Landfill work proceeds off the Henoko district of Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, for the construction of a U.S. military base. (Masaru Komiyaji)

For nearly half a century, mainland Japan has been criticized for foisting the bulk of the nation’s security load on Okinawa Prefecture and largely ignoring the consequences of that arrangement as a distant problem.

But now, as Okinawa marks the 47th anniversary of its reversion to Japan from U.S. military rule on May 15, moves are slowly spreading across the country to alleviate the prefecture’s disproportionate burden of hosting U.S. military facilities.

The shift was led by a citizens group in Okinawa and the central government’s push over local opposition to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within the prefecture, from Ginowan to the Henoko district of Nago.

The citizens group in late March sent a petition to the heads of all 1,788 local assemblies in Japan, from villages to prefectures. It urged the assemblies to adopt resolutions to start a debate on the Futenma relocation issue as if it was their own problem, either for or against the plan, in a democratic manner.

The petition noted that all local governments in Japan are potential sites for transfers of U.S. military facilities.

Members of the same group played a central role in the Okinawa government’s decision to hold a prefecture-wide referendum on the relocation issue in February.

Group member Nagatsugu Asato, a judicial scrivener in Naha, said they are trying to reach out to local bodies throughout Japan to get them to take the U.S. base issue seriously.

“Discrimination against Okinawans by people on the mainland, demonstrated in the form of relocating the Futenma airfield within the prefecture, must stop,” said Asato, 47. “We would like people across the nation to debate the U.S. base issue as their own problem.”

Although the southernmost island prefecture represents only 0.6 percent of the nation’s land, it is home to about 70 percent of all U.S. military facilities in Japan.

When the relocation proposal first emerged in the 1990s, the ratio was about 75 percent.

The Cabinet approved the Futenma relocation plan to Henoko in 1999. And the central government has since insisted that the transfer is needed to reduce Okinawa’s burden by removing the most dangerous U.S. base from a crowded residential area of Ginowan.

But the plan has never been approved by the Diet nor gained the consent from Okinawans.

Okinawans expressed their view in the February referendum, where 72 percent voted against relocating the air station within the prefecture.

Opponents of the plan want the Futenma air station closed, with no transfer of its functions.

“If people are still calling for the Futenma relocation, the new site should be selected in prefectures other than Okinawa under a fair and democratic method,” Asato said.

The assemblies’ initial response to the group’s petition drew little hope for action.

About 130 assemblies told the group that they would deliver copies of the petition to members, but they have no plans to debate the issue because it was not raised by local residents.

However, signs of change have emerged.

In Hanamaki, Iwate Prefecture, Yoshihisa Masuko, a former assemblyman, submitted a similar petition to the city assembly on May 13.

Masuko, 79, said he did so because a petition from outside the city would never be included on the assembly’s agenda.

“National security is an issue that concerns everybody, no matter where they live,” he said. “It is time for local assemblies on the mainland to respond to Okinawa’s call and start debating the issue.”

According to the Lower House secretariat, since April 2018, at least 10 local assemblies, including Sakai city in Osaka Prefecture and Iwate Prefecture, have adopted resolutions calling for a halt to the landfill work off Henoko and a resumption of dialogue between the central and Okinawa prefectural governments.

In Koganei and Kodaira, cities on the outskirts of Tokyo, members of civic groups have set up petitions urging discussions of the base issue at their assemblies.

“I am hoping that people in many parts of Japan will take our wishes seriously and start taking action,” Asato said.

A coalition of about 10 private groups published a book in April that demands the relocation of U.S. bases in Okinawa to the mainland. It is titled, “Okinawa no Beigun Kichi o ‘Hondo’ de Hikitoru” (Japan’s mainland should accept the relocation of U.S. bases from Okinawa), and was published by Tokyo-based Commons.

The groups, whose bases include Osaka, Fukuoka, Tokyo and Niigata, discuss why they were formed and relay their messages in the book.

Yukimura Sakon, associate professor of Russian history at Niigata University and one of the book’s editors, said people on the mainland are effectively complicit in thrusting U.S. bases on Okinawa by turning away from what is happening in the prefecture.

Those on the mainland support the Japan-U.S. security alliance and reap the defense benefits, but they still refuse to play host to U.S. military installations in their backyards, he said.

Sakon, 39, said he is fully aware of the enormity of the challenge in moving some U.S. bases from Okinawa to other parts of Japan. But he said it is important to voice doubts about the current setup in which Okinawa has been forced to shoulder most of the burden.

“Discussing the U.S. base issue in Okinawa will inevitably lead us to examine our society as a whole from the viewpoint of security, democracy and local autonomy,” he said.

(This article was written by Eishi Kado and Go Katono.)