US bid to relocate military base in Japan meets opposition among locals

TOKYO, Japan – Japan's postwar prime ministers have never much relished visits to Okinawa, the reluctant host to thousands of US troops. But Yoshihiko Noda's trip this weekend to the country's southernmost prefecture could prove even more awkward than usual.

Noda will take time off from overseeing Japan's recovery from the biggest disaster in more than 60 years to try to sell a new base agreement with Washington that could shape the US military footprint on Okinawa for decades to come.

The prime minister, on his first visit to the island since taking office last September, can expect a cordial, though hardly warm, welcome from local leaders.

The likely flashpoint will again be the future of Futenma, a marine base in the centre of the city of Ginowan that has been a cause of friction between Okinawans, and successive administrations in Tokyo and Washington.

More from GlobalPost: Japan, US agree: Marines to leave Okinawa

Last year, the US and Japan conceded that the base's planned relocation under a 2006 agreement to a less populated part of the island and the related transfer of 8,000 troops to Guam, would not happen by the 2014 deadline.

The sticking point is Tokyo's failure to persuade residents in Henoko – an ecologically important stretch of coastline – to agree to host the new offshore base.

When Okinawan protesters demanded that the base be moved off the island altogether, the government tried unsuccessfully to find another location. The rest of Japan, it turned out, was not prepared to share Okinawa's postwar burden – it comprises less than one percent of Japan's total area, yet it hosts three-quarters of all US bases in the country and just under half its 47,000 troops.

The island's southerly location makes it the perfect forward-deployment base in the event of emergencies involving China and Taiwan, or a crisis sparked by the regime in North Korea.

So while US officials have expressed sympathy for Okinawan sensibilities, they have also reminded Japan of the island's postwar role as a keystone in the western Pacific.

With the 2006 agreement all but snuffed out by opposition among local leaders on the island, Japan and the US last month agreed to de-link the Guam move from the Futenma relocation.

Under the latest plan, 4,700 marines will be transferred to Guam, with another 3,300 sent temporarily to other Pacific locations such as Hawaii, the Philippines and Australia. Futenma, however, will stay put for the foreseeable future.

More from GlobalPost: Future of US military base in Japan up in the air

"We have come to a judgment that we won't be able to resolve the stalemate under the current framework," Japan's foreign minister, Koichiro Gemba, conceded.

The modification best suits the Obama administration, which has unveiled plans to boost the US military presence in the Far East just as it seeks to cut the overall defense budget after expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and amid a shift away from Cold War strategic thinking.

Re-affirming its alliances with Japan and South Korea , where it has 28,000 troops, is pivotal to addressing perceived threats from China, with its high military spending and territorial claims, and North Korea, whose new leader, Kim Jong-un, has continued the volatile foreign policy rhetoric of his late father, Kim Jong-il.

Jun Okumura, a Japan analyst at the Eurasia Group, a political risk and consulting firm, said the new agreement had taken the urgency out of the Futenma debate. "People in Guam will probably be happier with a smaller number of troops, and it's cheaper, so Congress and the White House will be less unhappy," he said.

"Separating Futenma from the Guam transfer takes the pressure off both parties to do something about it now. They can put it on the back-burner until, or if, the political climate is more conducive (to base relocation)."

The mayor of the town that would host the new offshore base suggested that day may be some way off. "We aren't requesting these existing bases be moved out, and we don't reject the Japan-US security alliance, Susumu Inamine said. "But we can't put up with the extra burden that comes with the construction of a new military base."

Prime Minister Noda, meanwhile, has little choice but to sympathize with Okinawans, while offering no promises on relocation. "I believe in principle that the burden on Okinawa should be reduced, and spread more widely," he said at the weekend.

"The security environment surrounding Japan is severe, and the Japan-US security alliance is becoming more important. When we think about Okinawa's geographic characteristics and US marines stationed there, it is important to maintain our current deterrent."

In the long run, however, local objections may count for little, Okumura says. "I don't see Futenma ever being moved off Okinawa altogether. At the end of the day there's a national question here, and Okinawa has only four seats in Japan's lower house. The attitude may be that we sympathize with their predicament, but that's not enough to shift the political consensus over the presence of US troops in Japan."

For the 95,000 people of Ginowan, however, the campaign to remove US military aircraft from their immediate neighborhood will continue, even while Japanese and US leaders prepare to kick the issue into touch.

It is easy to see why: more than 100 schools, hospitals and stores surround Futenma's perimeter fence, prompting the defense minister, Naoki Tanaka, to call it "the world's most dangerous airbase".

The base's future has preoccupied three US presidents and about 10 Japanese prime ministers. As yet, Noda shows no sign of breaking free from its grasp. 

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.