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Okinawa Citizens, US Bases, and the Dugong

by Masamichi Inoue, Mark Selden, and John Purves

Please Note: This text was researched and put together by the three above-named individuals for publication in the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars (Volume 29, Number 4/ October-December 1997). An abridged and revised version appears in the actual journal. 'Okinawa Citizens, U.S. Bases, and the Dugong,' copyright Masamichi Sebastian Inoue, John Purves, and Mark Selden, January 1998.

Historical Background

The abhorrent rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen in September, 1995, reignited long-simmering issues surrounding the 52-year-old U.S. military domination of Okinawa. When Washington ended its post-World War II occupation of Japan in 1952 with the ratification by both governments of the San Francisco Peace Treaty (and the infamous "Article Three"), it gained in return sovereignty over the Ryukyu Islands and set about constructing a network of military bases to transform the main island of Okinawa into, as Gen. Douglas MacArthur had envisaged, America's "Keystone of the Pacific." Okinawa's strategic military value was well demonstrated throughout the Korean War, but particularly during the Vietnam War. In 1972, Okinawa was formally returned to Japanese sovereignty, but U.S. bases remained intact on large tracts of Okinawan territory. A quarter century later, nearly a decade after the end of the Cold War, and in the face of sustained Okinawan protest demanding the end or reduction of U.S. military domination of the islands, the United States and Japan continue to insist that Okinawans bear the burden of 75% of all military bases in the exclusive use of U.S. forces in Japan, and 28,000 out of a total of 45,000 U.S. military personnel, including four Marine battalions.

For half a century, Okinawans have protested against the sacrifice of their islands and way of life to the U.S. military. They have raised these concerns:

Having suffered more deeply than any other Japanese population in World War II (at the Battle of Okinawa), the people of Okinawa suffered even more after the war by being placed under direct U.S. rule for 27 years and by having to accommodate a disproportionate share of the U.S. military bases located on Japanese territory.

  • American military domination distorted and greatly destabilized the Okinawan economy during the occupation period, creating a milieu that revolved around bars, prostitution, and servicing of U.S. troops. In the post-reversion period Okinawa remains similarly dependent on U.S. military bases, but now because of the money allocated to the prefecture by Tokyo in the form of, essentially, compensation.
  • The U.S. military presence has also had a devastating impact on the society and social life in Okinawa. The constant nuisance of the test firing of weapons and low-flying military aircraft is coupled with incidents of pollution and injuries to Okinawan civilians that result from the bases being situated so close to densely populated areas. The live shell-firing exercises previously conducted over Prefectural Highway No. 104 have now been relocated to the Japanese mainland, but most of the other issues remain fundamentally unaddressed.
  • Over the years, repeated instances of sexual violence and other crimes have victimized Okinawans who enjoyed scant protection under a legal system dominated by the American military. In several cases prior to the highly-publicised rape incident of 1995 accused servicemen escaped local prosecution simply by fleeing Stateside (Jan.17,1992: Three U.S. servicemen committed robbery at a private house in Okinawa City. Two of them kept in custody by the U.S. army escaped the base. One of them was arrested later in the United States. Jul.17,1993: A 25-year-old U.S. serviceman under confinement within the base as a suspected case of raping a 19-year-old Japanese woman escaped back to United States by a commercial aircraft. He was arrested in U.S. and was sent back to Okinawa). In many cases U.S. personnel accused of crimes were found not-guilty due to "lack of evidence."
  • The Japanese government, both before and after its resumption of sovereignty over Okinawa in 1972, has consistently sacrificed Okinawan interests to those of the forty-six other prefectures by maintaining the predominance of U.S. military forces there. Although it has invested heavily to narrow the gaps (kakusazesei) between Okinawa and the mainland in terms of, for instance, physical infrastructure, it has made little effort towards the development of policies that would wean Okinawa off its economic military base dependency.
  • The American military presence (for many of the reasons above) has severely damaged the agricultural and fishery economy, society, and ecology of Okinawa.
  • Many Okinawans reject the central premises of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty (Ampo Joyaku) and the resulting U.S. military and nuclear presence that turned their own islands into a military fortress. Although the U.S. was obliged to remove all nuclear weapons from Okinawa prior to the official handover in 1972, there still exist provisions that would allow their reintroduction in an "emergency," however that might now be defined.

    The 1995 rape incident, coming as it did during a period when Okinawans were already questioning the need for such a heavy military presence on Okinawa after the end of the cold war, propelled Okinawan resistance to new heights. A mass movement unfolded--one that enjoys the support of Governor Ota Masahide, a historian of the Battle of Okinawa and long-time critic of the bases. Ota was elected to the post of governor in November, 1990, on a platform of opposition to the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty and a commitment to secure the return of lands currently occupied by U.S. military bases to their rightful owners. Faced with powerful Okinawan protests, including a mass rally involving 85,000 local citizens, the governments of Japan and the U.S. agreed in November, 1995, to establish a "Special Action Committee on Okinawa" (SACO) to examine ways of easing the military base burden on the people of Okinawa. In February of 1996, Japanese Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryutaro and U.S. President Bill Clinton, at a brief summit meeting in Santa Monica, California, agreed on the return of Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Futenma. It was officially announced in April, on the occasion of the the SACO mid-term report's unveiling. Hashimoto and U.S. Ambassador to Japan Walter Mondale announced that Futenma, located in the densely populated central Ginowan region of Okinawa, was to be wholly returned (zenmen henkan) within 5-7 years, and that the total amount of land occupied by U.S. forces would be reduced by 21%. Okinawa's initial euphoria was deadened, however, with news that Futenma would niether be phased out nor eliminated, but relocated to another area within Okinawa.

    With Japanese and U.S. authorities determined that Futenma's critical military functions and capabilities must be maintained and continue to operate at current readiness levels, and with local citizen movements in Okinawa City, Yomitan Town and Kadena Town, amongst others, resisting relocation to their regions, Defence Agency Chief Kyuma Fumio first presented Okinawans with a U.S.-Japanese plan to create a sea-based facilty (SBF) in the large but sparsely populated Nago region (population 55,000), already the locale of four U.S. bases including the large Marine Camp Schwab, in early November, 1996. Although Nago City council immediately passed a resolution opposing the relocation proposal, the SBF option was adopted in the text of the SACO "Final Report on Futenma Air Station" on 2 December, 1996. The year in Okinawa was rounded off with a rally involving 22,000 participants protesting the decision not to remove Futenma's functions from Okinawa.

