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Okinawa’s half-American governor vows to resolve US military base dispute

Reuters | Denny Tamaki, Okinawa's new governor, at a press conference in Tokyo in October 12, 2018.

With an American father, the new governor of Okinawa may seem like the ideal negotiator to deal with a dispute between the Japanese authorities and the island’s residents over the construction of a new US military base there.

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Denny Tamaki, the newly elected governor of Okinawa, has made reducing the American military presence on the island a key priority. When the Japanese government announced this week that work would resume to build a US airbase on the island’s east coast, Tamaki lamented the decision as “regrettable”.

“I’m not going to stop urging the central government to listen sincerely to what Okinawa is saying,” he declared in a statement.

Many in Okinawa think that this son of a Japanese mother and an American father, a US marine whom he has never met, is perfectly placed to provide a solution to this dispute, which has been going on for decades.

In 1945, the Americans set foot on the island for the first time. The particularly violent fighting in the Battle of Okinawa killed more than 100,000 Japanese civilians over the course of nearly four months, leaving deep scars.

Wounds from the past

Since then, American soldiers have maintained their presence on the island, which the US formalised in 1972. Today, the island – which has 1 million inhabitants overall – is home to about half of the 54,000 US troops stationed in Japan.

Because of the painful history of the Second World War, the local population has struggled to accept this US military presence, which is often considered to be too close to the island’s cities. In 1956, an American plane crashed into a school, killing more than 200 people. US soldiers have also been involved in sexual abuse cases.

In 1986, three American soldiers from the Futenma base were sentenced to six years in prison for raping a 12-year-old girl. In 2016, an American contractor at the US military base raped and murdered a 20-year-old Japanese woman.

Today, opponents of the US presence are coalescing around a plan to move the densely populated US Futenma marine corps base, which is located around the Ginowan City urban area, to Henoko Bay on the east coast. Activists met on November 1 in paddle boats nearby before they were dispersed by coast guard patrol boats.

In this context, the standoff between Tamaki on the one hand, and Tokyo and Washington, on the other, looks especially tense. Okinawa’s new governor has urged Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to put an end to the plan. “They say there’s no alternative to Henoko – but we certainly don’t think that’s the case,” Tamaki said.

“The US have made an array of proposals as part of their reorganisation plans, and the Japanese government should review them,” he continued.

Visit to the US

To make Okinawa’s case – and to try to win support in Washington – Tamaki plans to travel to the US, including New York, in November. “I want the American people to understand the past, the present and the future in order to solve this problem,” he said.

Washington’s official position is that the resolution of this dispute is a Japanese matter.

Tamaki has argued that US President Donald Trump’s apparent reconciliation with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is a sign of his willingness to seek peace in the region. But, thus far, there are no plans for him to meet Trump.

Nevertheless, beneath the rhetorical surface, Tamaki takes a moderate approach on the matter. While more than 93,000 people petitioned the local government in September to hold a referendum on the plan to relocate the US base, Okinawa’s new governor defends the Japan-US security alliance, which – formalised in a 1951 treaty – took root as Cold War tensions emerged after the Second World War. His argument is that, instead of being concentrated in Okinawa, American soldiers should be distributed across Japanese territory.

This article was adapted from the original in French

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