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2014: Okinawans reject Abe's base deal

Okinawa
The Japan Times,  24.2.2015 
SPECIAL TO THE JAPAN TIMES ARTICLE HISTORY NOV 22, 2014 
http://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2014/11/22/commentary/okinawansrejectabesbasedealwontlisten/ 1/5

Okinawans reject Abe’s base deal, but he won’t listen
BY JEFF KINGSTON

On Nov. 16, Okinawan voters sent Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a clear message: Close the U.S. marine air base in Futenma and locate the replacement somewhere outside our prefecture.

Although Tokyo and Washington have agreed to shift Futenma’s functions to a new base at Henoko, located in less populated northern Okinawa, University of Connecticut historian Alexis Dudden says the thumping defeat of the Liberal Democratic Party-backed incumbent Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima “demands a fundamental rethinking of the Henoko project as well as how the U.S. security alliance with Japan should move forward. In clear ways, Washington’s alliance managers must grasp (Takeshi) Onaga’s big win as something of far deeper significance than knee-jerk anti-Americanism.”

In his campaign, Onaga called the excessive concentration of the U.S. military presence in Okinawa unacceptable and unfair. The election’s results are not surprising given that polls show that 80 percent of residents want to close Futenma unconditionally and not build Henoko. George Washington University political scientist Mike Mochizuki warns that “stubbornly insisting on building the full-scale landfill air station at Henoko will jeopardize the political foundation of the U.S.-Japan alliance.”

The voters’ verdict, repudiating the deal Abe brokered last December securing Nakaima’s approval of the Henoko base in exchange for boatloads of cash, is yet another setback for the prime minister, who has suffered a cascade of bad news over the past several months.

Pity the man. “Abenomics” is floundering as Japan slips into recession and 85 percent of the public thinks it’s a flop. Even Bank of Japan Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda’s “bazooka” of massive quantitative easing can’t mask a sense of growing desperation among policymakers. Increasingly, Abenomics appears to be little more than welfare for the wealthy since the only achievement — a rising stock market — disproportionately benefits the rich. Polls also show that people overwhelmingly oppose his signature policies on state secrecy legislation, lifting constraints on Japan’s military and nuclear reactor restarts.

Moreover, the Cabinet reshuffle was an unmitigated fiasco while Abe’s unpopular policies and empty pledges of sweeping structural reform are catching up to him, his support plummeting 8 percent in October. Just the time for an election?

Abe’s dissolution of the Lower House has been widely derided as a great distraction from important business at hand and his accumulating failures. Abe’s spin-doctors will try to claim a mandate for his policies, but will have a hard time convincing anyone who isn’t already a supporter because defeating an opposition in disarray is meaningless.

But even before Abe could call snap elections, Okinawans bloodied his nose by handing Onaga a powerful mandate (51.2 percent) to cancel the project to build a new air base in Henoko for the U.S. Marines. Despite the advantages of incumbency and the LDP’s backing, Nakaima won a dismal 37 percent of the vote, showing that Abe’s cash-and-carry approach to democracy doesn’t wash with Okinawans.

Tokyo’s heavy-handed tactics trample on local dignity and have ignited identity politics. Onaga’s victory signals what writer and Okinawan resident Douglas Lummis views as a sea change in Okinawan politics.

“The anti-base moment in Okinawa is transforming itself from a pure anti-war, anti-base movement to an anti-colonial (or, anti-colonial-treatment) movement,” Lummis says.

Onaga’s campaign slogan, “Identity not ideology,” draws on deep resentment about Tokyo and Washington making decisions affecting Okinawa without considering Okinawan views.

Journalist Terrence Terashima asserts that the anti-base, anti-Tokyo sentiments expressed in a Ryukyu Shimpo editorial published on election day mystified “mainland journalists who could not make head nor tail of what it really meant. But the historical implications embedded in this article are something that all Okinawans see.”

Islanders worry that Abe’s proactive pacifism and embrace of collective self-defense will come at their expense, invoking bitter memories of the 1945 Battle of Okinawa. Okinawans’ collective war memory emphasizes their role as sacrificial pawns, with as much as one-third of the civilian population slaughtered, including many group suicides instigated by Japanese troops. Okinawans are also bitter that their democratic voice protesting the disproportionate base-hosting burden is routinely ignored by Tokyo where leaders wrongly assume that money can solve the problem.

University of the Ryukyus professor emeritus Yoshio Shimoji predicts that “Tokyo may press ahead with the relocation plan despite the election results and bully Onaga (by withholding funds),” says Ryukyu University professor emeritus Yoshio Shimoji, “but Tokyo must know such bullying will eventually inflame the now incipient desire of Okinawans for selfdetermination.” Hello Scotland!

According to Mark Selden, editor of the Asia-Pacific Journal, Onaga’s victory “confronts the Japanese and U.S. governments with this question: Are they prepared to override the clearly expressed will of the Okinawan people and impose the construction of yet another base that has no strategic significance?” Apparently, yes.

The Abe government has made it clear that the voters won’t be allowed to decide, announcing before the elections that whatever the result the government plans to proceed with the land reclamation for the Henoko air base. Given that the U.S.-Japan alliance is allegedly based on shared values, this strong-arming of democracy is a wince-worthy choice that undermines the bilateral relationship.

The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama should not be comfortable with this steamrolling of local sentiment. Proceeding as if democracy doesn’t matter risks politicizing the base issue even further in ways that could harm bilateral relations. Isn’t it time to revisit the 2006 road map to downsizing the U.S. military presence in Okinawa in light of fierce opposition, budget realities and sensible alternatives?

Mochizuki calls for, “creative alternatives for deploying the U.S. Marine Corps in the AsiaPacific that would not weaken deterrence and that would enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of U.S. military responses to possible regional contingencies.”

Steve Rabson, Japanologist and professor emeritus at Brown University, insists that the time has come for the U.S. to cancel this “costly and unnecessary project.”

“A recent Brookings study concluded that, since what most of the 18,000 marines do in in Okinawa is routine training, most of them could be moved elsewhere without affecting the military’s mission in Asia-Pacific and with no need for their own air base,” Rabson says.

It now seems likely that there will be further delays in the Henoko project, raising concerns that operations at Futenma will continue despite the dire safety concerns acknowledged by Tokyo and Washington.

Assuming Onaga does move to block the ongoing Henoko reclamation, the central government will probably initiate legal proceedings and seek an injunction to allow work to continue. Lummis points out that the Diet can also pass a law allowing Abe to overcome local resistance, just as Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto did in 1996 when he overrode Gov. Masahide Ota’s refusal to do Tokyo’s bidding. ”

Whatever happens, there’s still a long fight ahead,” Lummis adds. “Onaga talks as though he has a lot of other tricks up his sleeve. I hope he does.”

So do most Okinawans.

Jef Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.








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