    The Road to the Nago Referendum

    In January, 1997, Nago Mayor, Higa Tetsuya, was asked for his cooperation on a preliminary survey of potential SBF sites by the Naha Branch of the Defence Facilities Administration Bureau, the body responsible for securing lands for use by U.S. forces as required under terms of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. Although Higa initially and then subsequently refused to play ball, he finally relented to government pressures on 18 April. On officially accepting the survey, however, he stated that he was "fundamentally opposed to the construction" of a heliport in the region and that only his sense of responsibility as Nago Mayor and the desire to head off potential local political disorder had pushed him towards compliance with Tokyo (Ryukyu Shimpo, 19th April. Hereafter abbreviated to RS). In the week prior to his official announcement Higa had been trying to impress upon the local citizens and fishing community Tokyo's promise that acceptance of a preliminary heliport survey would not in any way constitute an acceptance of the heliport itself. This strategy proved only partially successful.

    By the time preliminary surveys began in early May, considerable resistance to the heliport proposal had surfaced, both within Nago itself and prefecture-wide. While the Ryukyu Shimpo's regular public opinion poll survey on Okinawan attitudes towards reversion to Japan revealed an unsurprising 85% approval rating, two supplementary surveys; on the relocation of Naha Military Port and Futenma Air Base were incorporated. On Futenma, more than 78% of those sampled expressed the view that the base should be removed from the prefecture or unconditionally returned (RS 5th May). The survey group assigned to make the appropriate feasibility studies by the Naha Branch of the Defence Facilities Administration Bureau, attempting to charter boats at Henoko Fishing Port on 6 May were confronted by picketers, some members of the local "Society for the Protection of Life" (Inochi o Mamoru Kai), yelling and waving placards with slogans like "Life is more important than money and wealth," and "The sea is the mother of all life." By the evening almost 300 local residents had gathered at the small port. When the survey finally got underway on 9 May, about 40 Henoko residents, including representatives from the local PTA, Women's Association, Senior Citizen's Group and labour unionists, braved the driving rain to continue yelling opposition.

    It was clear by now that while the general debate was focused on whether to allow the relocation of Futenma Air Base to the Nago region, the favoured location for the proposed heliport was a quiet area just off the eastern coast of Okinawa at Camp Schwab. In relative terms, the proposed heliport site was as distant from the main urban area of Nago City as was Futenma Air Station from central Naha. The Nago citizens most affected by any decision, therefore, would be those at Kushi and, particularly, at Henoko (population 1,400), an area with a relatively intact coral setting that is home to many endangered species. Furthermore, Henoko, among the poorest regions of Okinawa, has been in severe decline since the 1970s when the 200-300 honkey tonk brothels that serviced American Vietnam-era soldiers on R & R closed their doors. The area has become a virtual ghost town. In the midst of this desolation the citizens of Henoko and Nago--farmers, fisherfolk, homemakers, artists, and others--began creating a movement that turned discussion of the heliport into a referendum on broadly defined issues related to the U.S. military as well as on a variety of specific topics concerning peace and war, the social influences of U.S. forces, Okinawan development, the Japanese government's treatment of Okinawa and the Okinawan people, and the environment, including the fate of the dugong, an endangered marine mammal, and other natural treasures of coastal Okinawa.

    By the middle of 1997, local opposition to the offshore heliport proposal had organised significantly. Citizens groups had joined with local labour unionists and opposition political party members to officially form a "Council for the Promotion of a Referendum on the Construction of an Offshore Heliport" on 6 June. More than 1,300 people turned up at the Nago City Hall for its inauguration. Based on the position that Mayor Higa's decision to accept the heliport survey on behalf of Nago had been "undemocratic," the group sought to secure in excess of 10,000 signatures on a referendum petition by the end of August at the latest. Many also sought Mayor Higa's recall. A formal referendum demand along with the petition would then be submitted to the City Council sometime in September so that the plebiscite could be held within the year. At a press conference held at the Prefectural Government Office on 2 June, Miyagi Yasuhiro, a chief spokesman for the then preparatory committee, argued that despite two citizen's rallies and two Nago council resolutions protesting the heliport survey, it had still gone ahead (Okinawa Times, 3rd June. Hereafter abbreviated to OT). The only way forward was to hold a referendum and see what the citizens of Nago had to say. Mayor Higa, at a meeting with Prime Minister Hashimoto and Chief Cabinet Secretary Kajiyama Seiroku in Tokyo two days later, stressed that whilst he had agreed to the preliminary heliport survey, actual construction would have to be approved by the local citizens (OT 5th June).

    The survey team engaged by the Naha Branch of the Defence Facilities Administration Bureau had already completed its preliminary assessments and were now ready to proceed with the second phase. This would involve test boring along the seabed at a number of selected spots and studying tides and waves. Permission from the Prefectural Government was officially requested at the end of July, and granted on 1 August. Mr. Esu, head of the prefecture's Civil Engineering and Construction Department, had consulted with Governor Ota prior to the announcement. It was stipulated that the survey team would have to make adequate provisions to protect the coral, water quality and general environment of the region (OT 2nd August). Miyagi Yasuhiro, spokesman for the pro-referendum group, voiced his opposition to the move, commenting that permission for the construction of a new military base, which was essentially now the issue, was for the citizens of Okinawa to decide (OT 2nd August). Miyagi also blasted Governor Ota for his statement earlier in the week that he would "cooperate whenever possible" with Tokyo on the issue of Futenma's relocation (OT 30th July). According to Miyagi, it was Ota's responsibility to explain his position to the people of Okinawa before making arrangements with Hashimoto (OT 30th July). Since Ota had previously been saying that he would remain outside of the debate until consultations between Tokyo and the the local authorities in Nago had been conducted, Miyagi raised an intriguing point.

