December 14 is D-Day in Okinawa, the island at the most southern end of the Japanese archipelago where 70 percent of all US military bases in that country are concentrated.
But this D-Day won’t stand for liberation. Instead, it will stand for destruction—of an environmentally sensitive bay to clear the way for a new US military base on the island, and the symbolic destruction of Okinawan democracy, which has voted repeatedly and overwhelmingly against the base’s construction.
“I believe the situation is unfair and abnormal,” Denny Tamaki, Okinawa’s newly elected governor, told The Nation in an interview. “I think Japan is disrespecting the Okinawan peoples’ will. It’s as if democracy doesn’t exist on Okinawa.”
On the 14th, after a last-minute plea by Gov. Tamaki to stop it, private contractors hired by the Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP) government of Shinzo Abe will begin the final phase of building a new offshore airport for the US Marines at Henoko, in northern Okinawa, by filling in nearby Oura Bay with earth, sand, cement, gravel, and large rocks. The reclamation phase of the project, which is being supervised by the Okinawa defense bureau of Japan’s Ministry of Defense, is expected to take five years.
Once that work is completed and a series of runways built on the reclaimed land, the new base is supposed to replace US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, a huge facility in the middle of the crowded city of Ginowan. It has been the target of local anger for decades because of rapes and other intolerable actions by US soldiers, environmental and noise contamination, and a history of serious accidents by US aircraft constantly in flight.
But the US plan to relocate Futenma to Henoko instead of closing the base altogether is staunchly opposed by a majority of Okinawa’s 1.4 million residents, who twice in recent years have elected governors who want the Marine base moved out of the prefecture entirely.
“Since 2014, if you look at the election results of Okinawa, we have been saying ‘no’ to the relocation plan,” Tamaki told me in an exclusive interview at the Okinawa prefectural office in downtown Washington. He noted that the Okinawa local assembly last year voted unanimously for a resolution calling for the removal of all US Marines from the island.
In a dramatic show of resistance in August, 70,000 Okinawan residents held a rally against the Henoko base in the Okinawan capital city of Naha. And in recent days, the construction site at Henoko has been the scene of daily demonstrations and blockades that have been forcefully broken up by Japanese police.
“The US government says this issue is a Japanese domestic issue,” Tamaki continued. “On the other hand, the Japanese government says it wants to proceed with the [Futenma] relocation for the US government.” He added this warning: “Without solving issues related to democracy in Okinawa, the US-Japan security alliance is going to be very, very vulnerable.”
Governor Tamaki is correct to focus on the US and Japanese refusal to recognize the concerns expressed by Okinawa’s citizens, said Annmaria Shimabuku, an assistant professor of East Asian Studies at New York University and a second-generation Okinawan. “Henoko is a battle between the US and Japan about the meaning of the democratic will of the people of Okinawa,” she said.
Shimabuku, the author of a new book on Okinawa, pointed to the latest study by the Okinawa Prefectural Government on Henoko indicating that the total cost of building the new base could exceed 2.5 trillion yen, or $22.5 billion. That’s “at least 10 times what the defense ministry initially estimated for the project,” she said. An editorial in Japan’s Asahi Shimbun last week argued that “the government’s case for forging ahead with the Henoko base plan is riddled with deceptive and inconsistent claims.”
The higher estimate quoted by Shimabuku is largely due to the difficulties presented by building on top of Oura Bay’s limestone base and to the need to comply with the intense and time-consuming environmental-approval process that Okinawa will demand as the project continues.
According to the Asahi, “more than 5,800 species of living things, including 262 endangered species, have been confirmed to inhabit Oura Bay off Henoko. It should not be forgotten that the dumping of earth and sand would cause immeasurable damage to this fertile sea.” Moreover, Okinawan officials have projected that it will take 13 years to complete the Henoko base—eight years longer than originally planned—“due in part to additional work to solidify the soft seabed,” the newspaper reported.
“From a political, engineering, and fiscal perspective, the Henoko project is a disaster in the making,” said Shimabuku. “It shows how hell-bent and recklessly determined the Japanese government is in sticking Okinawa with yet another US military base.”
