Okinawans wonder why new US base is needed amid ‘detente’

NAGO, Japan: Looking over a blue sea in front of her, Takako Shinohara expresses disbelief over Japan’s plan to construct a new US military base in this coastal area of the subtropical island of Okinawa.
On top of strong local opposition, the proposed site is known for biodiversity and coral reefs, Shinohara argues. Some experts also point out the possibility of an active fault line in the area.
“We believe it is impossible to build up a military base in a place like this,” says Shinohara, who has opposed the construction of new facilities that could take over the functions of US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in central Okinawa.
Furthermore, a historic summit meeting in Singapore earlier this month between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong UN has given local activists like Shinohara more ammunition to oppose the controversial project.
Following the talks, Washington and Seoul also agreed to suspend their joint military drills in August.
Even Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who had gained popularity by bashing North Korea, is now keen to hold talks with Kim in order to resolve the decades-old issue of Japanese nationals kidnapped by Pyongyang.
“Developments towards detente have begun,” Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga said at a ceremony on Saturday, which marked the 73rd anniversary of the end of the Battle of Okinawa.
The 1945 fighting, one of the few ground battles in Japan during World War II, resulted in more than 200,000 war dead, including US soldiers.
Under the rapidly changing security environment, the construction of a new US military base on the island “goes against the trend,” the governor said.
At the Okinawa prefectural assembly on Wednesday, Onaga also said, “Why do they build the new Henoko base, spending nearly 1 trillion yen ($9.1 billion) and more than 10 years [to complete it]?”
However, Abe, who also participated in the annual event on Okinawa on Saturday, told reporters his government will not change the plan so that they could close the Futenma base, surrounded by residential areas in the city of Ginowan.
About 14,000 islanders used to live in what is now the Futenma base, according to the local government. But they were uprooted and their land “forcibly confiscated” by the US military after Japan’s surrender in 1945.
Anti-base activists argue the US military should simply close the base and return it to Okinawa.
Okinawa, which constitutes less than 1 per cent of Japan’s total landmass, hosts about 70.6 per cent of US military facilities across the country, compared with 58.7 per cent in 1972, when the island prefecture finally saw its reversion to Japanese sovereignty from US military occupation. — dpa