    The pro-referendum group's signature collecting activities quickly gathered momentum. A project begun in early July had already surpassed the group's initial expectations. On 7 August it was announced that 13,000 signatures had been acquired, and by 8 August in excess of 15,000. Finally, on 13 August, the group submitted an official referendum request to the Nago City Office along with a petition containing 19,734 signatures, a figure constituting more than half of all Nago's eligible voters. The city authorities submitted the bill to the City Council. "This is the first step towards real democracy...the result of the common sense of the citizens of Nago," Miyagi Yasuhiro later commented (OT 14th August). If realised, not only would this be the first municipal level referendum to be held within Okinawa, but also the first on the construction of a U.S. military base. Although little could take the shine off this day for the referendum proponents, the heliport survey team began test boring at sites near Henoko. If the team were hoping for peace and quiet, however, they would have be disappointed. Local students turned out in the morning to protest along with other Henoko residents and members of the "Society for the Protection of Life."

    Issues related to the local economy had been under discussion between Tokyo and the Okinawa Prefectural Government for well over a year. Concurrent with Japan-U.S. promises to ease the military base burden on Okinawa, which led to the complex Futenma Air Base reversion agreement, was a promise from Tokyo to promote and develop Okinawa's economy. Whilst it had been entirely clear from the outset that Tokyo's movement on the latter problem was essentially linked to the resolution of the Futenma issue, this had not been spelt out in such a crystalline manner as it would subsequently be. Prime Minister Hashimoto set the ball rolling with a speech on "Okinawa: Towards the 21st Century," delivered at the Japan Junior Chamber of Commerce Forum in Okinawa on 23 August. He talked about the progress thus far made in easing the military base burden, as seen in the recent relocation of live shell-firing drills previously conducted over Prefectural Highway No. 104 to the mainland, and the earlier Futenma agreement. Yet the latter issue could not be fully resolved until an alternative site was found. Governor Ota had already pledged to cooperate when possible, but it was the understanding and cooperation of the local people that would be most vital. In return, the government would make every effort to investigate various policy options to encourage industry and to promote the local economy so as to build a prosperous Okinawa (OT 24th August). Incorporated into the overall set of policy proposals was a "Northern Promotion Plan" which included the establishment of a National Technology College and an NTT number service department in Nago City.

    Seizing on the latter part of Hashimoto's speech related to potential economic development in Okinawa's northern area, were a group of Nago businessmen and conservative politicians. On 25 August they formed the "Society for the Invigoration of Nago City" (Nagoshi Kasseika Shimin no Kai). Whilst not entirely oblivious to the negative ramifications of hosting an offshore heliport in their area, they preferred to emphasise the potential economic benefits for Nago. Acceptance of the heliport proposal would, however, be predicated upon Tokyo allocating a much larger budget towards Okinawa's northern region. On 3 September a group of 12 representatives travelled to Tokyo for meetings with Prime Minister Hashimoto and Chief Cabinet Secretary Kajiyama, requesting the formulation of a concrete economic promotion package for the northern region of Okinawa. The power of this group could not be underestimated, since the conservative element within the Nago City Council outnumbered the "reformists" by a margin of 18 to 11. It was entirely feasible that when the referendum bill came before the council within the next couple of months that it could be rejected. Either way, the emergence of this group into the equation provided the pro-referendum group with some stiff opposition and Tokyo with some much needed support locally.

    If events were not proceeding swiftly enough already, on 2 September Tokyo announced the establishment of a Futenma Air Base relocation task force to oversee the construction of a replacement heliport within Okinawa Prefecture. The new panel was to be relatively high level, with the Chief of the Defence Agency, Kyuma Fumio, installed as head, along with bureaucrats from the Foreign Ministry, Finance Ministry, Okinawa Development Agency, and Cabinet Councillor's Office on Internal affairs. A local office in Naha was to be set up, essentially to coordinate base return issues, such as the use of returned sites. But the panel's jurisdiction also fell into the area of economic development since the lands occupied by the U.S. military, like Futenma Air Base, were also incorporated into parts of the Prefectural Government's recent economic and social development initiative, "Cosmopolitan City Okinawa: A Grand Design for the 21st Century." A plan that cannot be fully realised, of course, without the return of a significant amount of base land.

    An unpleasant task for the anti-heliport group was requested of them by the Nago City Election Administration Committee on 2 September. An inspection of the original petition revealed that not all of the signatures were those of eligible Nago voters. Miyagi Yasuhiro and four other pro-referendum group members were obliged to conduct a thorough study of the city's electoral records to verify the findings of the Election Committee and resubmit their application by 11 September (OT 3rd September - Evening). After a hectic week the group finally reached an identical tally of 17, 539 eligible voters, some 2,195 shy of the original number. The group would then have five days in which to submit all to the Nago Mayor. On 16 September the pro-referendum group met with Nago Mayor Higa to present the revised petition and referendum request. The group's petition called for a straight "Yes" or "No" choice format. Higa immediately threw his political weight behind the idea, asserting that the heliport issue was of enormous importance to the local community. Higa stated that, "as I have said before...in the final analysis it is up to the people of Nago to decide on the issue" (Okinawa TV interview 16th Sept). On the following day, however, when questioned on the most democratic way of conducting the referendum, Higa responded by saying that he was "currently considering the possibility of a multiple choice format," and that he wanted to investigate options ensuring that the "diverse opinions of the Nago citizens" could be heard. (OT 17th September - Evening).

    Although the City Council had yet to decide on the referendum, campaigning began on 19 September. Both of the main citizen's groups organised rallies on the same day. The "Society for the Invigoration of Nago City" kicked off its campaign at a large hall in Nago City centre. Drinks and bentos were distributed amongst a large crowd of close to 6,000 people, most of whom were workers on their way home. The necessity of a northern region economic promotion policy was championed because it would create new jobs, protect existing jobs, and bring about greater overall prosperity for Nago in the future. The group's head spokesman, Arakaki Seifuku, argued that this was essentially "a once in a lifetime" opportunity (OT 20th Sept). The "Council Opposing the Construction of an Offshore Heliport" (Helikichi Hantai Kyogikai), formerly the pro-referendum group, held its first rally at Yogi Park in Naha City centre. About 6,500 people turned out. The construction of a new military base, they argued, "was not just a problem for the people of Nago, but for all Okinawans" (OT 20th Sept). The group marched from the park through Kokusai Dori (Naha's main street) to the Prefectural Government Offices, calling for the unconditional return of Futenma Air Base and the realisation of their referendum demands.

