Futenma’s replacement heating up political landscape

Okinawa’s gubernatorial election is now two months away, and Governor Hirokazu Nakaima’s challenger says he’ll vigorously oppose the planned project to relocate the controversial Futenma Marine Corps Air Station to sparsely populated northern Okinawa.

Naha Mayor Takeshi Onaga says “to meet the expectations of people is what a politician should aim to do at the end of the day.”  He believes Okinawa should not be carrying the bulk of the burden of hosting American bases, and has told the Naha City Municipal Assembly that “Japan’s security should be ensured by sharing as a country. Okinawa has reached its limits and cannot shoulder more.

The 63-year-old Onaga sees the election as a referendum of sorts on building the replacement airfield facility on Camp Schwab and the adjacent waters of Oura Bay in Nago City’s Henoko district.  Governor Nakaima has already given the green light for landfill work.  A third candidate for governor, former Diet member and 53-year-old former minister in charge of privatizing the country’s postal services, Mikio Shimoji, has called for a prefecture-wide referendum to settle the issue by directly getting citizens’ input.

In Tokyo, Yoshihide Suga says Okinawa’s gubernatorial election will have no effect on the airfield replacement project moving forward.  Suga, the Chief Cabinet Secretary, says the Futenma ~ Henoko issue “has already become an issue of the past,” and adds “I don’t think this will be an election issue.  He says governors nationwide have authority to approve or toss out reclamation projects in their prefectures, and notes Nakaima’s approval –with not-so-subtle infusions of money from the central government for infrastructure projects—is already in place.

The bottom line, according to the Chief Cabinet Secretary, is that “we need to remove danger from the Futenma base as early as possible.”  The project has alternately stalled and lingered since first being approved in 1996.  It remains a flash point for opponents, and political observers think Onaga’s position, which draws support from the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party, could attract some normally faithful Liberal Democratic Party members.

The project itself may again see the timelines slide a bit, although government sources say the schedule calling for the runways and bank protection at the Oura Bay site will still be complete within five years.  Governor Nakaima approved the project late last year, while urging Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to stop Futenma’s operations and close it within five years.

For its part, the U.S. military is becoming more proactive, shifting the Marines’ 15 KD-130 air refueling tankers from the prefecture to mainland Japan. The tankers and the military crews and maintenance teams are now flying from Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station in Yamaguchi Prefecture.  Officials note this is the first time U.S. military personnel and units have been moved from Okinawa to the mainland.  Iwakuni Mayor Yoshihiko Fukuda supported moving the Marine unit to his city.  Within the next three years, the U.S. Navy will also move 59 carrier-based aircraft to Iwakuni from Atsugi Naval Air Station in Kanagawa Prefecture.