JPRI Critique Vol. VI No. 5 (May 1999)
The Futenma Problem
by Robert V. Hamilton

In Tokyo on the evening of April 12, 1996, then U.S. Ambassador to Japan Walter F. Mondale and Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto made a dramatic announcement carried live on Japanese television. The big news was that Futenma Marine Corps Air Station in Okinawa would be closed and returned to Japan within 5 to 7 years. Ambassador Mondale, standing beside Hashimoto, spoke of the need to reduce "noise and other irritants" in Okinawa, and in a triumphant tone he told the Japanese national television audience that, "This demonstrates we have what it takes to build an enduring alliance for the 21st century."

In the three years since this announcement, bureaucrats in both governments have worked hard to try to implement the agreement to relocate Futenma air station, while also attempting to strengthen the existing framework of the larger U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. Unfortunately, to date there has been little progress on the Futenma relocation plan. Okinawan residents living around Futenma want the airbase closed, and Japanese government officials want it relocated to a less populated area near Nago, in northern Okinawa. Japanese construction companies still want to build a floating heliport off the coast of Nago, and residents to the north want no part of either a floating or a landbased facility.

Additionally, former Okinawan Governor Masahide Ota used the Futenma issue with success to mobilize the island's anti-military-base movement, first calling for Futenma to be relocated to another Japanese prefecture, and then demanding that all U.S. military bases be moved out of Japan altogether. The Japanese government has attempted to counter this antibase sentiment with a public relations campaign of its own, and therein lies part of the problem. In its zeal to sell the Futenma relocation plan to the Japanese people, the Japanese government--with help from its American counterpart--has sent exactly the wrong kind of message about the U.S. military presence in Okinawa. This message could sabotage resolution of the Futenma issue, while also doing serious damage to the greater U.S.-Japan defense partnership.

President Clinton, in his address to the Japanese Diet on April 18, 1996, stated U.S. policy in no uncertain terms. The American government would work with the government of Japan "to minimize the burden of our military presence on the Japanese people," he said. This policy is euphemistically called "reducing the footprint" of the U.S. military, which entails relocating them away from the Japanese population, while at the same time maintaining current U.S. force levels in Japan. As directed, the Marine Corps has tried to reduce their "noise and other irritants" by shortening Futenma's aircraft operations hours and by ceasing all flights on Japanese national school examinations days and the like.

Also, in response to newly elected Okinawan Governor Keiichi Inamine's call for the U.S. military to minimize its off-base crimes and motor vehicle accidents, it has been reported that new Marine Corps regulations will restrict all single Marines below the rank of sergeant stationed on Okinawa for less than a year from owning or renting an automobile. Additionally, all Marines leaving the base will have their identification cards checked on weekends and holidays, and anyone found to be under the influence of alcohol will not be allowed off-base.

If the Okinawa-based Marines feel they are being unfairly singled out, they can at least take comfort from the fact that they are not the first group of foreign emissaries in Japan to have been treated as less than honored guests by their Japanese hosts. They have only to recall the treatment of seventeenth-century Dutch traders, who were confined by the Japanese on the specially constructed, small man-made island of Dejima, off the coast of Nagasaki. Marius Jansen notes:

"From 1641, when the Dutch trading station was moved from Hirado to Dejima, that fan-shaped fill served as Japan's window on the world and the world's peephole into Japan. . . . Dejima was about 650 feet in its longer and 550 feet in its shorter dimension, connected to the mainland by a carefully guarded stone bridge. All sides were surrounded by a stone wall to prevent exits. The island itself provided two rows of two-story buildings that provided warehousing and living space for the Dutch detachment. That detachment was headed by the chief factor (or kapitan, as the Japanese termed the opperhoofd from their prior trade with the Portuguese) of whom there were 163 in 315 years. Normally there were also a few scribes, a barber-doctor, a butter-maker--in all, from ten to fifteen men. The number of Dutch ships, which normally arrived in the summer and left in the fall, varied over time but diminished steadily." (Cambridge History of Japan, Volume 5, p. 88.)

