Is reality finally seeping into the offices of the New York Times editorial board? The titles alone of their recent editorials on Okinawa tell a story:
April 5, 2013: Progress on Okinawa January 5, 2014: Another Step Forward on Okinawa January 27, 2014: Okinawa Solution, Elusive as Ever
The Times has been cheerleading as the government of Prime Minister Abe pressed on with plans to build a new airbase for U.S. Marines in the Henoko district of Nago City. But with the re-election of Mayor Inamine, a fervent base opponent, the board seems to have finally awakened to the depth of Okinawan resistance. While early in January, they fretted that “local politics could still thwart the project”, the dismissive tone is now gone. True, as if made from a cookie cutter, all three editorials make feeble, virtually identical pleas that the U.S. and Japan “must be responsive to Okinawan concerns.” But this time, they acknowledge that “Okinawan resistance goes far deeper than everyday not-in-my-backyard complaints.” And for once, Okinawan priorities get the last word: “A base-relocation plan that protects American and Japanese strategic concerns cannot be allowed to unfairly burden Okinawa’s citizens.”
In the past, the Times placed its hopes on Tokyo’s efforts to pay off Okinawans in exchange for acquiescing to the base. That worked on the now widely-despised Governor Nakaima. But with such efforts backfiring in the Nago election, the Times is forced to question the validity of its insulting assumption that Okinawans can be bought.
Another possible reason for the shift is disillusionment with Abe. Last April, The Times was full of praise: “Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan showed political leadership by agreeing with the United States on a timetable for reducing the size of the American force and returning some land used as a military base.” (This was an extremely deceptive characterization of the agreement.) The only question was whether Abe could “deliver” on efforts to get Okinawa to knuckle under. More recently, though, the Times has parted company with the Abe administration on such matters as the state secrets law, textbooks, visiting Yasukuni, arms exports, and squabbling with China over islets. Having seen what Abe’s been “delivering”, perhaps the Times has a case of buyer’s remorse, and is starting to question other aspects of his agenda as well.
For the first time, the Times mentions the threat the base poses to the endangered dugong, a kind of manatee. And for once, they allude to the possibility of transferring Futenma operations not to Henoko, but to Kadena Air Force base. But let’s not exaggerate the extent of the Times’s enlightenment. They haven’t completely abandoned their faith in the efficacy of bribery: “Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has tried to sway Nago residents with promises of a half-billion dollars in public-works spending, may yet find a way to entice Okinawans into acceptance.” At least, I hope they’re talking about money. The alternatives include, as Gavan McCormack reports, the kind of intimidation with which the central government attempted to interfere in a local election, and the potential involvement of the National Police Agency and Coast Guard. One would hope, though, that the Times dimly perceives that attempts to force the base on an unwilling Okinawa will result in civil disobedience and perhaps violence that could threaten their cherished Japan-U.S. alliance itself.
Of course, the Times persists in its devotion to Pentagon priorities. Last April, they wrote of “growing concerns about North Korea and China.” Then it was “Pentagon officials now say the relocation is also needed to meet security requirements as the United States rebalances its focus toward Asia.” Now they stress “the importance of America’s military presence to regional stability.” Apparently, they still believe that if Futenma were closed today, we’d all be speaking Mandarin tomorrow. They thus seem oblivious to the argument, made by Peter Ennis and others, that Futenma “has no strategic function” and that only inter-service rivalries bar the Kadena option. Signs of growing recognition of Okinawans’ right to self-determination should be welcomed as progress. But as the Times itself has discovered, “progress” can be fleeting.