On February 24th the residents of Okinawa voted in a “symbolic referendum”, i.e. one which is purely an expression of opinion, with no obligation on anyone to take any notice of its outcome. In this, they voted heavily against the relocation of the Futenma base, despite the fact this had been agreed twenty years ago.
There are many stories which are rarely covered in the media because they can’t be compressed into easy soundbites. The whole world was told about the Afghan mujahideen kicking out the Soviet-backed government in 1989, as this was the culmination of a narrative everyone understood and most wanted to hear. When those same mujahideen pursued a prolonged civil war against each other Afghanistan quickly slipped from the front pages, as few had the time or the inclination to understand who was who or why they should be interested..
The relocation of the US military base at Futenma on the Japanese island of Okinawa has once again made the news. This is not because something newsworthy has suddenly happened, but because something specific enough has happened to enable the media to put a spin on this controversial issue.
Futenma has been described as the most dangerous military base in the world, and it would be even if it were located in a relatively open space. Instead it is right in the middle of a built-up area, surrounded by homes and businesses. All US airbases are obliged to have clear zones at the end of runways, and Futenma doesn’t, and couldn’t create them if it wanted to without knocking down an unfeasible number of buildings and rehousing their inhabitants.
There should therefore be no question that Okinawans would want to be rid of the base for this reason, quite apart from the other factors in play, such as the ongoing incidents of military personnel misconduct
Nevertheless, the 1996 agreement to move the base has not been implemented, largely because Okinawans themselves have seen the need for the base. Additionally, it’s been noted that its presence supports many local businesses.
There have also been many other factors complicating the picture. The objective has never been to close the base down but to relocate it to another site on Okinawa. Land reclamation work has begun at the site, regardless of the environmental damage, a major issue in a country of volcanic islands, earthquakes and tsunamis. It also bears disturbing echoes of the circumstances under which the existing base was built in the aftermath of World War Two, with the Americans just walking in, interning the locals, knocking down their homes and sticking the base there, whether the defeated Japanese liked it or not.
Now Okinawans have decisively rejected the relocation of the base, which makes this complicated story understandable. Obviously, they want to either kick the nasty US military off the island altogether, or keep the base where it is to reap the economic benefits of it. These are easy narratives, so suddenly the media care about the issue. But, as ever, things are not as simple as that.
Licking backsides with forked tongue
Japan is a major power because the US allows it to be. All its economic success could have been ended by any number of Western initiatives. But without Japan the Iron Curtain would have run through the Pacific Ocean, and for this reason its Second World War crimes, little or no worse than Germany’s, have been forgiven but not forgotten, just in case the Japanese step out of line again.
Like Turkey, Japan is condemned to being “strategically significant”to everyone but itself. It should be the Japanese who are buying up all the European infrastructure, not the Chinese, as Japan got there first development-wise. Instead Japan can buy companies, and set up plants of its own in European countries, but not be allowed to claim anything further. The Japanese presence in the West appears aggressive on the surface, but is always on Western terms, as a reward for good behaviour, not a genuine partnership based on mutual positive interest.
The Japanese don’t really want to end the US military presence in their islands because, even now, it sanitises their own military history. The Okinawans weren’t objecting to US military presence as such, but relocation to another part of the island rather than another part of Japan. Their argument is not with the concept of US protection but with what they see as the “burden” their particular island has to bear, weary of being seen as the place with the military bases rather than anything else.
Does that argument sound familiar? It was the same one Donald Trump used towards NATO in his election campaign. Trump gained a lot of sympathy by promising to end US involvement in expensive foreign wars and make other NATO countries foot more of the bill for them. Once upon a time war was only a burden for the defeated, and a heroic sacrifice for the victors. Now even the countries who win are saying that the price they have to pay isn’t worth the effort, and trying to find a way out, or at least saying they are.
The big question about the Okinawa vote is whether a “major strategic partner” will be allowed to take the same position as the US. Other NATO countries, have not, as yet, countered Trump’s move to make them pay more by increasing their fees for hosting US bases. But Japanese Prime Minister Abe, who says he will ignore the referendum and go ahead with the base relocation anyway, can nevertheless use the vote as a means of doing so.
In order to take the views of his citizens into account, he will have to demand some sort of concession from the US to make the outcome more acceptable to them. How far will Japan, or anyone else, be allowed to go in demanding that the US relieves their burden rather than the other way round?
“If the President does it, it’s not illegal”
The Futenma base has gained international notoriety for its association with gang rape. One such case committed by US service personnel or civilian base staff would have been one too many. However there has been a succession of them, with the base apparently not too interested in doing anything to prevent them.
The stereotype of Japanese as being ultra-traditional and stiff is not without foundation. This sort of behaviour, and the fact that Americans seem to think it is part of their military duties, is a great insult to Japan. Would you like to live in a neighbourhood associated with people doing such deeds, and in which perpetrators were brought to justice, but not those who were supposed to be preventing such behaviour existing in the neighbourhood?