As it turns out, the image of Dejima was in fact what the Japanese government intended to revive in its attempt to sell the Nago offshore floating heliport proposal. Most Japanese citizens are already quite aware of the history of Dejima and understand its present day meaning in relation to Okinawa. Not only would the Futenma airbase be returned to the Okinawans, but the Marines stationed at Futenma would be banished to a Dejima-like offshore floating facility complete with a long and narrow "carefully guarded" bridge restricting access to land and to the Japanese population. This image was a central selling point during the intense public campaign waged in Okinawa in late 1997 by the Japanese government to build support for the Nago proposal. However, the plan backfired. Not only was the Nago proposal rejected first by a local referendum and later by the Japanese government, but in the process a very negative image of the Marine Corps presence in Okinawa was formally endorsed by the Japanese government.

It is unfortunate that the Japanese government chose to present the Nago plan in this way. It is also unfortunate that the U.S. government allowed them to do this, without any public complaint, and that it continues to refer to its own military personnel in Okinawa as a 'burden' on the local population. The American government seems to have gone from apologizing for crimes and other acts of negligence committed by individual U.S. military personnel stationed in Japan, which is appropriate, to becoming an apologist for its own military presence there. In policy statements from both governments, the Marine Corps has been discussed not in terms of a valued defense partner, but rather as almost a necessary evil.

It should be obvious that these kinds of statements help breed contempt for the U.S. military within Japan and are demoralizing for the many young Americans serving there. Although aimed at gaining short-term political relief in contentious issues like Futenma, the current language does the U.S.-Japan defense partnership substantial harm in the long run, and will undoubtedly make the challenges facing the U.S. military in Japan much tougher in the future. The recent election of Shintaro Ishihara as mayor of Tokyo on a platform of closing Yokota Air Base, or at least opening it to joint use with Japanese civilian aircraft, only highlights these problems. Political analysts in Japan also believe that Ishihara's defeat of the Liberal Democratic Party candidate Yasushi Akashi will make it harder for the Obuchi government to win Diet approval for the changes in the Security Treaty guidelines that the U.S. has asked for.

Meanwhile the new Okinawan Governor Inamine has called for a joint military-civilian air facility located in northern Okinawa as a replacement for Futenma. U.S. Defense Secretary Cohen has responded that the U.S. government would consider this proposal if it meets U.S. military requirements and if it is formally approved by the Japanese government. As has happened with previous Futenma relocation plans, the current military-civilian airport proposal is intentionally vague and ambiguous, making any kind of analysis and critique of it difficult.

Given the current economic problems in Japan, which have caused a decrease in domestic tourist flights into the existing commercial airport at Naha, some Japanese will doubtless argue that such a military-civilian airport is not needed. Also, there is already a joint military-civilian air facility located in Okinawa. Anyone who has flown into the Naha commercial airport has most likely noticed the presence of Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) aircraft, hangars, and other facilities located not far from the civilian passenger terminal. Both civilian and JSDF aircraft appear to use the same runways. If Okinawan Governor Inamine is really amenable to the idea of mixing military and commercial aircraft, why not take some of the short-term pressure off Futenma by sending a detachment of U.S. Marine helicopters to nearby Naha commercial airport?

Of course, after the Japanese government has spent the last three years explaining that the Americans and their aircraft at Futenma will be segregated and isolated from the Okinawans, it will be a much tougher sell to persuade local residents now to accept the Marine helicopters and infrastructure at a commercial airport. Also, since the Marine helicopters would be visible and audible to Japanese airplanes filled with tourists from Tokyo and Osaka, the airlines and tourist industry might object.

Given all of the old and new proposals to relocate Futenma air station, I predict that the Marine Corps will probably remain squarely in the midst of this political battle for the foreseeable future. None of the formal proposals appears to be acceptable to all parties, and a stalemate is therefore likely to continue.

ROBERT V. HAMILTON is a former U.S. Marine officer with two years of service in Okinawa. He recently finished a two-year fellowship in Tokyo with the Japan Science and Technology Agency. This article is adapted from the Marine Corps Gazette, Vol. 83, No. 4 (April 1999).

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