For military-weary Okinawa, Donald Trump offers a glimmer of hope

Tomoyuki Kobashigawa, a 73-year-old retiree who travels an hour every day from his home in central Okinawa to the protest site. Many on the Japanese island hope president-elect Trump will make good on his plan to close military bases.


By ANNA FIFIELD | The Washington Post | Published: November 25, 2016

NAHA, Japan — From Brussels to Bahrain, London to Lima, there's concern about what Donald Trump might do as president. Military alliances and trade pacts are in doubt, and anxieties are running high.

But for many people in the southern Japanese island prefecture of Okinawa, Trump offers a slight glimmer of hope, a potential crack in the wall that has repelled their attempts to lessen the American military footprint here.

"Lots of people are saying the same thing - that they have a tiny hope that something will change, that Donald Trump might reduce the burden of military bases on Okinawa," said Hiroko Ohshiro, 65, a retired office clerk who regularly protests new base construction here.

She still describes herself as "70 percent pessimistic" - but that's an improvement on the 100 percent failure rate Okinawa has recorded in trying to resist new American bases.

"People here have a very vague expectation that under a Trump administration, the bases might move and the situation might change," said Manabu Sato, professor of political science at Okinawa International University. "If [Hillary] Clinton had won, nothing would have changed. People now want an opportunity to change the situation."

On the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly threatened to close the U.S. military bases in Japan unless Tokyo funded the entire cost for their operation, saying that the United States was losing "billions" and a rich country like Japan should be able to pay for its own defense. Japan contributes almost $4 billion annually to run the bases, which offer protection for Japan against North Korea and China, but are also a crucial part of the U.S.'s forward deployment in Asia.

Now, people here are eagerly waiting to find out whether Trump was genuine, or whether this was just campaign bluster.

"Mr. Trump's policies haven't been decided so we shouldn't be swayed by his actions each time, but should remain cautious while vehemently conveying our message," said Denny Tamaki, who represents Okinawa in the lower house of the Japanese parliament. "Okinawan lawmakers like myself will continue to appeal to the U.S. that the Okinawan people's position is different from the one of the central government."

Takeshi Onaga, who was elected governor of Okinawa two years ago on a pledge to block the relocation of a controversial Marine Corps air station, plans to visit Washington in February to make his case to the new president.

"I want Trump to hear the voice of Okinawa," Onaga said shortly after Trump's victory. "I want to keep my hopes up and keep an eye on the response he will take to the Okinawa base issue."

Onaga has visited Washington twice since his election in 2014 but has found most doors closed to him. The Pentagon views his complaints as an issue for him to take up with Tokyo, not Washington.

"It would be great if Mr. Trump could review the base issue in Okinawa from scratch," said Yoichi Iha, a former local mayor who now represents Okinawa in the upper house. "Mr. Trump can probably do things that might not go along with conventional ways of thinking."

Okinawa was occupied by the United States for almost three decades after the end of World War II, and the bases remained even after it was handed back to Japan in 1972.

This island chain accounts for less than 1 percent of Japan's landmass but houses 74 percent of the U.S. military bases in Japan. Many locals say this places an unfair burden on them and is part of a history of being treated as second-class citizens by Tokyo.

For 20 years, the United States and Tokyo have been trying to relocate the huge Marine Corps air station at Futenma, slap bang in the middle of the island and surrounded by houses and school, to a remote spot farther north at Henoko.

Two new runways will be built on reclaimed land out in the bay there, adjoining an existing American military base. Polls have consistently shown strong opposition to the plan, with as many as 85 percent wanting the air station moved off the island entirely, and Onaga has used his power to try to block progress.

Local activists say the construction will destroy the natural environment and put endangered species at risk, and they have been protesting vehemently since construction began at Henoko just over two years ago.

Many residents are also incensed at the clearing in the subtropical Yanbaru forest on the northernmost part of Okinawa's main island to make way for six new military helipads. One of them will be only 400 yards from the nearest residence in Takae, opponents say.

The northern area is already used for jungle warfare training for the Marines, although almost 10,000 acres, or nearly half of it, will be returned to Okinawan control next month.

The "No Helipad Takae Residents' Society" says that the new construction is destroying the environment, endangering wildlife and contaminating the water supply. A spokesman for the Marine Corps on Okinawa did not respond to a request for comment.

But Yoshio Takahashi of the Forest People Project, a group opposed to the clearing in the Yanbaru forest, isn't hopeful that Trump, a climate change skeptic and real estate developer, will listen to them.

"He is doubtful about the fact that the earth is warming, so I don't think Trump will be interested in protecting the Yanbaru forest," he said. "I don't think we are going to get any relief any time soon."

Further tempering the slight optimism here are reports that Trump is close to nominating retired Marine Gen. James N. Mattis as his defense secretary. Many people here think that Mattis would side with the Marine Corps.

"So the situation could actually become worse if Donald Trump puts a hardliner into a key position," said Chihiro Yamada, a 36-year-old school assistant who is also opposed to the bases.

Her friend Satoko Koji, a manicurist, says she is pessimistic because even if Trump declares he wants to close bases, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government in Tokyo will try to convince him otherwise. "I think that the Japanese government will just pay him more," she said.

Sato, the political scientist, said that they're probably right. He, too, does not expect to see any change. "I think Trump will threaten Japan and try to get more money out of it," he said. "Then he can say, 'I'm a good businessman, I got a better deal from the Japanese,' and then he can abandon his pledge."


The Washington Post's Yuki Oda contributed reporting from Tokyo.

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