11.03.2019 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Consequences of Okinawa Referendum


On 24 February a referendum was staged on the issue of relocating the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from the center of Ginowan (with approximately 100,000 residents) to Okinawa Island’s bay area near the scarcely populated village of Henoko.

The decision to hold the referendum was made by the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly on 26 October 2018 and was supported by its new Governor Denny Tamaki, who is portrayed as someone continuing the work of his predecessor Takeshi Onaga (the latter passed away in August of that same year). The former Governor did not insist that the base had to be transferred to another more convenient location in Okinawa, but instead campaigned for its complete removal from the island and its relocation elsewhere. He expressed similar views about the other 13 American bases located in the area, which are home to three quarters of the US military force stationed in Japan.

However, this stance is in direct contradiction to the policy course pursued by the Japanese government and aimed at strengthening the alliance with Washington. Due to this, it is important to once again highlight that the conflict, which began on the island, is an internal Japanese issue.

The new Governor’s attempts to officially involve Washington in the resolution of this problem failed. United States officials explained to Denny Tamaki that they supported the agreements, reached with their ally (the Japanese government), and suggested he contacted it with any questions. If he happens to have any that is.

Unfortunately, all the long-term attempts, made by the Prefecture leadership to take on the central government in courts of various levels, and to prove that the landfill work in Henoko and the subsequent relocation of the Futenma base are unlawful in nature, have not been successful.

Hence, staging the referendum was, in fact, a last ditch effort, as it was clear from the onset that its results would not compel Japan’s central government to any actions whatsoever. However, from this author’s point of view, the formulation of the issue on referendum ballots was highly questionable, as voters needed to tick just one out of three boxes.

We would like to once again remind our readers about the demands made by Okinawa activists. They would like the Futenma military base to be removed from the island. And yet, each ballot contained the following question “Are you for or against the construction work on the military base in Henoko?”, and three possible answers “pro”, “against” and “neither nor”. As expected, three quarters of those who voted ticked the second box.

So what now? In reality, Okinawa residents expressed their support for stopping the construction work at the new location of the Futenma base in Okinawa, and, as a result, for its continued operations in Ginowan.  But for how long? There is no clear answer to the question posed above, as the procedure that could have been used to ensure compliance with Okinawa residents’ true wishes is also far from clear.

We would like to reiterate that the law is on the side of the central government. And when Prime Minister Shinzō Abe looks at the results of the referendum, which, de facto, express support for extending the base’s presence in Ginowan, he has every right to shake his head in bewilderment (which he has probably done in private) and ask “What exactly did you fools vote for? You’d prefer if helicopter parts continued to fall on your children’s heads in a yard of a primary school?”

Naturally, the Prime Minister refrained from making public comments of this nature. One of the reasons for his restraint is the fact that, in July of this year, he will have to lead (for the last time) the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to yet another victory at the upcoming House of Councillors election.

However, it seems that the previously mentioned win is no longer guaranteed as once was the case, and the (possible) victory will be achieved in a political environment with increasing pressure from the opposition, which will probably use the results of the Okinawa referendum to its advantage.

In the meantime, with the referendum results in hand, tireless Governor Denny Tamaki has started his attack on the central government. During a prefectural assembly, he stated that only an immediate removal of the Futenma base from Okinawa would satisfy the wishes, expressed in the referendum. Denni Tamaki reiterated his demands at a one-to-one meeting with the Prime Minister on 1 March.

And he is right. In a sense that the only effective resolution for the Governor, the Prefectural Assembly and the local activists to this far from straightforward (to put it mildly) problem, which arose after staging the referendum by these parties, would be quick actions that would satisfy these aforementioned true wishes of Okinawa residents.

This, unfortunately, will not happen for many reasons, but first and foremost, because the Prime Minister, even if he wanted to (which does not seem likely), will not be able to fulfill these demands, especially quickly.

Firstly, his actions are bound by the specific terms and conditions of an intergovernmental agreement with its key ally on the subject of relocating the Futenma base. Secondly, the time period required to discuss various aspects of this issue, such as establishing each party’s negotiation position, making the final joint decision and starting to implement it, was approximately 15 years. Why should the process (purely hypothetical at this point) of reversing this decision be so much faster? Thirdly, based on the latest photographs from the construction site in Henoko, half of the scheduled work has been completed. Hence, 50 % of all the resources allocated to this project from the Japanese state budget have already been utilized. So should everything be abandoned halfway through, resulting in wastage of state funds?

The central government has surely not entertained such thoughts. Currently, the only issue worrying the state is the fact that the construction work, which was meant to be finished on 18 February of this year, cannot be completed on schedule. The exhausting and drawn-out battle between the central government and Okinawa’s prefecture leadership is the main reason for this delay. According to the speech given by the Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya on 26 February, the government’s only concern at present is setting the new deadline.

During the previously mentioned one-to-one meeting with the Okinawa Governor, Shinzō Abe voiced two of the underlying aspects in support of his position on the issue of moving the Futenma military base to Henoko. Firstly, he indicated that it was impossible to further delay work on resolving this issue, due to increased danger residents of Ginowan are exposed to. Secondly, Shinzō Abe said he was prepared to continue his efforts to convince Okinawa residents that the current solution to the problem is optimal.

Finally, one of the leading newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, conducted a telephone survey of Okinawa residents on the issue of US military presence in Okinawa at the end of February, and its results were noteworthy. In answer to the question of whether such a military presence was useful for Japan’s security, approximately 60% of those surveyed said “yes”. Hence, the reaction towards the Futenma base issue is an exception to the prevailing mood among the island residents.

The author would like to add two comments about the results of the previously mentioned survey. Firstly, they show that Japanese society still has a wary attitude towards China. And secondly, it is impossible to deny that those surveyed may have indirectly expressed their support for the island’s American military bases as a source of work for a substantial portion of the Okinawa residents.

As for the possibility of a military threat (most likely a nuclear one) if a war starts in earnest, Okinawa residents, seemingly, try to dispel such fears. And such behavior is common for citizens of all the nations.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on issues relating to the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.


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