Last month, media reported that the Japanese government would be purchasing a small island off the coast of Kagoshima to build a new military training facility. Although technically it will be a joint-use facility under Japan’s Self Defense Force administration, the primary driver behind the acquisition is to provide a location for U.S. carrier-based aircraft to conduct landing practice. While most of the news reports offered some baseline explanations on this, they only scratched the surface of this intriguing story which touches on many of the complex issues surrounding U.S. bases in Japan.
Why, for example, is it that an uninhabited island that has not yet been purchased for military use already look like someone had cleared and graded it for an airfield? Or, why was an Okinawan politician making the rounds in Washington calling the island his “Final Solution?” Why would the Japanese government build a new facility for U.S. military training when there are already airfields elsewhere? And, why has it taken over a decade to get to where we are now?
The saga of Mageshima does not begin with the U.S.-Japan alliance; rather, this is only where the island has ended up after a long line of speculators have tried and failed to make something of the deserted, eight square kilometer block of land. Before losing all of its inhabitants, Mageshima only housed a small population of about 100 families, but its remote location and absence of economic prospects led to an exodus. Like other small Japanese islands, the primary industry was fishing and farming, but without government subsidization, there was little incentive to halt movement to the neighboring Tanegashima or Kyūshū.
A U.S. base is only the most recent of a long line of plans for utilizing the island
The population continued to dwindle until the final resident departed in 1980, and as landowners began moving out, speculators moved in. In 1974, the Heiwa Sogo Bank (now part of the Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation) acquired most of the island looking for the next big economic opportunity. There were several ideas of what that opportunity could be. Some thought of developing it as a nature-driven leisure destination like the neighboring Yakushima. Others considered it as a potential Self-Defense Force radar site. The bank even considered it for oil and spent-nuclear fuel storage.
When a company first broached the idea of an airfield on the island, it was not for U.S.-military usage, but as a backup airfield for spacecraft. In 1995, Tateishi Construction (later, Taston Airport) purchased 99.6 percent of the island in hopes that it could become the home for the HOPE space vehicle. The prospect seemed viable considering that the neighboring island of Tanegashima had become the primary space launch location for the Japan Space Exploration Agency (JAXA). When that project failed to materialize, Taston Airport fell back on the same projects that Heiwa Sogo had tried, losing money in land taxes every year until a new prospect emerged.
This is when the U.S.-Japan alliance comes into the story. For years, the Seventh Fleet’s Carrier Air Wing conducted its “Field Carrier Landing Practice” (FCLP) on existing bases on Honshu (primarily, Atsugi Air Base in Kanagawa Prefecture and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture). The problem with FCLP is that it requires a large volume of aircraft to take-off and land on a shortened portion of the runway. These operations are loud and need to be done both day and night to ensure full qualification.
Mageshima’s isolated location makes it ideal for certain operations that generate noise
While the U.S. military is perfectly content conducting its training at existing bases, noise complaints from the local communities and concerns over other impacts led the Japanese government to insist that FCLP be done at separate facilities away from population centers. The Japanese government offered Iwo-to (formerly known as Iwo Jima), and the U.S. Navy has conducted its carrier landing practice on the remote island since 1991. There was another problem though: the sheer distance – over 1000 kilometers from Honshū – and the degraded conditions of the Maritime Self Defense Force facility there prompted another round of negotiations between the two governments.
In 2006, the U.S. and Japanese governments agreed upon the Defense Policy Realignment Initiative (DPRI), which was comprised of 19 interdependent projects. Among them was finding a new location for FCLP. The U.S. government had two major stipulations: first, that the alternate location must be configured to conduct the training; and second, that it must be within 100 nautical miles of an existing U.S. base.
When the two governments decided upon this in 2006, they agreed to find a viable candidate location by 2009. This is when Taston Airport jumped at the chance. Though Mageshima is not within 100 nautical miles of a U.S. base (it is about 215nm from Iwakuni), Taston Airport made sure it was the only candidate location in the government’s mind. The company sent construction equipment to the island and graded out future runways; hence why every overhead shot of Mageshima now looks like it is already well on its way for supporting airfield operations.
