.S. military outcry that came in response to the similar incident five years ago. Most important, the woman was not physically harmed. Cooperation between the U.S. military and Japanese police also seemed to be much smoother than was the case in 1995.

This was the first arrest of a U.S. serviceman since American authorities last October lifted a curfew imposed following the 1995 rape that banned soldiers from patronizing bars, restaurants and nightclubs in a central district of the city of Okinawa between 1:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. Ironically, the curfew was eased at the urging of local business owners, whose establishments had been hurt by the restrictions.

If anything, this latest episode underscores the importance of implementing all aspects of the SACO accord as a means of lessening the concentration of U.S. military personnel in certain areas on the island. Base relocation plans will not necessarily eliminate the perpetration of crime. But easing the population density in certain areas may reduce the frequency of violent acts in host communities.

In this regard, Mr. Ota's no-holds-barred efforts to rid Okinawa of American troops, indeed, have sensitized the rest of Japan and the United States to the less-than-optimum conditions under which many southern islanders live. Subsequent changes to the SOFA and the base reversion scheme developed by SACO were aimed at alleviating some of these quality-of-life problems. But from the Pentagon's standpoint, a complete elimination of U.S. military personnel, or even a gradual reduction as proposed by Mr. Inamine, simply is not an option. Given the highly fluid environment in the post-Cold War Asian Pacific, any suggestion that Washington may be scaling back its forward deployment may encourage provocative behavior elsewhere in the region, defense officials maintain.

On this point, some experts are frustrated that the protracted nature of the heliport relocation issue has diverted policymakers' time, energy and attention from consideration of precisely these broader regional developments that potentially have a direct bearing on U.S. and Japanese security interests. By hosting the G-8 gathering, perhaps the southern islanders will gain a deeper appreciation for the complexity of issues confronting Japan, the United States and the world at large. The Okinawans may then recognize that it is in their political and economic interests over the longer term to work with Tokyo and Washington.

Then again, antibase citizens groups on Okinawa have influenced prefectural policy as never before and may view the G-8 event as a rare opportunity to exercise their democratic rights. Should they effectively derail the SACO process and foil attempts to relocate the heliport to Nago, the United States has no recourse, other than to encourage Tokyo to honor its treaty obligations and resolve this domestic disagreement. Experts say that it is imperative for the central government to rise to the occasion. Otherwise, local interests may continue to try to undermine Tokyo's authority on diplomatic and national security policy.

The views expressed in this report are those of the author
and do not necessarily represent those of the Japan Economic Institute

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1aa The Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security Between the United States and Japan, effective June 23, 1960, revised the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, signed September 8, 1951 and implemented April 28, 1952, which effectively ended World War II between the two countries. Return to Text

2aa See Barbara Wanner, "Clinton Administration Refocuses Asian Pacific Security Strategy," JEI Report No. 11A, March 24, 1995. Return to Text

3aa Electronic correspondence with Paul S. Giarra, Science Applications International Corp., McLean, Virginia, January 13, 2000. Return to Text

4aa In September 1995, a 12-year-old Okinawa girl on her way home from shopping was abducted and raped by two marines and one seaman. They subsequently were tried in the Japanese courts and were convicted in March 1996. Two of the servicemen are serving seven-year terms in a Japanese prison; the third individual was sentenced to a six-and-one-half-year term, also in a Japanese prison. Return to Text

5aa SACO's Japanese members included the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' director general of the North American Bureau and the Japan Defense Agency's director general of the Defense Facilities Administration Agency and staff. The U.S. participants included the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs and the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs and staff. Return to Text

6aa American officials also evidently were candid with their Japanese counterparts in cautioning that, for logistical and other reasons, the reallocation of Okinawa-based troops to military facilities on Honshu, Hokkaido and elsewhere on the main islands probably could not be realized in the near term. Return to Text

7aa Sheila Smith, "Challenging National Authority: Okinawa Prefecture and the U.S. Military Bases" in Sheila Smith (ed.), Local Voices, National Issues: Local Initiative In Japanese Policymaking (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, forthcoming), p. 101. Return to Text

8aa Electronic correspondence with Sheila Smith, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts, January 6, 2000. Return to Text

9aa Smith (forthcoming), op. cit., p. 100. Return to Text

10aa The Economist, "Japan: Tiny Plots," August 24, 1996, p. 30. Return to Text

11aa Eric Talmadge, "Okinawa Governor A Base Realist," The Japan Times, January 8, 1999, p. 3. Return to Text

12aa Prefectural referendums are not binding on Tokyo. Security-related matters are under the exclusive purview of the central government. However, this initiative was significant since it represented the first time that a local government had challenged Tokyo on a policy matter of national importance. Return to Text

13aa Smith (forthcoming), op. cit., p. 103. Return to Text

14aa Smith (forthcoming), op. cit., p. 108. Return to Text

15aa For an analysis of the September 1996 referendum results, see Barbara Wanner, "Okinawa Referendum Impacts: Greater Near Than Far," JEI Report, No. 35A, September 20, 1996. Return to Text

16aa "Opponents Exceed Proponents Of Base's Move To Nago," Kyodo Wire Service, December 7, 1999. Return to Text

17aa Smith (forthcoming), op. cit., p. 110. Return to Text

18aa Smith (forthcoming), op. cit., p. 109. Return to Text

19aa When Okinawa reverted to Japanese sovereignty in 1972, about 2,000 landowners refused to enter into contracts with Tokyo. Arguing that the central government has the right to exert control over land as a result of its treaty obligations with United States, Tokyo passed a law in 1982 that allows the state to annex private land for public purposes. The Land Expropriation Act establishes the governor's authority to sign pending leases when landowners refuse. See Smith (forthcoming), op. cit., pp. 88-89. Return to Text

20aa Smith (forthcoming), op. cit., p. 96. Return to Text

21aa "Obuchi Vows ¥10 Billion To Aid Okinawa Economy," The Japan Times, December 12, 1998, p. 1. Return to Text

22aa Smith (forthcoming), op. cit., p. 101. Return to Text

23aa "Parties Pass Okinawa Economic Bill," The Japan Times, February 11, 1998, p. 2. Return to Text

24aa Toshi Maeda, "Town Set To Accept U.S. Navy Site," The Japan Times, April 9, 1999, p. 3. Return to Text

25aa Howard W. French, "U.S. Copters? No, No, No. Not In Their Backyard," The New York Times, January 20, 2000, p. A4. Return to Text

26aa French, op. cit. Return to Text

27aa "Cabinet OKs Summit Sites," Asahi Shimbun, July 21, 1999, available at Return to Text

28aa "Next Year's G-8 Session Chance For Real Summitry," Asahi Shimbun, July 21, 1999. Available at Return to Text

29aa Smith (January 6, 2000), op. cit. Return to Text

30aa French, op. cit. Return to Text

31aa Asahi Shimbun (July 21, 1999), op. cit. Return to Text

The views expressed in this report are those of the author
and do not necessarily represent those of the Japan Economic Institute

Top aaaa Issue Index aaaa 2000 Archive Index aaaa Subscriber Area aaaa Home