JPRI Critique Vol. V No. 1: January 1998
U.S.-Japan Defense Contradictions and the Nago Plebiscite
by JPRI Staff

Last November 30, the Yomiuri published the results of an opinion poll it had commissioned from the Gallup organization concerning Japanese and American attitudes toward the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. In Japan, 1,952 people were interviewed; in the U.S., 982 responded. In an accompanying article, Joseph Nye, one of the principal architects of last year's revised Security Treaty, tried to put a positive spin on the poll's results. While he acknowledged "some perception gaps between the two countries on military cooperation, mainly over details for implementing new defense cooperation guidelines," he professed to believe that the poll reveals "Japan and the United States share common interests in the Asia-Pacific region."

JPRI's reading of the same statistics is far less sanguine. When respondents were asked which nations or regions they believed might pose a military threat to their own country, 69% of the Japanese named the Korean Peninsula, whereas 58% of U.S. respondents gave the Middle East top billing. Only 26% of the U.S. respondents believed that the Korean Peninsula posed a military threat. So much for some of those shared common interests.

However, if a military conflict did break out in Korea and the U.S. took military action there, almost 30% of those polled in the U.S. believe that Japan should join the U.S. in military action and another 42% believe Japan should provide the U.S. with logistical support, including supplies and the refueling of U.S. warships and aircraft. By contrast, only 11% of the Japanese believe they should refuel U.S. ships and aircraft, and even smaller percentages would support providing maintenance and repairs, or arms and ammunition.

Half of the Americans polled believe Japan should offer the use of its civil airports and ports, but only 20% of the Japanese agree. Only 4% of the Japanese respondents think that Japan should join the U.S. in military action if a conflict broke out on the Korean Peninsula, and 23% believe Japan should actively not cooperate with the U.S.-this in an area that 69% of them regard as a potential military threat.

When it comes to conflicts in other areas neighboring Japan, the gaps in attitudes grow even wider. Almost 53% of the Japanese believe that their military should stay exclusively within their own territory, including territorial waters and airspace, and 41.5% believe any military cooperation by Japan should be limited by the current interpretation of its constitution. In the U.S. the percentages of respondents agreeing with these propositions were only 20% and 14.8% respectively. Some 38.8% of the American respondents believe Japan should participate in front-line operations in the event of a neighboring conflict that threatens Japan, whereas only 2.3% of the Japanese support such an activity.

In addition to these glaring disparities in what each country expects of the other, there are similar differences in their knowledge about the new security guidelines. Two-thirds of the Japanese, as opposed to only one-third of the Americans, claimed any familiarity with the guidelines. Thus in the event of an actual conflict, Americans not only risk being disappointed by Japan's response: they are quite likely to be shocked and unpleasantly surprised. A mutual security treaty in which there is a 30-point gap in popular understandings of what the treaty entails, and further 30-point disagreements over who should do what in times of troubles, does not seem like a treaty in which anyone should place much confidence.

There is a further statistic that should give both sides pause. While approximately half of both Japanese and U.S. respondents think that the U.S. military presence in Asia should be maintained-which Joseph Nye cites as evidence of "the broad public support in both countries for the reaffirmation of the Japan-U.S. Security relationship"-40.9% of the Japanese and 20.4% of the Americans want the U.S. military presence reduced. These are sizeable percentages, and the fact that the 'hosts,' the Japanese, outvote their 'guests' by two to one in calling for a reduction of troops must tell us something. Most likely, it should tell us that we have become an unwelcome army of occupation rather than of liberation, and that if security is the air we breathe (to use Professor Nye's tired analogy), the air surrounding Japan's American bases is decidedly unhealthy.

This unhealthy air became even more fetid in northern Okinawa in December's run-up to the Nago plebiscite. It will be recalled that Nago is the chosen site for an offshore floating U.S. Marine heliport to be built in exchange for the U.S.'s relinquishing its base at Futenma. This proposal does not, of course, meet the terms of the Clinton-Hashimoto agreement to reduce the presence of U.S. forces on Okinawa by relocating facilities to other Japanese islands. Not only is Nago still in Okinawa; questions have also been raised about the safety of a floating heliport given the typhoons that regularly occur there, and the cost of building the facility has been estimated at one trillion yen.