    On 22 September, Nago Mayor Higa convened a meeting with the city's ruling political parties to push for their agreement on the referendum. The final motion he then presented to the City Council on 24 September was clearly a compromised affair. Instead of the original two-choice option as proposed by the petition group, it had now been ammended to incorporate four possible choices. In addition to the "Yes" or "No" (to the construction of the heliport) options, was a "Yes, given certain conditions," and a "No, because of certain conditions." The conditions referred to were "potential economic benefits" and "environmental protection measures" (OT 25th Sept). Mayor Higa explained that because the issues at stake were highly complex, involving environmental and economic dimensions, that voters should have a wider choice of alternatives. Shouts of "moron!" were clearly audible from the public gallery. Niether the anti-heliport citizens group, which originally sponsored the referendum bill nor its supporters on the council were pleased with Higa's tamperings. Both threatened to kill off the reworked bill on the grounds that it was a misrepresentation of what the petition signatories had been demanding. Despite considerable animosity between both sides, however, it was finally accepted by majority vote on 2 October. The bill stipulated that the referendum was to be held before the end of January, 1998.

    With the referendum set to be conducted within the not too distant future, all those with a vested interest in the outcome began to garner support. It is possible to isolate five main groupings on three levels with an interest in the heliport referendum, though not all would be exerting direct pressure to influence the results. Locally, there are the pro- and anti-heliport citizen's groups within Nago City itself. Their principal areas of difference have been outlined above. Nago City Mayor Higa Tetsuya is included within this category since his final decision will be "in the name of the citizens of Nago" regardless, and since he will align himself with one of the two citizens groups. Also locally, but on the higher prefectural level, is the Okinawa Prefectural Government and the prefecture's commander-in-chief, if you will, Governor Ota Masahide. Ota's position in the debate is the most complex. On the one level, he heads the prefectural government and is the main decision maker in internal prefectural matters, yet at the same time he is Okinawa's representative at the national Japanese level. On any Okinawa-related matter it is to Ota that Hashimoto or other government figures first turn. At the very highest level are the governments of Japan and America. Japan, of course, occupies the proprietary position since sovereignty over Okinawa was returned in 1972, yet America is still intimately involved in Okinawa's affairs. The U.S. military base presence in Okinawa has created a complex ménage à trois arrangement in which almost any major issue affecting Okinawa is simultaneously a domestic and international matter.

    Least active in the build-up was the U.S. Government. Although it would be monitoring the results very carefully, Washington refused to become embroiled in the discussions. It viewed the relocation of MCAS Futenma as an essentially domestic Japanese matter. Statements from government figures have been consistent with this premise. Japan had requested America's assistance in providing some symbolic morsel to give to the people of Okinawa and Washington had complied. But America had always been in a win-win situation. By the terms of the joint Japan-U.S. Security Treaty it is Japan which is responsible for the acquisition of lands neccesary for U.S. forces. There would be no withdrawal from Futenma until an appropriate replacement site, fully constructed and complete in every technical specification, was ready for occupation. Furthermore, Japan was responsible for all and any entailed costs. Initial U.S. requirements were outlined in the text of the SACO Final Report back in late-1996. More details were provided during September and October of 1997. The new base would have to be capable of accommodating up to 60 helicopters (and vertical take-off aircraft) and have a runway of approximately 1,300 metres in length. Issues regarding personnel strength and logistical support were also discussed. A concrete outline was to be provided to the Okinawa Prefectural Government and Nago Municipal Government at the end of October. The military's principal concession was that flights from a heliport near Henoko would be limited to mountainous and sea areas so as to minimise the amount of noise inflicted upon the local people.

    Seemingly less active in the debate was Okinawa Governor Ota Masahide. Quite clearly he is opposed to any military base relocation rather than removal formula, and is fundamentally aligned with the anti-heliport groups, but he pledged to stay clear of the issue until after the citizens of Nago had voiced their opinions. There were two main reasons. First, Ota was not about to help Prime Minister Hashimoto in his task of securing the support of Nago's citizens. If Hashimoto found himself in a tough spot, having to satisfy both Okinawa's desire for less bases and Washington's position that MCAS Futenma would not be going anywhere unless an alternative and appropriate site was found, it was a well-deserved position he had placed himself in as a result of decades of Japanese Government inactivity on Okinawa. Second, Ota would be obliged to enter the heliport equation eventually anyway. Hashimoto had previously stated that a heliport would not be constructed if it were against the will of the Okinawan people. Once the Nago citizens had spoken, and then the Nago Mayor given his own opinion on the matter, Okinawa's governor would find himself in the position of having to take all views into account before making a final decision. Ota was not about to show his hand on the matter until the very last moment.

    Yet Ota did intervene in late-July, offering to "cooperate when possible" in the relocation of Futenma Air Base. One may posit many theories as to why he did so. In the first part, it was an integral part of the job's territory to have to mediate between the prefectural people by whom he was elected and whose interests he represents, and the national government in Tokyo which is responsible for policies which directly or indirectly affect Okinawa. Okinawans may reject the construction of a new base, but if national defence policy is to maintain bases and relocate Futenma then Ota was stuck in the middle in a no-win situation. What adds complexity, is that Futenma's relocation was ostensibly for the purpose of easing Okinawa's military base burden, i.e., it was seen as a positive step. Furthermore, not all Nago citizens were vehemently opposed to its relocation there (the final referendum petition contained the signatures of less than half of Nago's eligible voters). Ota's dilemma was made more acute by the fact that he is universally recognised as a military base opponent, a man of unyielding principle. He was, in short, not supposed to be a cooperator.

