Futenma Remains a Thorn in the Side of US-Japanese Relations

P 27.09.2022 U Vladimir Terehov


The fate of the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, one of several operated by the US military on Okinawa, has been discussed many times in the NEO and is noteworthy from several angles. Above all, however, because not only are the answers to the two traditional questions “Who is to blame?” and “What is to be done?” still unclear, but even the meaning of each word that forms them. For the current situation associated with this base looks almost like a prototype of the plot of the famous novel “Airport” by Arthur Hailey

In the summer of 1945, following the occupation of Okinawa by US troops, an airstrip was built near the village of Ginowan, then home to just over ten thousand people. The US Air Force was going to use it in the planned months-long battle for the four “main” Japanese islands.

However, the war soon ended and the ensuing peaceful life in and around the airstrip consisted of two (apparently significantly interrelated) trends. First, the infrastructure of the airstrip itself continued to develop into what was to become the full-fledged Futenma base, which by the 1960s had come under the control of the USMC. Second, the village of Ginowan grew, eventually becoming a full-fledged city with a population of a hundred thousand. There are photos on the internet illustrating the current situation of the base in the city.

It can be assumed that somewhere in the mid-1990s, the following dialogue took place between the responsible representatives of the latter and the former, roughly as follows:

“- And what are you guys actually doing here in the middle of our city? Some parts from your machines are falling off and falling on the roofs of our schools. It’s not just the teacher’s voice that’s inaudible, but the doors and windows are shifting.

- What do you mean “what are we doing”? We are protecting you from the Chinese-Communist threat.

- Oh good for you! Anyhow, could you do it somewhere else?”

In any case, in the second half of the 1990s, another US-Japanese joint paper on strategic issues of the bilateral military-political alliance pointed to the need to remove the Futenma base from the (now) city of Ginowan. Naturally, at the expense of the Japanese state budget.

Less than ten years later, a similar document (in 2006) outlined the main points of the respective project, namely the new location of the base, its future appearance, the tentative construction schedule and the expected costs. Futenma was expected to move to an artificially created coastal area in the second half of the 2010s next to another USMC base in the same Okinawa.

However, the construction that began took place against a backdrop of growing sentiment, always present in a significant part of the local population, in favor of a complete withdrawal of US military from the island. It should be noted that Okinawa is home to about two-thirds of the entire “Japanese” grouping of US forces.

The situation for the initiators of the Futenma relocation project began to look very bad after the election of former TV presenter Denny Tamaki as governor of Okinawa Prefecture (which includes the entire Ryukyu archipelago, stretching some 1,000 km) in autumn 2018. Although the new governor has continued to reclaim the necessary ground from the sea for the future airline with the help of construction waste and sand, he has upset many people, mainly in his own central government.

While not yet claiming a full US military withdrawal from Okinawa, Denny Tamaki has consistently made statements about the need to remove the Futenma from the island altogether. Although, judging by the available photos, the said coastal site for the future base has already appeared above the sea surface.

That is why the results of the latest gubernatorial elections in Okinawa Prefecture on September 10 were awaited with such tension in Tokyo. For the irrepressible Tamaki once again took part in the election. And he won again. The result was 50% in favor of Tamaki (out of 58% of those who turned up to vote), against 40% for the party coalition ruling in the country, which could well be considered a respectable victory for the candidate who had already held the same post.

The winner’s mood, however, was spoilt by the fact that he lost the majority that had supported him earlier in the local parliament, as none of his supporters took up any of the vacant seats on the ballot. It is therefore more of a triumphalist political rhetoric that Tamaki said immediately after the announcement of the preliminary election results that “the thoughts of people in the prefecture [on the issue of relocating the Futenma base – author] have not wavered even a millimeter.”

For the vast majority of those who came to vote, for whom it is not a question of where the base will go from the city of Ginowan but rather of the future economic development of the prefecture, the overwhelming majority voted for Denny Tamaki’s opponent. They, and most likely the 40% of voters who did not turn up at the ballot box, are apparently happy with the ongoing project to relocate Futenma.

Be that as it may, judging from the same post-election speech, the new-old governor intends to continue obstructing the central government from implementing the adopted Futenma relocation project. The completion date has already been postponed (for the time being) to 2030 due to problems with the stability of the bulk soil. Incidentally, the repeated postponements have sometimes led to speculation that Japan is in fact building a base here for its own forces, not for those of the US.

Nevertheless, the fact that the source of (some) discomfort in US-Japanese relations remained to be governor of Okinawa prefecture proved to be very inconvenient for Tokyo, both for foreign policy and purely domestic reasons.

With regard to foreign policy, the outcome of the election under discussion represented a direct challenge to the various recent activities and public statements by decision-makers in both the US and Japan, which are designed to reaffirm the “cornerstone” nature of the bilateral military-political alliance in the entire US-Japanese relations system.

A week before the Okinawa elections, US Ambassador Rahm Emanuel went into unnecessary details in the leading Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun about the advent of the era of US-Japanese alliance projection in the Indo-Pacific region. Ten days later, the defense ministers of both countries met in Washington. Judging from the brief official statement, the two senior officials were just engaged in the said “projection” in the same “Indo-Pacific.”

In Japan itself things are going very badly for the current cabinet of Fumio Kishida. The rating of the (outwardly quite positive) Prime Minister, with his vast experience in various public offices, is in free fall. Back in mid-July, i.e. in the first days after the “reformatting” of the government, the figure was still above 50%, having fallen by 6%, a month later it was already at 40%. A September 17-18 poll, on the other hand, found that Kishida’s cabinet rating had plummeted below 30%.

This hasn’t happened since 2006-2012, when Japan’s Prime Ministers changed once a year and Washington said it had no time to remember the face of the head of government of a key ally in Asia. That period ended in December 2012 with the return to office of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, arguably the most important government figure of postwar Japan. The issue with the format of his funeral is now one of the major sources of internal trouble for the Kishida government. Others include the ongoing scandals over some kind of contact between a large part of the Japanese establishment and the so-called “Unification Church,” and (mostly inherited) corruption scandals.

But the main source of increased internal nervousness remains, of course, global factors, driven primarily by the evolving global economic crisis and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. That is, those that are beyond the capacity of even a country like modern-day Japan to exert any significant influence.

In short, it is bad timing for Tamaki to once again become governor of Okinawa Prefecture, whose main island is home to most of the “Japanese” military contingent of Tokyo’s key ally.

The continuing ambiguity surrounding the relocation of the US base, which is linked to the name of the governor of Okinawa, has been a source of considerable “turmoil” in US-Japanese relations.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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