But the main objections to building the heliport at Nago have come from the people who live there. Offshore a large coral reef is home to the dugong, a manatee-like marine mammal said to have been mistaken by 18th century European seamen for a mermaid and now protected under international law. The seashore is also where endangered turtles come to lay their eggs. The residents of Nago well remember the 1960s and 1970s, when the nearby Marine base of Camp Schwab produced noise, pollution, military accidents, and some two-to-three-hundred brothels and bars. There are currently some 3,000 U.S. Marines and attendant personnel still stationed at Camp Schwab, and the new heliport would double that number.

Of course, not everyone is opposed. Nago has a depressed rural economy and Hashimoto's government promised lucrative construction contracts and other economic benefits if a majority of the 38,000 voters would support the proposed heliport. Hashimoto also threatened that if the Nago voters failed to approve of the heliport, "nothing will change," meaning that Futenma would then not be returned to Okinawa for peaceful development. In this way, he managed to pit Okinawans against each other and forced Governor Ota to take a publicly neutral stance.

In the weeks preceding the referendum, members of Japan's Self-Defense Forces who were stationed or born in Okinawa were ordered to go from house to house in Nago, urging residents to support the heliport. And the weekend before the vote Fumio Kyuma, the director general of the Defense Agency himself, visited Nago to harangue voters. An attempt was also made to rig the voting by offering four choices instead of the usual two. The choices were:

  • I agree with the construction plan.
  • I oppose construction.
  • I agree because promised anti-pollution and economic measures can benefit the community.
  • I oppose construction because such benefits are unlikely.
The third option, "I agree because . . ." was doubtless invented to draw more yes votes than if the choice had been starkly 'yes' or 'no.' But had only this choice been included, the ballot would have been grossly unfair because 'yes' voters would have had two options, which could have been added together, whereas the 'no' voters would have had only one choice.

In the event, this strategy backfired. The final result of the December 21 plebiscite in Nago, with 80% of the eligible voters casting their votes, was as follows:

I agree with the construction plan 2,562
I agree because . . . 11,705
Total in support of installation 14,267
Total percentage 46.2%

I oppose construction 16,254
I oppose because . . . 385
Total opposed to construction 16,639
Total percentatge 53.8%

In other words, those who were opposed were simply opposed, no matter what economic inducements were offered, whereas those who decided to vote for the heliport took advantage of the softer wording; very few were willing to support the heliport outright.

Since the plebiscite is non-binding, Prime Minister Hashimoto and the LDP could ignore it and go ahead and build the floating heliport anyway. But combined with the referendum of August 4, 1996, when the citizens of the city of Maki in Niigata Prefecture voted down construction of a nuclear power plant, and last year's prefecture-wide referendum in Okinawa, when 53% of the voters demanded a reduced U.S. military presence on the island as a whole, the handwriting is now on the wall. People in local areas are irritated by the central government's attempts to foist projects on them that it would not think of building in the localities of powerful LDP politicians. Before the Nago vote, the people of Okinawa Prefecture as a whole had already spoken to say that they wanted to lighten the burden of hosting U.S. military installations.

In his statement following the Nago vote, Governor Ota said, "Taking into consideration the decision made by the municipality of Nago, we would like to take appropriate steps for realizing Okinawa's comprehensive development." This is a not-so-subtle hint that having lost in Nago, the Tokyo establishment will not just be able to go back to keeping the Marine helicopters at Futenma. The much more populous areas of central Okinawa, particularly the city of Ginowan that surrounds Futenma Marine Corps Air Station, will not allow it. If the Tokyo government fails to read these messages accurately, perhaps the U.S. government will. It is an interesting, if poignant, legacy of twenty-seven years of being under U.S. military occupation, that Okinawans are proving to be better students than their mainland brethren of democratic means of protest and self-determination.

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