There’s a reason why Mageshima already looks ready to handle airplanes – despite never being used as an airport or airbase
Word spread of Mageshima being selected for FCLP, and the Japan Communist Party put its full weight behind building opposition to the plan. In March 2008, prominent JCP politician Akamine Seiken traveled to the island to block its selection and residents in the surrounding islands joined the opposition. As for the Japanese government, at this point it was nowhere nearer to any other solution, as it officially notified the U.S. government in 2008 that there were no viable candidate locations.
To open up additional sites, the U.S. Navy agreed in 2009 to examine options beyond the 100nm threshold, but the Japanese government declined to provide a new list until after the next Lower House elections. Of course, those next elections saw the first change-in-government since 1993 when the Democratic Party of Japan took over, so negotiations reset and stretched even longer. It was not until January 2011 that then-Minister of Defense Kitazawa Toshimi formally explained to the U.S. Secretary of Defense that Mageshima was the primary option.
This is when the negotiations between the Japanese government and Taston Airport really got interesting. The Japanese government appraised the value of the island at 4.5 billion yen, but Taston Airport issued a counter-demand of approximately ten times that amount. The company was logically trying to recoup its costs that it had lost over the years, and as the only candidate location, it had significant leverage over the government. In response, the Japanese government set about negotiating the purchase of the other 0.4 percent of the land from remaining private landowners, deciding to wait out Taston Airport. They would be waiting a long time.
The different valuation that the Japanese government and the private developer assigned to the island is one reason why development has taken so long
In the meantime, other Japanese lawmakers were getting their own ideas for Mageshima; among them being Okinawan politician and a former minister in the DPJ-government Shimoji Mikio. In May 2016, Shimoji pitched an idea to the late-Okinawan Governor Onaga Takeshi: use Mageshima as an alternative Futenma Replacement Facility so that U.S. Marine Corps aircraft would move off Okinawa. Onaga then traveled to the Mageshima himself in July 2016 to examine this proposal. Shimoji followed up his pitch by traveling to Washington, D.C. that August to make the proposal to U.S. officials. His “mission,” as he called it, was to convince U.S. lawmakers and bureaucrats to transform Mageshima into something more than simply a site for carrier landing practice. Unaware of the awkward connotation of his title, Shimoji literally called it his “Final Solution” to the Futenma problem. Unsurprisingly, Shimoji was unsuccessful in his pitch, not only because of the title of course, but because Henoko has long been called the “only solution” to the Futenma issue.
After eight years of negotiation, the Japanese government’s waiting game finally paid off. A change in leadership at Taston Airport disturbed the negotiation process for a few months in 2019, but eventually they settled on a final price of 16 billion yen, just under four times the government’s original appraisal of the island back in 2011. The deal is set to be concluded by March 2020, at which point the government will shift its focus to construction of a new SDF base that can also meet the requirements for the U.S. Navy’s FCLP.
This does not in the least mean that Mageshima is a done deal. Owning the land and building the base are one thing, but actually moving forward with operations hits two additional issues for the Japanese government: subsidies and local acceptance. The nature of Japanese subsidies tied to base-hosting are such that the government must work with local constituencies to calculate the impact that such operations would have. That includes noise assessments, housing and support for personnel operating in the area, and other considerations, all of which would require delivery of benefits to the community.
The deal is still not entirely completed and the saga may drag on
Even with subsidies in place, the government would have to seek local acceptance. Ever since the idea first emerged of using Mageshima as the home for a new facility, local residents have issued formal protests to the Japanese government. This trend continued as an anti-FCLP candidate, Yaita Shunsuke, became mayor of Nishinoomote which maintains jurisdiction over the island. Yaita will hold his post until at least 2021, meaning the ruling LDP-Komeito coalition will do whatever it can either to get one of their candidates elected or to curry enough favor from Yaita to gain acceptance for the project. Both of those actions are politically charged and with unknown outcomes.
The government’s intent is now to complete the facility by the end of 2022, but if the saga of Magashima has taught us anything, it is that the best laid plans for the island have a way of unraveling. Will this time be different? Whatever the outcome, the story is far from over.
Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special advisor for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield Fellow.