Japan: What’s the deal with Okinawa?
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Japan: What’s the deal with Okinawa?

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Okinawa: Just a tropical paradise, right? Picture: Flikr

Japanese media has been saturated with reports that Tokyo and Washington have shelved a six year-old military agreement concerning US military bases in Okinawa.

The two countries have agreed to separate the 2006 Futenma-Guam transfer agreement of up to 8,000 US marines from plans to build a new air base in Henoko, north Okinawa.

This means that some American troops will now be transferred out of Okinawa despite the Henoko base remaining incomplete.

What is The 2006 Agreement?
In 2006 the US and Japanese governments released the United States Japan Roadmap for Realignment Implementation document, colloquially known as The 2006 Agreement. The Agreement outlines the disassembly of the Futenma Marine Corps Air Station in exchange for a free standing helipad to be built off the Henoko Coast. The decommissioning of the Futenma base would also mean 8000 American troops would be transferred to Guam, once the Henoko base is complete.

Some background
The US has held military bases in Okinawa since the end of World War Two. In fact, until 1972, Okinawa was administered by the US – an issue that still holds some ill feeling amongst some of the Okinawan population.

The islands are referred to as “the keystone of the Pacific” by military planners, because of their strategic location: closer to Taiwan than the Japanese mainland, but inhabited by an allied population.

As a result, the small archipelago prefecture (which takes up around 0.6 per cent of Japan’s land area) is home to about 75 per cent of the US military facilities in Japan, including almost 20,000 troops plus their dependents. The Japanese government pays for much of these troops’ expenses, with each member of the US military stationed in Japan racking up a roughly US$100,000 bill each year.

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The Futenma Marine Air Base is located in the middle of a city. Picture: Flikr

The most talked-about of the US bases is Futenma Marine Corps Air Station. Futenma is smack-bang in the middle of Ginowan City, a large urban area with a civilian population of almost 90,000. Low flying aircraft and military exercises mean the resident population suffers from near-constant noise pollution. US troops have also earned a less than stellar reputation caused by everything from drunk and disorderly behavior to a soldier being charged with the abduction and rape a 12-year-old girl in 1995.

Anti-military sentiments
Given Okinawa’s history, not only in recent years but also during World War Two, the locals, understandably, want to see Futenma air base closed down and moved, ideally, to another part of Japan.

The problem is, the decided relocation site, a floating heliport off the coast of Henoko district is home to coral reefs and the rare Okinawan manatee (dugong).

In 2010, Nago city, in Henoko prefecture, voted in an anti-US military Mayor who has been fighting the Japanese Government over the Henoko Base. In a meeting with Foreign Minister, Koichiro Genba, last year, he quizzed the Minister why local councils have had little to do with the decision making process.

Genba apologetically replied that his – and the government’s – hands were tied.

Considering the role of Okinawa in East Asia, finding an alternative somewhere else is no easy matter. It’s painful for me to have to say this, but I would like to ask you to accept the relocation of the facilities at Futenma within the prefecture [at Henoko]. This is the starting point for us to remove the risks that currently surround Futenma. We want to move ahead with this plan in keeping with the U.S.- Japan agreement to promote the relocation of the Marine Corps in Okinawa to Guam and to return the land used by U.S. bases south of Kadena.

It’s because of these such protests and delays in regard to construction at Henoko that Washington and Tokyo have decided to separate the plans.

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The rare Okinawa Dugong's habitat wil be threatened by the new Henoko Air Base. Picture: Flikr

What is the new deal and why is it so significant?
This week’s announcement to separate the Futenma-Guam transfer from the Henoko base construction has set a pretty big cat amongst the pigeons.

Ginowan residents are worried that the premature departure of troops will mean the closure of the Futenma base will no longer be a priority for Tokyo. The primary industries in Okinawa are tourism and agriculture, and with US bases taking up to 20 per cent of the prefecture’s land, the return of any arable land is important.

Also, while locals are gradually becoming more independent from the bases many people receive employment both directly and indirectly from their presence. To transfer so many people before schedule could cause havoc in an area than has twice the unemployment rate of the national average.

Tokyo has cause for concern, too.  The number of troops to be transferred is still being disputed. Initial reports sighted the originally agreed number of 8,000, while later updates suggest the US plans to move only 4,700 troops to Guam.

Initially, Japan was set to pay US$6 billion of the US$10.3 billion relocation costs for the 8,000 troops. But now, there are reports that the Japanese government plans to pay less, because fewer troops are being moved. But given that Washington is cutting back military expenditure, there is a chance that the Americans will pressure Japan to maintain their currently agreed level of financial assistance.

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Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's government has been criticised for their poorly appointed Defense Minister. Picture: AP.

And to make matters worse, the ministry in charge of overseeing Okinawa operations has been coming under a lot of fire recently. In a cabinet reshuffle last month, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda replaced then-Defense Minister, Yasuo Ichikawa with Naoki Tanaka – a self-confessed “amateur on defense issues”.

One Yomiuri opinion piece labelled Tanaka “not competent enough” and says the minister has made “careless remarks”, losing face personally, and for Noda’s government.

Other countries in the Asia-Pacific region need to take note of these changes too.

There have also been reports that about 1800 US Marines – over half of the remaining 3300 Marines not included in the downsized transfer number of 4700 – will be rotated through other locations such as Hawaii, the Philippines and the US’ most recently acquired base in Australia.

The Okinawa base relocation is a complex political situation that is often overlooked, but is one that is vital to so much co-ordination in the Asia Pacific. As economies get weaker, and voters become more restless, this is one diplomatic tie that will put US-Japan relations to the test.