If Muslim immigrants behaved the way a succession of people at the Futenma base have done, we all know what would be said. But despite the offence given to all Japanese, and not least the violated women, the partnership with the US has been considered more important. On balance, these incidents have not been worth rocking the boat over, as official America has never openly approved of the actions of the abusers.
But we are now in a position where the US can no longer pretend that it does not approve of sexual misconduct. You can’t get more official than the President of the United States, and Donald Trump has never seen fit to acknowledge the inappropriateness of his notorious “grab ‘em by the pussy” remarks.
These can’t be written off as off-the-record aberrations when the person who made them has been elected by his people to the highest office in the land, and is Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. Equally, US allies can’t just let them go by when US military personnel are criminally convicted of the same behaviour.
Any Japanese Prime Minister would have to make some sort of stand against these remarks. Abe will not only have to do this, but be seen to be doing it in the base relocation process. Once again, although the Okinawa referendum seems to be a repudiation of Abe’s policy as much as Trump’s, it does give him an opportunity to test how far Japan can go, and run with it.
Law of the jungle
But though the referendum result is both negative and positive for Abe, and positive in the short term for the US as it will not have to move to a new base just yet, Abe has never needed a referendum to give him leverage with the US if he wants it.
There have been protracted legal battles with the US over the Futemna base, which the US persists in fighting even though it cannot possibly win. Admittedly it was the Japanese Defence Agency, not the US airbase, which insisted that the local power company remove various transmission towers because they were a violation of safety regulations at the airbase. But as the base is US sovereign territory, this has nothing to do with them.
The offending towers are outside the perimeter of the base, in Japanese territory, and fall under Japanese law. They do not breach Japanese regulations, so no government agency can tell the power company that they must be taken down. Nor can they pay compensation to the power company for removing the towers, as there is no regulation under which they should be removed.
Nevertheless, the US is pursuing the case by proxy, even though it would mean destroying homes and schools, and flattening out hills, to do so. The US has no jurisdiction outside the base, and the Japanese Defence Agency knows that, so the only purpose of trying to take down the towers is to make the US look ridiculous.
Abe has always been able to say that any new US base will have to respect Japanese laws before it can claim any more Japanese territory for its bases. He may be pressing for relocation, but on what terms? If the base is moved to a less populated area because of these very concerns, Abe can insist there can be no further demands that US law be imposed upon Japan.
This may ultimately allay at least some of the concerns of Abe’s citizens, and also make relocation off the island, as they are demanding, strategically sound. But the fact that the correspondence between the power company and the Defence Agency concerning this was kept secret for several years indicates that the public face of this issue is very different to the private one, and that private agreements will always take precedence in matters of security.
Whenever an international trade deal is signed, there is an official ceremony at which some of the terms are revealed by the politicians of the countries involved, draped in flags and finery. The exact details of those deals are often available for those who care to look for them. But there are some clauses which the politicians never mention at these big ceremonies, even though they are not secret, and therefore just as much in the public domain as the ones they want to talk about.
The main one in every such deal is that none of the parties to the deal can enter into another trade agreement which hinders the fulfilment of the one they have signed. They can trade with other countries in goods not covered by the agreement, but not in those covered by it unless there is a clear case of demand exceeding the capacity to supply.
This is why the UK has signed no trade deals whatsoever since the Brexit vote, or even negotiated one which can be signed later. Any such deal would hinder the fulfilment of deals its prospective partners already have with the EU, and they won’t like the sanctions they signed up to facing if they did this being correctly imposed upon them.
Here we are dealing with international agreements which can be accessed and sourced, and contain few, if any, redactable sections. The US and Japan have an intergovernmental defence partnership, which must by definition have specific terms. Have you ever seen them? Has anyone? You never will see all of them, when security is concerned. So how can either side ever be held accountable by something as public as a referendum?
No way in
Whatever the politicians on either side will day, the Okinawa base issue will never actually be resolved. It will be dealt with the way each individual aspect of the issue has always been: by exercising the art of no solution, because any solution which may be found is more difficult than the problems it is seeking to resolve.
The Okinawans who voted in the referendum were voting against Shinzo Abe as much as the US, but have also given him plenty of room to devise a solution they might accept. Meanwhile the US can simply ignore the result, as no one is going to kick them off the existing base unless a new one is built, and the real terms of the relocation will never be known because the Japanese will never accept them.
Everyone, including the Okinawa voters, can take both positives and negatives from this exercise in democracy, and focus on whichever they want at a given time, to suit their own purposes. Isn’t that what we would all like to do?
The Futenma base may be a bad thing which brings more bad things, but so is every alternative, and as long as a balance of negatives is maintained, no solution, with a lot of noise, is the solution which will suit everyone other than the media and the many victims.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.