With its sudden interest in temporarily stationing MV-22 Osprey aircraft at Saga Airport, the Abe administration has shown its desperation in ensuring victory for Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima in the fall gubernatorial race.
The move is intended to bolster the standing of Nakaima, who is likely to run for re-election in November. It demonstrates that the administration is taking steps to ease the military burden of the southernmost prefecture, home to 74 percent of U.S. bases in Japan.
But it is unclear whether the Saga prefectural government and the U.S. military will agree to keeping the aircraft at the commercial facility.
“Prospects are not easy to assess because (the central government) has yet to start negotiations with the U.S. side over the planned deployment at Saga Airport,” said a senior Defense Ministry official. “If it is just focused on Okinawa, it may be pulled down.”
Ryota Takeda, senior vice minister of defense, requested the deployment of the tilt-rotor Osprey transport aircraft at the financially struggling airport when he met Saga Governor Yasushi Furukawa in Saga on July 22.
Osprey are currently based at the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, the only base hosting the aircraft in Japan.
At a news conference after the meeting, Takeda described the deployment as “temporary” until the new base is completed in the Henoko district of Nago in northern Okinawa Prefecture.
He also indicated that the Defense Ministry hopes to gain the understanding of locals by the end of August, the deadline for making budgetary requests for the next fiscal year.
The central government plans to allocate some funds for the relocation of the Osprey aircraft for fiscal 2015.
Although Furukawa told reporters after the meeting that he still has a “clean slate,” he did not raise outright opposition to the proposal.
“It is indispensable to dispel the anxieties of local residents such as the safety and noise (of the aircraft),” he said. “We will have to hold talks on how to alleviate their concerns.”
According to the ministry, a tarmac for the Osprey will be constructed to the western side of Saga Airport from fiscal 2016 to 2018.
It has yet to be decided how many of the 24 Osprey at the Futenma base would be stationed at the airport.
Apart from the U.S. Osprey, the central government intends to deploy at the airport 17 Osprey that Japan’s Self-Defense Forces will introduce in the next five years.
The request for the use of Saga Airport, which appeared to have emerged out of nowhere, suggests that the administration wants to ensure the re-election of Nakaima, who has cooperated with the central government over the Futenma relocation.
Nakaima’s defeat would deliver an additional blow to the administration after a candidate it supported lost in the Shiga gubernatorial election on July 13.
Another loss could seriously undermine the power base of the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
In the Okinawa governor's race, Nakaima, who accepted the relocation of the Futenma base to Nago, is expected to be pitted against Takeshi Onaga, mayor of Naha, who is opposed to the relocation within the prefecture.
Nakaima has called for a halt to the operation of the Futenma base within five years.
However, he trails Onaga by a large margin, according to a survey by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
If a candidate who is opposed to the relocation of Futenma within Okinawa Prefecture wins, the administration could end up in deep water.
The relocation of Futenma to Nago, which the government has worked on since 1999, would “become effectively impossible,” according to a senior Defense Ministry official.
At a July 22 news conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, in an effort to appeal to Okinawa voters, stressed that the central government’s recent move is aimed at reducing Okinawa’s burden.
“More than 70 percent of U.S. bases in Japan are concentrated in Okinawa, and the U.S. military has served as a deterrent force for Japan,” he said. “Japan should do all it can on the mainland to ease the burden for Okinawa.”
According to a senior official with the ministry, Suga and a limited number of politicians as well as bureaucrats have worked on the plan to use Saga Airport for stationing Osprey.
Some sources said the administration picked Saga Airport to take advantage of its financial difficulties. The prefectural government painted a rosy picture for its future before the 1998 opening, forecasting 808,000 users annually in 2005.
But the highest number was 372,010 in 2013.
The government is considering providing grants to Saga Prefecture under a new setup to help localities in a burden-sharing effort with regard to U.S. bases.
A possible stumbling block for the Saga prefectural government is its pact with local fishermen’s cooperatives in 1990 about the construction of the airport.
The pact states: “The prefectural government has no intention of sharing Saga Airport with the SDF.”
The deployment of the U.S. Marine’s Osprey aircraft is expected to draw more fire in the prefecture due to reports on the crimes committed by American servicemen on Okinawa, in addition to noise and the aircraft’s patchy safety record.
Some locals have already blasted the proposed deployment of SDF Osprey at the airport.
“I am concerned about the deployment because of crimes by U.S. military personnel,” said a 53-year-old fisherman whose home is 3 kilometers from Saga Airport.
But he said he will find it hard to say no since the central government is pushing the idea to reduce Okinawa’s burden.
The central government has not discussed how many U.S. troops will be shifted to Saga Prefecture.