    Secondly, the issue of Futenma's relocation was not the only matter on the agenda. In the background was the overall issue of Okinawa's economic development and Tokyo's commitment to it. It should be noted that from the time the Futenma agreement was first announced, in April, 1996, to the present day, at least four versions of the "Cosmopolitan City Okinawa" plan and three Free Trade Zone (FTZ) proposals have been under discussion between Naha and Tokyo. Okinawa has been seeking to formulate a vision for development into the 21st century that is consistent with the Japanese Government's pledge to conduct sweeping administrative reforms. Such reforms would bring more power to the regions and, hopefully, allow Okinawa the economic and political latitude to engage in relations with its East and Southeast Asian neighbours. Ota, of course, envisages a peaceful and prosperous future for the prefecture without military bases, but realises also that prospects for Okinawa's development hinge on the creation of cooperative relations between Naha and Tokyo. Whatever the negative ramifications of agreeing to the construction of a new base, there are potentially positive practical gains. Ota certainly has a gun to his head in that if he doesn't accept one he won't receive the other, yet the win-loss scenario is surely a universal dilemma for elected political leaders. Regardless, the goal of dragging Okinawa away from its current dependence on military bases and government handouts and creating the foundations for self-sustaining economic development into the 21st century is a competing motivation for this man of principle. Governor Ota's primary responsibility is to look after the interests of all Okinawa's citizens.

    Whilst the pro- and anti-heliport groups at the local level were most active, the Japanese Government was only marginally behind. Tokyo stood to both gain or lose (after Nago City) the most, and acted accordingly. A successful referendum result, i.e., Nago's ascent, would allow Hashimoto to claim that the first step in his objective of lessening the base burden on Okinawa had been accomplished. Of course, the people of Nago, Ginoza, and perhaps even Kin, would hate him for sticking another base into the area, but the vast majority of Okinawa's voters reside in the prosperous south, where there would now be no helicopters. In addition, he only ever promised for a hot minute to remove Futenma Air Base from Okinawa. It would also send a message to Washington that he was perfectly adept at handling crises. One might question the validity of the Japan-U.S. security alliance and the necessity of 100,000 U.S. troops forward-deployed in Asia in the aftermath of the Cold War, but the two governments genuinely see the strategy as relevant for the forseeable future. Provided, of course, that Japan continues paying the considerable annual amounts of host-nation support, and commits to taking more responsibility for the defence of the region. A negative result would, of course, constitute failure on both counts. Hashimoto would be regarded, pretty much as now, as yet another in a long line of Japanese premiers to conspicuously ignore the feelings of the local people. Even a casual Japan-watcher will be aware of the strategy Tokyo would employ to gain a "Yes" vote.


    The period following the council's acceptance of the referendum was a busy one for Governor Ota. He was constantly in demand for a statement on his position, at the Prefectural Assembly, by central government figures, and especially reporters. He kept tight-lipped throughout. On 7 October Ota was visited by Vice Chief of the Defence Agency (and acting head of the Futenma Air Base relocation task force), Mr. Kurihara, who requested the Governor's cooperation. In doing so, however, he stated that Tokyo "well acknowledges Governor Ota's difficult position" (OT 8th October - Evening). On 13 October, at a meeting with 21 of Nago City Council's 29 members, Ota directly outlined his overall position, stating that he would "not take any stance on the heliport matter until after the people of Nago had decided" (OT 14th October). This was based on his view that his comments "might affect the outcome of the referendum" (Ibid).

    The biggest piece of news in Okinawa, however, relegating even the heliport referendum to second place, was the Prefectural Assembly's rejection of Vice Governor of Okinawa Yoshimoto's reappointment on 17 October, by a vote of 21 to 20. What was expected to be a mere formality was derailed by a vicious squabble between the conservative and "reformist" factions. In Okinawa, the "reformists" hold a majority. Members of Prime Minister Hashimoto's own Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) were the principal opponents, defying him, along with Chief Cabinet Secretary Muraoka, LDP Secretary General Nonaka, and Okinawa Development Agency Chief Suzuki. Ota's deputy had been a crucial player in negotiations between Naha and Tokyo on base issues. Upon hearing the shock news, Prime Minister Hashimoto was moved to say, "the impact this will have is unfathomable" (Daily Yomiuri 20th October). Tokyo felt that Yoshimoto would have a significant influence in encouraging the Nago citizens to accept the heliport proposal. The Defence Agency, in particular, almost exclusively dealt with Yoshimoto. "We cannot do anything until Yoshimoto is reappointed," a senior official remarked. "We do not know with whom we should hold our in-depth negotiations" (Ibid). It would appear, given the overall context, that while this rejection had some obvious connection with referendum-related matters and Ota's lack of definite stance, it demonstrated more a personal dislike of Yoshimoto the man and his tactics. Ota stated that he would seek Yoshimoto's reappointment at a special Prefectural Assembly meeting in November. He would fail.

    On the heels of this shock came Mayor Higa's statement to the ruling majority parties in the Nago City Council that he would "like to speed things up" and organise the referendum before the year was out (OT 28th October). At an official Council meeting two days later he announced that the most appropriate day would be 21 December. To get the maximum voter turnout, hopefully in excess of 70 percent, Higa asserted it should be conducted prior to Okinawa's busy January sugarcane harvest season. By this time Tokyo will have presented the Nago City authorities with a set of concrete heliport construction plans, and its proposals for the economic promotion of Okinawa's northern region (Hokubu Shinkosaku). Prime Minister Hashimoto was due in Okinawa for a special reversion ceremony on 21 November and would cover both themes in his presentation. He would also be revealing the long-awaited Japan Institute for Research Advancement's "Investigation into the Mid- and Long-Term Prospects For the Promotion and Development of the Okinawan Economy," a collaborative effort between Okinawan and mainland Japanese economic specialists. The Nago voters, Higa believed, would have plenty of time to study all of the various dimensions before deciding. Critics of the hastened date would argue that Higa's objective was to get as many farmers, traditionally more inclined to vote conservative, to the polls, and that although supposedly a neutral in the debate that he had already thrown his hat in with the "Society for the Invigoration of Nago City." Many of the twists and turns prompted by Higa thus far in the referendum's progress, as well as his membership of the Liberal Democratic Party, indicate such a proclivity. Regardless, the date, and a budget of 18 million yen, were approved by the council.

