Twenty years have been wasted since Japan and the United States agreed on April 12, 1996 that the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa Prefecture would be closed and its land returned to owners on condition that the base was relocated within the prefecture.
There is no prospect of the Futenma base being shut down in the foreseeable future. Far from it, the central and prefectural governments are locked in a bitter dispute over the plan to transfer the base to the Henoko district of Nago.
The bilateral accord was reached after anti-U.S. base sentiment heightened among Okinawa residents following a sexual assault by three U.S. servicemen on a young girl in the prefecture.
Then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and then U.S. Ambassador to Japan Walter Mondale announced that the Futenma base would be closed within five to seven years following the agreement. However the matter was complicated by the fact that Washington had made construction of a substitute facility within the prefecture a condition for closing the base.
Over the past 20 years since the agreement, 10 Japanese prime ministers, three U.S. presidents, four Okinawa governors and four Nago mayors have been involved in the issue.
The significance of the presence of U.S. bases in Japan has changed, reflecting rapid changes in the post-Cold War international situation. The realignment of U.S. bases has progressed on a global scale since 2000, and Tokyo and Washington have agreed that key troops of the U.S. Marine Corps stationed in Okinawa will be transferred to Guam.
Nevertheless, the decision to build a substitute Marine Corps facility in Henoko as a precondition for closing the Futenma base remains unchanged.
Initially, the two countries considered building an offshore heliport with a 1,300-meter runway. However, they switched to a plan to reclaim the sea and then, to reclaim a coastal area.
Under the current plan, a coastal area of Henoko will be reclaimed and two 1,800-meter runways will be built in a "V" shape. The replacement facility will also have a military port that can be used by amphibious assault ships and an area where ammunition can be loaded into aircraft.
Although the total area of the new base being planned is about half that of the Futenma base, Gov. Takeshi Onaga has voiced stiff opposition to the project on the grounds that the facility could be used for up to 100 years.
Each time blueprints have been redrawn, the scale of the planned new facility has expanded. If the government is to continue promoting the base relocation plan in such a way, it will be difficult to convince the local community to go along with the move.
Politicians bear a serious responsibility for the delay in closing the Futenma base. The Liberal Democratic Party-led government has stuck to transferring of the base within the prefecture even though the security environment has changed since the agreement was signed. Former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama of the Democratic Party of Japan pledged to aim to relocate the base outside Okinawa Prefecture, meandered over the issue, and ended up returning to the original plans to transfer the base to Henoko.
At the end of 2013, then Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima went against his campaign pledge to relocate the base out of the prefecture, and approved the national government's plan to reclaim the coastal area of Henoko.
The central government has reiterated that the transfer of the Futenma base to Henoko is the only option to maintain deterrence by the Japan-U.S. alliance and eliminate the danger that the Futenma base poses to the local community. However, the national government has failed to convince the Okinawa Prefectural Government and local residents about why the base must be relocated to Henoko. In the eyes of Okinawa people, the move runs counter to democracy and local autonomy.
A plan that has been deadlocked for such a long period is unreasonable. The central government has no choice but to review it.