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Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012
Okinawa takes base row into its own hands
New security policy division, English website signal proactive effort to sway U.S. policymakers
By AYAKO MIE
NAHA, Okinawa Pref. — If the Liberal Democratic Party emerges victorious in next Sunday's Lower House election, one of the main tasks looming for the new government will be repairing diplomacy.
Despite the Democratic Party of Japan sending relations with China to new lows since taking power in 2009, people in Okinawa feel they are being toyed with over the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.
After the DPJ took power, its first prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, said the Japan-U.S. alliance must evolve. He also said Futenma's replacement facility should be outside Okinawa, raising hopes residents would finally get their way after years of negotiations over the contentious base.
But Hatoyama reneged on his promise, saying he finally realized how difficult resolving the relocation issue would be after conducting a thorough study of U.S. deterrence.
"We realized that Okinawa also has to study the role of the U.S. bases in Okinawa to argue more strongly with the central government," said Susumu Matayoshi, director general of the governor's executive office in the Okinawa Prefectural Government. "That's why we created the regional security policy division."
The new division signals a more proactive stance by Okinawa at a time when the DPJ is ignoring the issue this campaign season and distrust of the central government is soaring over the U.S. deployment of the controversial MV-22 Osprey. Rather than counting solely on the central government as its advocate, Okinawa intends to take a more active approach to explaining its stance and communicate directly with Washington.
This is the first time a prefectural government has formed a division to handle security issues. Although about 74 percent of the U.S.-controlled bases in Japan are in Okinawa Prefecture, which accounts for just 0.6 percent of all Japanese soil, the prefecture didn't feel a need to have a security division until now.
The new entity is tasked with conducting research on security issues linked to Futenma and with deepening the public's knowledge of base-related issues. Its main mission, however, will be to advocate for Okinawa's interests directly with Tokyo and Washington.
Okinawans think the central government has been downplaying local sentiment against the base. Even though the prefecture sent lists of 200 questions regarding the Osprey or U.S. Marine presence in Okinawa, the Defense Ministry hasn't fully responded, the prefecture said.
Matayoshi, however, also admitted that fewer people in the younger generation understand why Okinawa is such a militarily strategic point for the U.S.
"We should have made more effort to make the Americans and people at the Japanese government know our concerns," said Matayoshi. "But at the same time, Okinawans also have to re-educate ourselves how the bases here are contributing to our security."
For a start, the Okinawa Prefectural Government hired Yukie Yoshikawa, a former fellow at the Washington-based Reischauer Center. She is building an English-language home page to explain Okinawa's view on the issues, including the history and status of the U.S. bases there. The site is to go online by the end of March.
"I was really surprised that Okinawa did not have such a home page in English," said Yoshikawa, who has written all of the content — enough to fill a 200-page document.
Yoshikawa said that except for their Japanologists, Americans have little knowledge of Okinawa and it is important for them to understand local views and concerns regarding Futenma and the stonewalled plan to move it north to the Henoko district off Camp Schwab.
"For a lot of Americans, the issue of Futenma relocation is a mere transfer of real estate," said Yoshikawa. "But Okinawans have failed to explain directly to the Americans why this is important to the Okinawans and the alliance. That's why we have to continue sending messages in English."
Since Yoshikawa came on board, she has published a paper in English to explain how Okinawa's economy could benefit if the base is moved out of Ginowan.
By reaching out directly to the American public, Yoshikawa aims to get Okinawa's message out. Yet she fears that the Obama administration might spend less time on the Futenma issue in its second term, given rumors of the imminent departure of Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. Campbell played a leading role in the Special Action Committee on Okinawa and kept the relocation issue on the table.
Many critics in Washington say that keeping the base in Futenma won't compromise the marines' capabilities or cause any other trouble now that the relocation issue has been delinked from the transfer of 9,000 marines and dependents to Guam. The relocation budget, rejected earlier by the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, is likely to be endorsed in the coming weeks.
"We do not know who will be in charge of this issue during the second term," Yoshikawa said. "We will make trips to Washington, D.C., to remind and convince Americans that it's important to keep working on the issue."