    Both Naha and Nago City were inundated with visits by top level government ministers throughout November. As expected, the government's heliport construction plan was delivered first. Kyuma Fumio, Defence Agency Chief, arrived in Okinawa on 5th November to present Governor Ota, and then Nago Mayor Higa, with a copy. Kyuma outlined two possible methods of construction. The first, would be a Quick Installation Pier (QUP), a platform supported by steel pillars driven into the seabed inside the coral reef some 1.5 kilometres from Henoko, and the second a "pontoon" protected by a breakwater and floated outside the coral reef about 3 kilometres from Henoko. Kyuma emphasised that flights would not be over local villages, that noise levels will be kept to a minimum, and that measures would be taken to protect natural resources such as Henoko's coral and sea life (OT 6th November). Bureaucrats would be conducting explanation meetings throughout the Nago area so as to gain the understanding of the local citizens.

    On 7 November Ota was summoned to Tokyo for talks with Prime Minister Hashimoto, whereupon the premier stressed that "unless the relocation of Futenma goes ahead there will be no progress in consolidating the U.S. military presence in Okinawa" (OT 8th November). Governor Ota, interviewed at Naha Airport on his return, said that "if Futenma is not moved we're stuck in the same situation as before. It will have to stay right where it is" (Ibid). This served as a link to his most interesting comment, related to comparisons that could be drawn between the current Futenma predicament and an as yet unresolved earlier one. The reversion of Naha Military Port had been agreed upon at the 14th Meeting of the Japan-U.S. Security Consultative Committee in 1974, but still stands as the first sightseeing attraction for each of the 3 million annual tourists to Okinawa. An ad hoc working group wasn't set up to look at the issue until 1994. Naha Military Port stands as the most visible symbol of 25 years of Japanese Government indifference to Okinawa and its base burden. Yet it is also a warning. It could easily happen in the case of Futenma. Ditto the relocation of activities at the Sobe Communications Facility to Camp Hansen in Kin, parachute training from Yomitan Auxilliary Airfield to Ie Island, the handback of the Northern Training Area, the Aha Training Area, and Gimbaru Training Area. In short, all of the proposed relocations.

    The government's attempts to sell the heliport proposal was meeting with mixed reactions. When Defence Facilities Administration Bureau officials organised a meeting (to cover the Henoko, Toyohara and Kushi districts of Nago) at a gymnasium in Kushi on 12 November just less than 300 people turned out. Officials outlined the basics of the plan but put particular emphasis on possible consequences for the environment and on potential economic benefits. Although the government admitted that some damage to the coral reefs would be inevitable, coral would be transplanted. There would be no discernible change in sea currents, meaning no disturbance of the biological food chain. Helicopter flights would be kept away from residential areas so as to minimise the impact on the local people. When asked whether the government would take responsibility in the case of an accident, the officials replied affirmatively. Although such occurences were highly unlikely, the government "would ensure that those affected would receive appropriate and swift compensation." (OT 13th November). On the positive side, they argued that the construction of a new base and related physical infrastructure would stimulate employment and service-oriented businesses locally. The officials were heckled rather more than applauded, but there were clear divisions between many of those gathered. In some cases disagreements threatened to descend into brawls. The organisers didn't help their cause by stressing that there would only be a "limited amount of time" to take questions from the floor (Ibid). The pattern was similar in Futami, Yaga, Nago, Yabu, and other districts.

    Tokyo was certainly hoping that Prime Minister Hashimoto's upcoming visit to Okinawa to celebrate 25 years of reversion and to unveil his economic promotion package would sway the doubtful or uncommitted to support the pro-heliport view. A number of top government minsters were sent in to prepare the ground. Foreign Minister Obuchi arrived in late-October to push for acceptance of the heliport, and was followed in quick succession by Okinawa Development Agency Chief Suzuki, former Chief Cabinet Secretary Kajiyama, and new Chief Cabinet Secretary Muraoka throughout November. The latter clearly outlined the connection between the heliport and Okinawa's future. There was, on the one hand, a strong desire on the part of the government to bring about positive economic development for Okinawa into the 21st century. Yet, on the other, a need for the understanding of the Okinawan people on Futenma's relocation. Governor Ota commented that whilst he hoped people would come to the anniversary ceremony, he was doubtful about the enthusiasm of many given the current "tough situation in Okinawa" (Daily Yomiuri 18th November).

    On 21st November 1997, Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryutaro, visited Okinawa for the "Twenty-fifth Anniversary Ceremony of Okinawa's Reversion to Japan." As expected, Okinawans responded with little in the way of enthusiasm and the event was boycotted by most local political parties. They claimed that while agreement between Japan and America to reduce military bases in Okinawa had been made prior to reversion, nothing had changed in the period since. What, then, was there to be celebrated? Anti-heliport citizens demonstrated outside the convention centre and at a rally in Yogi Park, central Naha. Inside, Hashimoto unveiled a "Twenty-first Century Plan for the Okinawan Economy" that included (1) a free trade zone system offering corporations significant income tax reductions, (2) the creation of duty free shops and the simplification of visa procedures for foreign visitors in order to boost tourism, and (3) investment tax incentives for venture businesses in tourism and communications. The package was topped off with a commitment to improve Okinawa's physical infrastructure, particularly in the areas of transport and communications. He also made specific reference to Okinawa's northern region, promising that the government was looking very carefully into reinvigoration policies.

    In his speech, Prime Minister Hashimoto referred to the "Bankoku Shinryo" inscription on a bell at Shuri Castle (dating from the 15th century, during the Ryukyu Kingdom period) that conveys a sense of Okinawa being a bridge to all the countries of the world. With all that Okinawa had and has to offer to the world, however, Hashimoto still insisted that the U.S.-Japan security alliance, given expanded definition just months earlier, remained the crux of regional peace and stability and that the heliport was vital to it. Expressing his "appreciation" for the burdens that Okinawans bear (as a consequence of these security considerations), the premier offered no concession to demands for the reduction of the concentration of U.S. military bases in Okinawa. Hashimoto's speech followed an earlier pledge of several billion yen in development financing that the national government had hoped would influence the outcome of the 1996 referendum on U.S. bases. Governor Ota responded to Hashimoto's presentation by noting, with a good degree of restraint consistent with the solemnity of the occasion, that more than twenty-five years after reversion to Japan there has been no diminution in the U.S. military presence in Okinawa. He expressed agreement with the Prime Minister on the idea of the ree trade zone (FTZ) expansion and implementation of measures to boost the local economy, and reiterated Okinawa's commitment to peace and prosperity. New U.S. Ambassador to Japan Thomas Foley said nothing of any consequence in his statement. Earlier in the day he had sat diplomatically and listened as Ota gave a complete outline of Okinawa's greivances against the governments of both Japan and the U.S. for the unfair base burden. Foley finally commented, "you have a great knowledge of Okinawa's culture, being an historian. Perhaps you might teach me?" (OT 21st December). The need is quite apparent.

