"The people of Okinawa are angry!"
These were the words with which a small-town mayor greeted a Japanese cabinet minister last month.
Susumu Inamine is the mayor of Nago, and he has reason to be angry: he has been targeted for removal by the Japanese and American governments.
Nago is a quiet, leafy town of 60,000 residents in northern Okinawa Island, but the area known for its beer and beaches has become the centre of an international dispute as the US military wants to build a new base there. Tokyo and Washington say the base is needed to deter potential aggression from states like North Korea and China. But many Okinawans see the local crimes and accidents of US servicemen as the more immediate threat to their personal security.
Inamine has become a key spokesman for the anti-base side, and is a potent obstacle to its construction. The planned US Marine air base at Nago is intended to replace the existing Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which sits in the middle of the southern Okinawan city of Ginowan.
History of mistrust
The Futenma air base issue has roiled US-Japan relations for almost two decades.
Unlike the rest of post-World War II Japan, Okinawa was not granted independence from direct US military rule until 1972, 20 years later than the main islands. Moreover, even after its return to Japanese authority, tiny Okinawa was obliged to host 75 percent of the US military forces stationed in Japan.
The underlying tensions exploded in 1995 when three US soldiers forcibly abducted, bound, and gang-raped a 12-year-old Okinawan schoolgirl. The protests that followed threatened the bases' position in Okinawa, and the plan that a shaken Tokyo and Washington eventually came up with was to transfer Futenma air base to a new facility in Nago.
But for almost two decades, this plan - though agreed at the national level - has been bogged down in a local stalemate. Most in Nago oppose the construction of a base there, because of the environmental damage it would cause and the aircraft noise and other disruptions it would bring.
It was on a platform of resolutely opposing the planned base that Inamine was elected Nago's mayor in January 2010.
At the time, Inamine's election was widely interpreted as representing the final nail in the coffin of the base-building plan. The Democratic Party of Japan had just come to power the previous September, and then-Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama had pledged in his own election campaign to "at a minimum" move the Marines out of Okinawa, and perhaps out Japan altogether.
But neither the Pentagon nor its allies within the Japanese bureaucracy were willing to give up. Strong political pressure on Hatoyama accelerated the unravelling of his regime. As one of the last acts of his government in May 2010, Hatoyama was forced to re-endorse the plan to build the base. Since then, Tokyo has fallen back into line with Pentagon policy in Okinawa and elsewhere.
Vibrant anti-base movement
However, the anti-base movement within Okinawa itself has remained vibrant. Inamine has not wavered in his opposition, and has been supported so far by conservative Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima.
In January 2014, Inamine will face re-election. In 2010 he defeated the incumbent with 52 percent of the vote. This time he faces not only local opponents, but also the influence of the entire political establishment in Tokyo, including popular Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Any doubt about Abe's intentions was dispelled when the prime minister visited Naha, Okinawa's capital, in early February and told Governor Nakaima, "We will proceed based upon our agreement with the United States".
The Abe administration's desire to be rid of Inamine is undisguised. On March 5, the former Nago mayor whom Inamine defeated in 2010 was invited to Tokyo to meet directly with Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera. He came as the leader of a group calling itself the "Northern Region Development Council", and asked the central government to file its application to Okinawa Prefecture for the purpose of initiating Henoko construction as soon as possible.
Jun Asato, the Nago city official responsible for issues related to military bases, said the Northern Region Development Council is "a group of individuals who have gathered together on their own initiative and have no status as public representatives".
Yoichi Iha, a former mayor of Ginowan City who narrowly lost his gubernatorial election bid in November 2010, goes much further. He claims the "Northern Region Development Council" consists primarily of construction industry interests and others who stand to make considerable personal profits through their business relationships with the Defence Ministry if the base is built.
"They are not public representatives," Iha states. "They only pretend to be such representatives. In order to advance the central government's construction plans, the former mayor and others are trying to create the false impression within the national media that opinions within Okinawa are divided, when in fact the will of the majority against base construction is clear… It's all a performance."
When contacted, former Nago Mayor Yoshikazu Shimabukuro responded to the allegation that the "Northern Region Development Council" represented construction industry interests by saying, "It's not only the construction industry, but also those who operate hotels and many other industries that are involved in our group… the northern region of Okinawa has been relatively slow to develop… We seek economic progress for a richer life."
Tokyo has needed little encouragement to interfere in local politics. For instance, the central government made clear to the members of the Nago Fisheries Cooperative Association, through months of quiet negotiations, that the only way they could ever receive financial compensation for losing access to their fishing rights would be to permit construction of the US base.
These patient efforts bore fruit for Tokyo when, on March 11, the fishermen's cooperative voted 88-to-2 in favour of the deal.
House of Representatives lawmaker Denny Tamaki, whose political district covers northern Okinawa, hinted that he was not pleased with the decision.
"I cannot deny the reasoning of those fishermen who said that, since they cannot earn their living due to the existence of the base, they might as well just approve of the construction plan in order to receive at least some financial compensation for their losses. However, I do believe [they] ... might have given a little more consideration to the unforeseen burdens that construction of a new air base might place upon future generations in this area."
On March 22, the Abe administration moved forward with its formal application to the Okinawa prefectural government to begin landfill operations. Governor Nakaima indicated that he would take 8-10 months to come to a decision. Many analysts interpret this lengthy delay as Nakaima wanting to see the outcome of the Nago mayoral elections before showing his hand.
If Inamine is re-elected next January, Nakaima will presumably be reluctant to override anti-base sentiment. But if a pro-base candidate wins, then Nakaima would probably stand aside and give the central government what it is demanding.
But Yoichi Iha, for one, believes Inamine has a strong chance to survive the challenge from the central government. "You always have to worry at election time, but I believe that many people in Nago, including most of the city council members, support Mayor Susumu Inamine."