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Okinawa Casts a Decisive Vote Against the Relocation of a US Base

13 Mar 2019
By Professor Paul Midford
Osprey tiltrotor aircraft enroute from a training mission to the US Marine Corps Air Station in Futenma, Okinawa. Source: Marines, Flickr

A referendum in Okinawa has found there is significant opposition to the relocation of a controversial US Military base. The result does not tell the whole story, but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plans to ignore its outcome may prove risky in an election year.

Seventy-four years after Okinawa was conquered by US forces, forty-seven years after it reverted back to Japanese sovereignty, albeit with a very heavy US military base presence, and twenty-three years after the Japanese and the US governments decided to relocate the dangerous US Marine Corp Futenma airbase to the less crowded town of Nago, Okinawa voters have spoken, casting a decisive vote against this base relocation. On 24 February 52 percent of voters in Japan’s southern-most prefecture went to the polls in a referendum called by governor Denny Tamaki and approved by the prefectural legislature. The referendum contained three choices: support the base relocation plan, oppose the plan, or neither. The latter option was added at the insistence of several municipalities controlled by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), with the hope of weakening the no vote.

Despite this tactic, base opponents won an overwhelming victory: 72.15 percent voted against the relocation plan, versus a mere 19.10 percent who voted for it; 8.75 percent chose neither. This result is remarkable for three reasons.

First, this overwhelming no vote came despite universal agreement that the US Marine Corps airfield in Futenma, where helicopters and Osprey tilt-rotter aircraft operate regularly, poses unacceptable dangers to the densely populated community that surrounds the perimeter of the base. The plan to relocate the base to the Henoko district of Nago city, originally agreed to by the United States and Japan in the wake of the brutal rape of a twelve-year-old Okinawan girl by three US Marines in 1995, was the only relocation plan ever seriously considered. As such, the overwhelming vote against it will very likely prolong the life of the dangerous Futenma base. According to exit polls, an overwhelming majority of voters who voted against the relocation plan want the US Marine airwing moved from Futenma out of the prefecture, if not outside of Japan. Most Okinawans thus appear to be holding out for the complete removal of the base from the island, even if it means the dangerous Futenma base will remain open for longer. Second, the sweeping victory by opponents is remarkable because the construction of the new base at Henoko is already underway.

Third, the result of the referendum was remarkable because it was such a sweeping victory for the Henoko relocation plan opponents that exceeded pre-election polls. Opponents won every demographic category and every municipality. Even in the city of Ginowan which hosts the Futenma base, and which could reasonably have been expected to support the relocation of the dangerous base out of its municipality, opponents well outnumbered supporters. Throughout the prefecture, even supporters of Abe’s ruling LDP opposed the Henoko plan, albeit by a narrow margin. On the other hand, it appears that many LDP supporters and other conservatives decided not to vote. At 52 percent the participation rate was higher than in many past elections. But it was lower than the 59 percent who turned out for the 1997 prefectural level referendum on US bases overall, which produced an ambivalent result. With more than a quarter of Okinawa’s total electorate voting against the Henoko plan, the referendum is binding on the governor, who is obligated to respect the result and lobby Tokyo and Washington to respect it as well.

The sweeping victory of the base relocation opponents poses a large challenge for the Abe administration and is likely to stymie ongoing construction at Henoko. Abe reacted to the referendum result by promising to “respect” it, but then in the next breath vowed to ignore it by pressing on with the Henoko base relocation as the “only option” for closing the Futenma base. This stubborn defiance of the Okinawan public poses significant political problems for Abe as the overwhelming no vote confers democratic legitimacy on the anti-relocation movement. This makes it now virtually impossible for Okinawan Governor Tamaki, or his successors, to adopt any stance other than implacable opposition to the relocation. The option of simply lobbying Tokyo for greater compensation in exchange for acquiescence is now gone. Any Okinawan politician who adopts such a tactic would be fatally delegitimized as betraying the will of the Okinawan people.

If Abe continues to ignore the Okinawan vote, it will pose a challenge even to his own democratic legitimacy, and not just in Okinawa. The Asahi Shimbun national daily newspaper editorialised that Abe’s defiance of the referendum result “has thrown the nation’s democracy into a crisis.” Although the Abe administration has claimed that national defense is under the exclusive authority of the national government, Article 73 of Japan’s Constitution, which defines the powers of the cabinet, contains no such reference.

National opinion polls show that majorities of Japanese overall have been opposed to the Henoko relocation plan for years. Moreover, there is a widespread perception among the public in “mainland” Japan that Okinawa, which has long had a far heavier burden hosting US bases than the rest of Japan (approximately 70 percent of US bases in Japan are concentrated on that island) has not been treated fairly. By stubbornly defying the results of the referendum Abe is courting a political backlash beyond Okinawa. This could prove fatal to Abe’s hopes in July’s upper-house election of maintaining a razor-thin single-party majority, and a two-thirds majority together with pro-revision allies, and its coalition partner, Komeito, which is less supportive of the Henoko relocation plan than is Abe and the LDP. Losses in the Upper House could dash Abe’s remaining hopes for constitutional revision during his time in office.

Beyond the significant risks that defying the overwhelming vote of the Okinawan people poses for Abe and the LDP, the referendum result will produce two new legal roadblocks that will further slow, and may well doom, the land reclamation upon which the new base needs to be built. First, the original construction plan must be changed as due to inadequate planning the seabed on top of which the land reclamation is to take place has been found to be too soft. Addressing this issue requires a major change in the construction plan, as nearly 77,000 sand piles will have to be driven into the seabed – a change that will require a new permit from the prefectural government, and will aggravate the already significant environmental damage the land reclamation is doing to Oura Bay. As a result of the referendum the governor, politically, and even legally, will have no choice but to refuse. In response, the Abe cabinet will likely go to court. And this is where the referendum may have a second significant impact. The court ruling that invalidated the prefectural government’s attempt to revoke the previous construction permit based its decision, in part, on the finding that Okinawan public opinion had not clearly expressed its opposition to the Henoko base relocation plan. In the wake of the overwhelming referendum result, this finding no longer appears valid and makes it more likely that future court rulings will uphold the legality of the prefectural government’s denial of a new construction permit, if not a revocation of the existing permit.

The overwhelming rejection of the Henoko base relocation plan by Okinawans, combined with the construction woes experienced by the project, not only ensure further lengthy delay beyond the 23 years already spent trying to implement this plan but raises real questions about whether it will ever be completed. This suggests it is time for the Japanese and US governments to start looking at other options: such as relocating the Futenma airbase to a better location on Okinawa, such as Katsuren; moving the Marine Corp airwing to the US Airforce base at Kadena; or moving the airwing out of Okinawa altogether. Given the centrality of air and naval power in East Asia, it may even be time to ask whether the current US Marine presence on Okinawa has become more of a liability than an asset for the bilateral alliance.

Professor Paul Midford is director of the Japan Program at the Norwegian University for Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim. He received his PhD in Political Science from Columbia University in 2001. He is the author of Rethinking Japanese Public Opinion and Security: From Pacifism to Realism? (Stanford University Press, 2011) and co-editor with Espen Moe of The Political Economy of Renewable Energy and Energy Security: Common Challenges and National Responses in Japan, China and Northern Europe (Palgrave, 2014).

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