    The Defence Agency was particularly concerned by an independent survey of Nago's eligible voters conducted by the Liberal Democratic Party in late-November that showed only 30% in favour of the heliport construction and 60% opposed (OT 2nd December). The Vice Chief was dispatched to seek Mayor Higa's cooperation to help turn the tide. He emphasised Tokyo's commitment to the economic promotion of Okinawa's northern region. He did not directly insist that this was predicated upon Nago's acceptance of the heliport, but clearly stated that Tokyo "did not have any other alternative sites in mind" (OT 3rd December). The "Society for the Invigoration of Nago City" welcomed his economic promotion statement, whilst the leader of the anti-heliport group, Miyagi Yasuhiro, wondered whether this government policy of seeking to actively influence the result of the referendum was not a violation of the constitutional rights of Nago's citizen's to practice local democracy (Ibid).

    A report in the Okinawa Times (5 December 1997) finally revealed the Japanese government's concrete strategy to "buy" the outcome of the Nago heliport referendum by linking the construction of the heliport with a three-pronged Northern Regional Promotion Policy (Hokubu Shinkosaku) that called for (1) infrastructural improvements conducive to industrial development as the centerpiece of a regional economy, including tourism, farming, forestry, and fishing, (2) human resource development, including the construction of a national high school and human resource center, and (3) efforts to preserve the natural environment of the region by locating the heliport offshore and compensating local people for any inconvenience by financing such amenities as community centers and sports facilities. One of the most interesting sections in the text read, "if it is the case that the offshore heliport is no longer seen as necessary, the government will initiate appropriate measures facilitate its removal" (OT 5th December), thereby emphasing its impermanence. On the same day, Defence Chief Kyuma told reporters "it's most likely that we'll go forward with the northern promotion policy more quickly if the heliport is accepted. Even if it's not, of course, we'll still go forward, but how quickly I can't say" (OT 5th December - Evening).

    On December 6, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Muraoka convened a meeting of the twelve mayors of Okinawa's most depressed region to promote the Northern Regional Promotion Policy, intensifying the pressure on Nago and raising the stakes by tying funds to the outcome of the heliport referendum. A day later, Chief of the Okinawa Development Agency Suzuki Muneo met with the same twelve men to urge their cooperation. At the session Suzuki outlined plans to devote some 84 billion yen towards a number of port and urban redevelopment projects in the area (OT 8th December - Evening). Motobu Mayor Nagahama refused to clarify a stance, saying "this is Nago's problem, I have no comment" (OT 7th December). The majority seemed happy with the promised influx of capital into the region. Defence Agency Chief Kyuma was again in Okinawa on December 13, to boost the sagging morale amongst embattled Defence Facilities Administration Bureau officials and to emphasize to the people of Nago the afore-mentioned ministers' promises that a yes vote on the referendum would result in a multi-billion yen bonanza in government aid. From what some might see as a rather bizarre, if legitimate perspective, Kyuma stressed the link between the heliport and expanded tourist activity in the region. "The pontoon method of base construction is especially unique. If this were to go ahead many people, and not just those related to the U.S. military, would want to come and take a peek" (OT 14th December).

    On December 11, the Nago Municipal Government officially announced the referendum and began accepting absentee ballots. Of the total figure of Nago's 38,176 eligible voters, absentee votes would constitute just less than 19%, making them of great significance in the final count. The two groups hoping to secure these and other votes kicked their campaigns into full swing. The "Society for the Invigoration of Nago City" continued to emphasise Tokyo's commitment to a northern region promotion policy and the benefits that Nago would receive by accepting the heliport. The council's chief spokesman, Arakaki Seifuku, had previously announced that his group had secured the support of 15,987 eligible voters. "Think," he said, "about what is most important for Nago" (OT 12th December). The group urged voters to pick the "Yes, with conditions" option on the ballot, thereby tying Tokyo to its promises. Nago Mayor Higa appeared as a speaker at a meeting organised by the group the following day, actively supporting the northern promotion policy. The anti-heliport group, led by Miyagi Yasuhiro, scorned Tokyo for its recent tactics in trying to buy the people of Nago. "This is bribery," he said (OT 11th December - Evening). Miyagi's assertion that voters should vote simply "No" was supported by Nakamura Aiko, spokesman for the women's group "Yarukizu" (literally "Go for it!"), who argued that Nago's rich and tranquil environment should be left as a legacy for all subsequent generations of children. Over the next few days senior citizen's groups, students, and several other grassroots organisations rallied in support of the anti-heliport group's position.

    During the final week leading up to the referendum Nago was filled with a chaotic mix of "sound trucks," banners, and megaphone-wielding campaigners. In terms of manpower and financial backing, the pro-heliport group clearly had the edge. The Naha Branch of the Defence Facilities Administration Bureau had already ordered 200 of its employees to hit the streets of Nago and distribute pamplets promoting the heliport plan and allaying fears about negative environmental ramifications. Local members of the Japanese Self-Defence Forces (SDF) were also drafted in to spread the word. Leading construction companies on the Japanese mainland sent over a thousand employees to Okinawa to aid in the cause. The anti-heliport group had to rely fundamentally on the common sense of their message and the passion of their supporters. A large women's rally was held, a group of junior high school students wrote an anti-heliport composition and distributed it to adults in their community on foot, and elderly men and women who had not been able to express their opinions gathered at the "hut for struggle" (to-so goya) in Henoko to voice "No" to the proposal. In the streets, the men assigned by the military to lobby for the heliport faced a phalanx of women campaigners who saw issues of peace and nature as critical to the future of the community. Small events in comparison, perhaps, but significant in terms of the depth of support within the community.

