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Nakaima’s Betrayal Cuts Deep

Nakaima MOD 2

Hirokazu Nakaima at the Defense Ministry (SNA)

By Michael Penn

SNA (Tokyo) — Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima’s decision to approve construction of the planned US Marine air base at Henoko has won its fair share of admirers. Much of the international media has portrayed it as a “breakthrough” that resolves a long political “stalemate” that had plagued US-Japan relations for many years. Other outlets welcomed Nakaima’s decision as representing “progress,” with some Pentagon officials telling journalists that the US military could now start to refocus on issues more directly related to ensuring security and stability in Northeast Asia.

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was among those who hailed the governor’s decision, calling it “absolutely critical to the United States’ ongoing rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region and our ability to maintain a geographically distributed, operationally resilient, and politically sustainable force posture in the region.”

A key figure in Congress, US Senator John McCain, added, “Governor Nakaima’s decision to sign the landfill permit is a major achievement for Okinawa, for Japan, and for the US-Japan alliance — an achievement for which Prime Minister Abe and his administration also deserve much credit.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe himself, as well as Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, praised Nakaima for making an “heroic decision” and pledged their future support for the development of the Okinawan economy, among other things.

With so much high-level support for a decision in which, according to the headline in The Guardian newspaper of Britain, “Okinawa approves relocation of controversial US military base,” who could stand against such a worthy and vital project?

The answer, of course, is “critics” and “protesters” — a couple thousand of whom occupied the ground floor of the Okinawa prefectural headquarters building in Naha as Governor Nakaima gave his official approval to the project.

But what the global corporate media almost universally failed to point out, and which the senior government officials in both Washington DC and Tokyo are quite eager to obscure, is the fact that Governor Nakaima’s decision has virtually no democratic legitimacy whatsoever within Okinawa Prefecture.

Yes, it is true that Nakaima is Okinawa’s freely elected governor, and is in that sense a perfectly legitimate representative of his prefecture. But the Henoko base construction issue has been the hottest political issue in Okinawa since the proposals to create it first emerged in 1996.

I myself was present in Okinawa in November 2010 to cover the gubernatorial contest between incumbent Hirokazu Nakaima and the uncompromisingly anti-US base former Ginowan City Mayor Yoichi Iha.

Nakaima understood just how unpopular was the idea of building Henoko air base within the prefecture, and so he made the careful and deliberate decision to officially oppose its construction as part of his campaign platform. Nakaima was clearly worried in 2010 that unless he specifically promised to oppose Henoko base construction, voters might turn to the more radical Mr. Iha, who could then walk away with the gubernatorial election. However, by taking the same anti-base line as Iha, Nakaima was able to effectively marginalize the top political issue and turn the race into a referendum on who would be the better manager of the Okinawan economy. On that basis, he prevailed over Iha by a 52% to 46% margin.

For Hirokazu Nakaima to reverse his position now — without any consultation at all with the general public in Okinawa — can only be described precisely as Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine has just described it: as “an utter breach of trust against the people of the prefecture.”

Governor Nakaima, however, seems to be living in some sort of denial, telling journalists that the “descriptions of me violating my election promise over the base issue are wrong. I do not have to explain myself because I have changed nothing… My idea that relocating the Futenma air station outside the prefecture is the most efficient solution to the problem remains unchanged.”

His is a peculiar interpretation of events that seems to run counter to how all other parties — whether they be pro-base or anti-base — have portrayed his decision.

We believe that the only fair approach to the choice of whether or not to build the new US Marine air base at Henoko must come in a referendum put to the people of Okinawa themselves. They are the ones who were denied their rights under 27 years of US military occupation, and they are the only ones — despite the assertion of US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel — who can determine what is and what is not “politically sustainable” within the prefecture.

Of course, neither Washington nor Tokyo will allow any such referendum to be held, because they already understand perfectly well that “Okinawa” does not approve construction of the base, but only that the Abe government has been able to successfully bribe and intimidate some senior Okinawan politicians to fall into submission.

The choice for Okinawa’s people today is a rather clear one between self-determination and democracy on the one hand, and the continuation of developmental neo-colonialism on the other. No doubt there will be political forces within the prefecture that will line up on both sides. We don’t presume to say at this point which side will actually gain the advantage in 2014, but we can safely predict that Governor Nakaima’s foul betrayal of his people will open up a more intense chapter of the struggle. And, in the long run, it is certainly democracy which must come out on top, one way or the other.

Michael Penn is the President of the Shingetsu News Agency.