A memorial ceremony for former Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga was held on Oct. 9. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga attended the memorial organized by the people of the southernmost prefecture, and read a message from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe saying he is "determined to achieve results one by one to ease the burden caused by the bases" in Okinawa.
New Gov. Denny Tamaki is scheduled to visit Tokyo this week to meet with relevant ministerial officials, including Suga.
Four years ago when Onaga became governor, neither the prime minister nor Suga saw him for four months, increasing tension between the central and Okinawa governments to a decisive level. Compared to that situation, the Abe administration appears to be more positive about dialogue.
However, the government maintains its policy of proceeding with a plan to relocate U.S. Marine Air Station Futenma in the city of Ginowan in southern Okinawa, to the Henoko district in the city of Nago in the central part of the prefecture. Tamaki clearly opposes this plan agreed on by the Japanese and U.S. governments in 1996.
Abe has repeatedly stated that he will "stand shoulder to shoulder with Okinawa." If he really means it, he should face the Okinawan people's views against the base relocation, so clearly expressed in the results of the last two Okinawa gubernatorial elections, this year and in 2014.
It is true that the central government is responsible for the country's foreign and national security policies. Japan does have obligations under the mutual defense treaty between Tokyo and Washington.
Meanwhile, local government autonomy is guaranteed under the Constitution. Legally, the central government does not have a free hand in deciding the location of a military base without the understanding of the local community. Forcing such a decision runs counter to the spirit of the Local Autonomy Act, which places the central and local governments on an equal footing.
Onaga called for "the right to self-determination by Okinawa," but Tokyo effectively trampled on this request, triggering a strong backlash that brought Tamaki a record 390,000 votes in the Sept. 30 gubernatorial race. This is the proper understanding of recent events.
This perception, and reflection on it, should be the basis for serious discussion towards achieving a breakthrough on the base issue, and the Okinawa side must be part of the decision-making process.
During Onaga's tenure, the Abe administration set up a "focused consultation period" of one month with the Okinawa government. A court encouraged dialogue between the central and local governments in its out-of-court settlement plan in a legal battle over the base issue. Each time, the administration pretended to listen to Okinawa's grievances and used the occasion as a justification to push ahead with the relocation work. Continuing the same attitude would only block the resolution of the issue.
Atsushi Sakima, who received the full backing of the Abe administration in the Okinawa election, strongly called for a revision to the status of forces agreement between Japan and the United States. Junior coalition partner Komeito has requested the central government to pursue such a review.
These requests reflect the long and painful history Okinawa has had to endure, dealing with criminal cases and accidents linked to U.S. forces there. It would be insincere for the Abe government to ignore the issue just because its favored candidate, who was calling so strenuously for change, lost the gubernatorial election.
Reducing the burden of U.S. bases on Okinawa should be discussed together by Tokyo and Okinawa. It is not something to be advanced unilaterally by the central government.