TOKYO — U.S. military officials have behaved like “terrible thieves” in Okinawa, taking land for bases and then wanting new land once the bases get too old, the governor of the Japanese island prefecture said this week ahead of his first official visit to Washington.
Takeshi Onaga, elected in November on a pledge to stop the relocation of the U.S. Marines’ Air Station Futenma to Henoko, a more remote part of Okinawa’s main island, hopes to take his appeal directly to Obama administration officials early next month.
“In the United States, I would like to talk about the contradiction they are making. I would also like to correct their misunderstanding about the situation,” Onaga said in an interview Thursday. “I think the United States still believes that the Henoko construction is feasible and possible. However, their attitudes and actions are not in line with protecting human rights and freedom and democracy in Okinawa.”
The southern island chain of Okinawa bears the overwhelming weight of Japan’s military alliance with the United States, hosting three-quarters of the American bases in Japan and confronting the noise and safety issues connected with them.
Marine Corps Air Station Futenma is the most controversial of the bases, situated in the middle of the most crowded part of Okinawa’s main island, surrounded by houses and schools.
For 18 years, the U.S. military has sought to close that base and build a new one farther north. However, the plan requires the construction of two offshore runways, involving massive land reclamation that local officials say would devastate the environment.
The Pentagon says the proposed base at Henoko is part of a plan to reduce the U.S. military footprint in Okinawa. As the new air station is built over the coming years, the number of Marines based in the prefecture is projected to fall from about 18,000 to about 10,000 as more are deployed elsewhere in the Pacific.
But Onaga wants Futenma closed rather than moved, and the people of Okinawa largely agree. Polls have consistently shown that 70 percent of locals oppose the Henoko base, and 35,000 people joined a protest rally in the Okinawan capital, Naha, on Sunday.
Onaga’s pleas have fallen on deaf ears in Tokyo, however, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe refusing to meet with him for the first six months of Onaga’s term. In April, the two finally met, but neither budged an inch on the issue.
After Abe’s successful visit to Washington last month, when the prime minister said he was doing everything he could to advance the Henoko project, Onaga is now making his own visit.
“I would like to convey the message that Henoko cannot be built,” the governor said Thursday. Okinawa officials opened an office in Washington this year to help press their cause.
But Onaga’s schedule between May 30 and June 4 hardly looks packed. Onaga said he is waiting to hear back from the State and Defense departments on his requests to meet the relevant assistant secretaries, but analysts say it is unlikely he will meet anyone more senior than a desk officer.
“The Henoko conversation has long been a thorn in the side of Okinawa’s relationship with Tokyo and therefore a thorn in the side of the alliance,” said Sheila A. Smith, a Japan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“My sense is that we’ve lost sight of this policy goal of closing Futenma because we’ve become so focused on Henoko. The question is whether Mr. Onaga is going to reposition the debate to focus on that policy goal,” Smith said.
Onaga said that Okinawa, long considered a backwater in Japan, has been treated badly for too long. The island chain was occupied by the United States for almost three decades after the end of World War II, and the bases remained even after it was handed back to Japan in 1972.
“We think that they deprived us of our own land with force,” Onaga said. “Now they say Futenma air station is not functioning and needs to be replaced and that the new facility should be built in Okinawa. Frankly speaking, I have to say that they are terrible thieves.”
Onaga’s predecessor approved the construction of Henoko, and the new governor has been looking for ways to legally overturn that approval — something analysts say is highly unlikely to happen. Onaga has commissioned a panel to investigate whether he can stop construction, and its findings are due next month.
In the meantime, Onaga and the mayor of the district that includes Henoko have been exploring options to slow the construction process, including denying permits.
“Our belief is that Henoko cannot be built, but we have to stop it in a legal way,” Onaga said. “So what Okinawan people are doing now is demonstrating in a nonviolent way.”
Abe and his chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, have made it clear that they are not interested in discussing the Henoko project.
At a news conference this week, Suga declined to comment on Onaga’s U.S. trip, but he reiterated the Abe administration’s view that it is the Japanese government that is responsible for keeping the country secure.