Postcard From…Futenma

okinawa postcardThis is shaping up to be the toughest year for Futenma Air Station since one of its helicopters crashed into a nearby university six years ago. That accident cemented calls to move the Marine Corps base from its current location in crowded Ginowan City to Henoko, a less populated area in the north of Okinawa Island, Japan’s southernmost prefecture. As details slowly emerged of underhanded construction deals and the potential destruction of Henoko’s ecosystem, though, public dissatisfaction with the plan grew. The opposition Democratic Party of Japan took advantage of this mood when they came to power last year on a platform to scrap the proposed relocation and move the base elsewhere.

Soon after the new government took office, however, it soon revealed that it had no idea where to transfer Futenma. Almost daily, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and his cabinet came up with different — and often contradictory — sites. Their approval rating plummeted 50 points, and Ginowan’s residents poured into the streets in a 90,000-person show of anger. In June, Hatoyama announced what everyone had realized long before – he was going to stick with the Henoko plan. Before he could be called to account, he resigned and left his Okinawa affairs minister to tour the island, apologizing to the local mayors for the government’s failure.

Throughout the kerfuffle, the U.S. military remained ominously quiet. But as the rainy season cleared and summer came to Okinawa, the military made plans for the base’s annual Futenma Flightline Festival. Here was a perfect opportunity to open the gates of the base to the public and heal the wounds of the past few months. Here was a chance to prove that press reports about the base’s unpopularity had been exaggerated and local residents really did value the jobs and dollars brought by the several thousand military personnel.

Pulling out all the stops to recreate a little slice of America, Marine Corps Community Services set up pizza stalls and bouncy castles. There was a hotdog eating contest. And residents had a chance to don a padded bomb suit that was able, according to its proud tech officer, to withstand the blast of a 100-pound artillery shell. Also on display were the latest jeeps, jets, and choppers.

But there was one important weapon that the military had forgotten to roll out — its shiny, well-oiled PR machine.

When the base commander, Colonel Dale Smith, took the stage to deliver his welcome speech, there were no squads of Marines to oorah his arrival. Nor were there any cheering military spouses or eager members of Japanese-American friendship associations. On hand were only a couple of locals who chatted among themselves about the dance act scheduled to come next. This no-show was infinitely more embarrassing than a hail of eggs, boos, or shoes. As he brought his speech to a quick close, the sound of three people clapping made the abysmal turnout all the starker.

A few moments later, I walked over to the colonel. Thinking he’d be thankful for some human contact, I shook his hand. When I mentioned Futenma’s recent troubles and commented that he must be excited about the upcoming move, though, his mood turned sour. If I wanted to talk politics, he said, I should make an appointment with his secretary.

Jon Mitchell writes regularly for The Japan Times on Okinawan social issues. He is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus, as well as Counterpunch and Japan Focus.