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Editorial: Abe gov't must stop ignoring voices of Okinawa

When former Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) House of Representatives lawmaker Sadanori Yamanaka was named the first chief of the then Okinawa Development Agency, he made "the spirit of atonement" the core of the new agency's mission of breathing new life into the island prefecture.

Yamanaka understood Okinawa's tragic history; the suffering inflicted by 1945's horrifically destructive Battle of Okinawa, and the subsequent quarter-decade-plus of U.S. military rule. And for that, he won the hearts of the Okinawan people.

It has been 45 years since the prefecture was returned to Japan and Yamanaka took up his post. And on this anniversary, we must ask: Is the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe maintaining Yamanaka's "spirit of atonement" in its treatment of Okinawa?

Some 70.6 percent of the total land area taken up by U.S. military bases in Japan is in Okinawa, though the prefecture makes up just 0.6 percent of Japan's total territory. Put another way, Okinawa's base burden in pure land use terms is 400 times greater than that borne by mainland Japan.

Anti-U.S. base movements on the mainland have led to a drastic reduction in the facilities' number and scope there. Not so for Okinawa, where the United States military kept its bases even after returning the islands to Japan. As a result, the proportion of U.S. bases in Okinawa versus the whole country rose from just under 60 percent in 1972 to the present 70-plus percent.

Tokyo's response to this has been slow and ham-fisted. There have been 24 prime ministers since Okinawa's return, but 22 years went by before one of them -- Tomiichi Murayama -- tried to do anything about the prefecture's U.S. military problem. Until then, the main interest regarding Okinawa from the perspective of those on the mainland had been recovery from U.S. military rule and the prosperity gap between the island prefecture and mainland Japan.

After Murayama, Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto negotiated the return of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the prefectural city of Ginowan, but the base land is still in U.S. military hands 21 years later. The main cause of this two decades of foot-dragging is simply that the central government has not done enough to bridge the gap with Okinawa. Yet even in this decades-long history of neglect, the attitude of the Abe administration to Okinawa stands out for its coldness.

Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga, though fighting relentlessly against the relocation of the Futenma base within his prefecture, has never denied the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance; quite the opposite, in fact. What he has demanded is for "all Japan to think about U.S. bases, and not leave Okinawa to shoulder the burden alone." But the Abe administration has turned a deaf ear to these pleas, opting instead to drag its disagreements with Okinawa before the courts.

The terms of the Japan-U.S. alliance commit the United States to the defence of Japan, and Japan to hosting U.S. forces. However, it is undoubtable that the mainland reaps the lion's share of the benefits of this arrangement, while Okinawa is forced to carry the vast majority of its burdens.

The Abe administration has forsaken dialogue in favor of a court-mandated resolution, and appears determined to push forward on its current course regardless of local concerns as long as it has the law and administrative procedure on its side. With that attitude, it is absolutely natural for Okinawa to push back.

For more than 20 years, the central government essentially ignored Okinawan concerns in its policy because, the state insisted, it had sole purview over national security issues. Surely, that excuse no longer holds water.

If the Abe administration forces its U.S. base policy on Okinawa in disregard for the people's will, it will only create a breeding ground for future problems. It is very important now to have an open heart, and truly listen to the voices of the Okinawan people.

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