The struggle over Henoko dates back more than a dozen years. In 1996, the United States and Japan agreed to replace Futenma with the new base after three US Marines were arrested for raping an Okinawan schoolgirl in 1995, causing a national uproar and a serious crisis in US-Japan relations.
Since then, successive US administrations have backed the agreement, saying it is the only option available for US forces in Japan. Last year, Trump and Abe—one of the US president’s few friends among global leaders—reaffirmed the plan in one of their many meetings, calling the Henoko relocation plan “the only solution that avoids continued use” of Futenma.
And in the early days of the Obama administration, senior US officials exerted enormous pressure on Japan to stick to the relocation plan when a government led by the progressive Yukio Hatoyama sought to alter it as part of a planned reform of US-Japan strategic agreements approved over the years by the right-wing LDP.
Hatoyama was pushed out in 2010 after he acceded to the US demands for the new base at Henoko, and his Democratic Party of Japan was replaced by the LDP two years later—much to the satisfaction of the Pentagon and the US government. (Hatoyama spoke to The Nation about his experience last February. In November, he visited Governor Tamaki in Okinawa and urged him to “persevere in your intent to absolutely not allow the new base to be built.”)
Why Abe and the LDP are so intent on pleasing the United States is rarely addressed in either the US or Japanese press. But the answer lies in the LDP’s role as possibly the most subservient, pro-American party and government the world has seen since World War II—a relationship that was recently described by the eminent Australian historian Gavan McCormack as “clientelism.”
Writing in The Asia-Pacific Journal this month, McCormack said he used that term to describe “a state that spontaneously chooses servitude, insisting on the ‘alliance’ with the US as its charter (with de facto priority over the constitution), on the absolute privilege of the US military presence in Japan, especially in Okinawa.” Japan’s clientelism, he said, has been especially pronounced during the second term of Prime Minister Abe, who is now the longest-serving prime minister in modern Japanese history.
After Trump became president in 2017, McCormack wrote, “Abe paid especial care to nurture the bilateral relationship. With no other world leader did Trump so relish rounds of golf or consult so often, whether directly or by telephone. As the personal relationship seemed to flower, Abe committed Japan to a new level of incorporation in the projection of US hegemony over global land, sea, space, and cyber-space.” And thus the standoff over Henoko.
Here’s the stark truth about Okinawa, which was the scene of one of the most horrific battles of World War II. It takes up less than 1 percent of Japan’s land mass, yet it hosts nearly three-quarters of the US bases in Japan. About half of the 50,000 US soldiers in Japan work out of bases in Okinawa, including Kadena Air Force Base, a strategic US outpost where some of the Pentagon’s most sophisticated spy planes are based.
That disparity is the driving force behind Okinawa’s opposition to the Henoko plan. “These US bases are concentrated close to or around the center of residential areas where 80 percent of Okinawans live,” said Tamaki.
Tamaki, an energetic former lawmaker, has an unusual pedigree for a Japanese politician. His father, whom he has never met, was a US Marine serving in Okinawa, and he was raised by his Okinawan mother. That makes him Japan’s first mixed-race governor in its history. In another milestone, 10 years ago Tamaki became “the first Amerasian to be elected to Japan’s House of Representatives,” according to The New York Times.
“Tamaki is a true man of the people who embodies not only Okinawa’s complex relationship with the US military but also with Japanese pressures on Okinawa to assimilate and their insistence on Japan’s status as a monoethnic state,” said NYU’s Shimabuku.
Tamaki was elected in September after his predecessor, Takeshi Onaga, a fierce opponent of US bases, died of cancer. Tamaki handily defeated Atsushi Sakima, a local mayor backed by Abe’s LDP. “The strong feelings of Takeshi Onaga, risking his life to stop the construction of any more bases, helped bring this victory,” Tamaki told reporters after his election.
During his visit to New York in November, Tamaki delivered a speech at NYU in which he strongly criticized both Tokyo and Washington for proceeding with the Henoko relocation project even though a majority of Okinawans oppose it.