    The four choices before the 38,176 eligible voters of Nago on December 21 and the breakdown of voting were as follows:

    "Referendum on the Construction of an Offshore Heliport in Nago"

    • [1] I approve - 2,562 votes (8.13%)
    • [2] I approve because I expect there to be economic benefits for the Nago region and that appropriate measures will be taken to protect the environment - 11,705 votes (37.18%)
    • [3] I oppose - 16,254 (51.63%)
    • [4] I oppose because I expect neither economic benefits for the region nor appropriate measures to be taken to protect the environment - 385 (1.22%)
    • [*] Spoilt ballots, no preference selected, etc - 571 (1.82%)

    Total No. of Votes - 31,477 (82.45% of all eligible voters)

    Although at an earlier stage in the counting voters appeared to be divided quite evenly, by the time all ballots had been counted it was clear that the anti-heliport supporters had achieved a majority. Not a resounding victory, but a significant one. Miyagi Yasuhiro, chief spokesman for the anti-heliport group, was elated with the result, stating that "despite all of the Japanese Government's pressure to influence the outcome the common sense of the people prevailed" (OT 22nd December). What remained, of course, "was for Nago Mayor Higa to respect the outcome" (Ibid). At the headquarters of the "Society for the Protection of Life" in Henoko there was similar bedlam and elation. That a final difference of only 2,372 votes separated those for and against the heliport, however, gave the "Society for the Invigoration of Nago City" some satisfaction. Its leader, Arakaki Seifuku, pledged that "our movement will continue" (Ibid). He argued that Mayor Higa and Governor Ota had yet to make a final decision and that the battle was not over until that time. Mayor Higa, interviewed immediately afterwards, stated that he had just received the results and would "study them carefully" before making any decision (Ibid).

    At the central government level reaction was mixed. Okinawa Development Agency Chief Suzuki expressed surprise that the vote had been that close. "It was expected that opponents would represent 70 percent of the votes," he said (Daily Yomiuri 23rd December). Such a tight figure "puts the onus on the mayor and prefectural government to decide whether or not to accept the construction" (Ibid). Prime Minister Hashimoto commented the following day that the result had been far closer than expected. He said that he would wait until decisions had been made at the local level before deciding how to respond. Both Ota and Higa were set to visit Tokyo for a meeting with Hashimoto on 24th December. On 22nd December, representatives of the two main anti-heliport groups, the "Council for Opposing the Construction of an Offshore Heliport" and the "Society for the Protection of Life" visited the minicipal government to demand a meeting with Higa, but were told that he needed at least a day to consider his position. The group, led by Miyagi Yasuhiro, did get to see the mayor the following day. They asked him to respect the results of the referendum. Higa responded that he "would take full consideration of the citizens opinions before making a decision, but that he needed more time" (OT 24th December).

    Although most perhaps expected the meetings between Hashimoto, Ota and Higa to be a generally dull affair, given that neither of the local figures had been inclined to make anything resembling a clear statement of intent until the new year, Mayor Higa had determineded otherwise. After making his intentions known to Hashimoto during a 40-minute meeting he announced to reporters outside the Prime Minister's Official Residence that had "decided to accept the construction of the heliport in Nago," and to "end his political career" by resigning as mayor (OT 25th December). His decision to resign was based on the fact that he "felt responsible for dividing his city into two" (Ibid). It had been generally known that Higa was in favour of the heliport construction provided that a comprehensive northern region economic promotion package was delivered, but his resignation came as a shock. On his return to Okinawa he officially presented the Deputy Mayor Kishimoto Tateo with his resignation and then held a press conference in Nago. I accepted the heliport, he said "because it is a step towards the reduction of the U.S. military presence in Okinawa," and because of "Prime Minister Hashimoto's solemn promise" to implement a positive economic promotion package for the northern region (OT 26th December). In his speech he launced an attack on Ota "for his failure to make clear his position on the heliport issue" (Ibid).

    Governor Ota now found himself in the most difficult of positions. He had likely anticipated having a little more time in which to consider his final stance on the heliport issue. Higa's unexpected bomb dropped him in the proverbial. In measured fashion, however, Ota gained himself the time he required. Still in Tokyo when Higa was holding his press conference, Ota asserted that there were many views, including those of the citizens of Henoko and other areas of Nago, as well as the people of Okinawa Prefecture to consider before a final decision could be made. He would discuss the issue with various groups and individuals in Okinawa before his scheduled meeting with Prime Minister Hashimoto sometime in January. But a final opinion would not be forthcoming until after the results of the elections in February (Nago is required to hold elections with 50 days of Higa's resignation), and until he could meet directly with the new mayor.

    On December 26, Gakiya Munehiro, Chairman of the City Council, visted the Nago Municipal Government's Election Office to discuss the mayoral elections. It was announced that formal notification of the elections would be posted on February 1, and that voting would take place on February 8. On December 29, it was announced that the candidate representing the pro-heliport position would be the Deputy Mayor, Kishimoto Tateo. His pledge was to continue to promote the policies outlined by Mayor Higa. The anti-heliport position was likely to be represented by one of three candidates: 1) Tamazato Yoshimitsu of the Industry Bureau of the Naha Municipal Government, 2) Tamaki Yoshikazu a member of the Shaminto in the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly, or 3) Miyagi Yasuhiro, chief spokesman for the "Council Opposing the Construction of an Offshore Heliport." Although the overwhelming favourite would have been Miyagi, he later elected to run for a seat on the Nago Assembly rather than tackle the mayoral elections. Tamaki Yoshikazu was nominated as the official anti-heliport candidate. If both individuals are successful in their campaigns, of course, they could significantly tip the balance in favour of the "reformist" parties within the Nago Assembly. One of the most intriguing issues in the leadup to the February elections, will be the extent to which Kishimoto is likely to be hindered or helped by his inheritance of Higa Tetsuya's legacy.

    Masamichi Sebastian Inoue teaches at the University of Kentucky

    John Purves was recently awarded a Ph.D. from the Graduate School of International Development, Nagoya University.

    Mark Selden teaches sociology and history at Binghamton University.

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