“The Japanese government is going to build the base, and the US government is going to use it,” he said. “They have responsibility as concerned parties, yet the base is being forced on Okinawa. Where should Okinawans deliver our voices? Where is democracy for Okinawa?”
While in Washington, Tamaki asked US officials, including Marc Knapper, acting deputy assistant secretary of state, to open three-way talks with Okinawan and Japanese officials over the future of Futenma and Henoko, but he was rebuffed, the governor said. Instead, the State Department said that Knapper and other officials “thanked Okinawa for playing a central role in the U.S.-Japan alliance that is a cornerstone of peace in the Asia-Pacific region,” Kyodo News reported.
That’s part of the problem, Governor Tamaki explained in his interview. He pointed to the Pentagon’s recent expansion of the Pacific Command (which includes US forces in Japan) into the United States Indo-Pacific Command. Its jurisdiction now stretches “from the waters off the west coast of the U.S. to the western border of India, and from Antarctica to the North Pole,” the command’s website states.
“In my understanding, US forces are now aiming for a free and open Indian and Pacific ocean,” said Tamaki. “I’d like Americans to understand that Okinawa is part of the Pacific, too. And I’d like Americans to respect the Okinawan people’s democracy.”
Tamaki also addressed one of the least-known aspects of US bases in Okinawa: their relationship to the US military presence on the Korean Peninsula.
Since the Korean War, as I’ve reported, the US-run UN Command that organized the fighting against the North Korean and Chinese armies has had a major presence in Japan called UN Command-Rear. It’s based at Yokota Air Base near Tokyo and includes seven US installations, including three important US bases on Okinawa: Kadena (Air Force), Futenma (Marines) and White Beach (Navy).
“As you know, there is a UN flag at Kadena, which is one of the most important airfields US forces have overseas,” said Tamaki. “There’s also a UN flag flying at Futenma and the US Navy port at White Beach.” But their strategic value to the United States could change as a result of the peace process in Korea initiated last January by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean chairman Kim Jong-un.
In a speech this past March to a Washington conference on Okinawa attended by then-Governor Onaga, former US secretary of defense William Perry argued that a settlement in Korea could dramatically change the structure of US bases on Okinawa by removing the justification for the Marine base at Futenma. That’s because Futenma’s sole mission, he said, is to be the first line of defense if North Korean forces invade South Korea.
“The whole purpose of US military planning relative to North Korea is to get reinforcements in very, very quickly to stop North Korean forces before they get to Seoul,” Perry told the conference, which I covered. If the United States “is able to solve the North Korea threat and danger, that would go a long way to removing the rationale for even having military forces in Okinawa. I believe in time [this] would lead to a situation where the US forces in Okinawa could be removed altogether.”
With that in mind, I asked Governor Tamaki if Okinawa should be part of a regional discussion about peace and demilitarization, if the US and South Korean negotiations with North Korea about ending its nuclear program and the Korean War are successful.
He responded carefully, saying that Japan could “retain its deterrence” even if the US Marine base is relocated. He added that “we are just requesting withdrawal of Futenma air base, not all US Marines, from Okinawa, so I wonder why both the US and Japanese governments stick to this small issue [of the relocation to Henoko].”
After reflecting for a moment, he spoke of Okinawa’s “unique history” of close ties with China, Taiwan, and South Korea. “I’d like to have Okinawa become a peaceful backwater region in Northeast Asia,” he said, adding that his “big dream” is to someday convert the island’s bases into UN facilities and “make Okinawa a center for humanitarian aid and disaster relief” in the Asia-Pacific region.
Just before leaving for his US trip, the governor said the prefectural government would try again to express Okinawa’s will by holding a referendum on the Henoko relocation plan next February 24. In the last such referendum, in 1996, 89 percent of Okinawans voted to support a scaled-back US military presence and a review of the Henoko plan.
“This issue has everything to do with Okinawan identity as the reality of a people who are rendered invisible in the geopolitical acrobatics of the US-Japan security alliance,” said Shimabuku. “For Americans exhausted with political echo chambers and polarizing ideological debates, Okinawa is the place to look to see how real people with complex lives can respond to the overwhelming pressures of powerful states.”