U.S. warships not welcome in Hokkaido


While U.S. Ambassador Thomas Foley was receiving an award Jan. 9 aboard the USS Blue Ridge for his contribution to increased visits by U.S. naval vessels to Japanese ports, the mayor of Tomakomai, Hokkaido, was expressing opposition to a planned February visit to his town by the flagship.

And this local-level opposition seems to typify the attitude toward U.S. forces in Japan. Despite expectations that the new U.S. administration of George W. Bush will call for closer security links with Japan, those ties have not been progressing at the local level.

Even before the Ehime Maru was accidently sunk by a U.S. submarine off Hawaii, relations between local governments and U.S. forces in Japan were strained — especially in municipalities that host U.S. bases. Some towns in Okinawa, for example, have been calling for the total withdrawal of U.S. Marines from their neighborhood in the wake of a series of incidents involving U.S. servicemen. Opposition from local municipalities, particularly to port calls by U.S. ships, has caused headaches for the Japanese and U.S. governments as authority over the use of major port facilities lies with local governments.

The guidelines for Japan-U.S. defense cooperation, updated in 1997, call for cooperation in cases of “emergencies in areas surrounding Japan.”

On such occasions, Japan is expected to open its ports and airports to the Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. military for transportation of material and personnel, water supply and care for wounded. Local government support is indispensable for these operations.

Contingency plans

The guidelines require the SDF and the U.S. military in Japan to plan for envisioned emergency cooperation. Japan, however, remains reluctant to cite specific ports that may be used in emergency situations due to fear of possible repercussions from the municipalities that control the facilities.

“Of course, ideally, (the plan for mutual cooperation) should be a concrete one . . . but given the circumstances in Japan, it would be difficult to specify ports and other facilities in the course of planning,” said Tomoharu Yoda, an Upper House member and former administrative vice minister of the Defense Agency.

In asking for permission to use Tomakomai port, U.S. authorities said the Feb. 7 visit by the Blue Ridge, which is forward deployed to the navy base at Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, was to promote friendship and allow the crew to visit the annual snow festival in Sapporo.

Tomakomai Mayor Tadayuki Torikoshi opposed the request on the grounds that the port in the southern Hokkaido city would be too crowded with commercial ships to accept the 19,200 ton amphibious command ship. He explained that some 17,000 ships pass through the port each year.

Torikoshi is serving his fourth four-year term with the support of labor unions, which oppose port calls by military vessels because they view them as possible preparation for Japan-U.S. defense cooperation. Their alarm was compounded by the fact that it would have been the first visit to Tomakomai by a U.S. military vessel since 1989.

Under strong pressure from the central government, however, the mayor offered a compromise and allowed the Blue Ridge to dock at the east port in the suburbs of Tomakomai instead of the west port in the downtown area.

As Feb. 7 dawned, hundreds of protesters, mainly labor unionists, awaited the arrival of the Blue Ridge at the east port. The vessel did not arrive, however, because the U.S. Navy said the designated berth was too shallow.

Otaru mayor explicit

But Otaru Mayor Katsumaro Yamada was more explicit in his objections when the Yokosuka-deployed USS John S. MacCain was to visit from Feb. 20 to 23. He said the major Hokkaido port, about 80 km northeast of Tomakomai, would not welcome the ship, citing strong opposition among local residents.

By contrast, that opposition was nowhere to be seen when the aircraft carrier USS Independence, the missile cruiser USS Mobile Bay and the Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer Shirane visited the city in 1997. Around 350,000 people went to the port to see the vessels — an extraordinary turnout considering the city’s population of around 150,000.

Protesters stage a demonstration as the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk enters Hokkaido’s Otaru port in October.

But when the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk visited in October, Yamada, who was elected after the 1997 visit by the Independence, was apparently reluctant and did not allow the accompanying missile cruiser USS Vincennes into the port.

City officials claimed permission for the Vincennes to dock was rejected because there was no berth available and paperwork declaring the ship to be free of nuclear weapons had not been completed.

Yamada did not attend welcoming ceremonies hosted by local business organizations “due to a business trip,” which, a local daily said, displayed “his utmost resistance against the port call.”

When the request for the John S. MacCain’s port call came only three months after the departure of the Kitty Hawk, the mayor cited the “feelings of citizens” as the reason for declining the request.

Then came news that the Ehime Maru, a fisheries training ship from Ehime Prefecture, had been sunk off Hawaii by the surfacing submarine USS Greeneville on Feb. 9. The U.S. Navy in Japan told the city that the John S. MacCain’s visit was “postponed out of respect for the feelings of families involved in (the Ehime Maru) tragedy and the people of Japan.”

Hiroshi Niikura, organizer of a citizen’s group based in Yokosuka that opposes U.S. naval vessels’ visits to commercial ports in Japan, said the Otaru mayor’s opposition due to public sentiment was significant because it demonstrated the importance of local autonomy, even in matters of national security.

According to Niikura, the number of visits by U.S. naval ships to commercial ports increased sharply after 1996, when Tokyo and Washington began discussions on updating the bilateral defense cooperation guidelines.

The ports of Tomakomai and Otaru were two of the commercial ports and airports that U.S. forces reportedly told the Defense Agency they hoped to utilize in the event of “emergencies in areas surrounding Japan.”

Ulterior motives?

Internal documents from the U.S. forces in Japan that were widely reported upon in 1997 show that the U.S. forces have detailed data on commercial ports nationwide, including Otaru and Kobe. The information contains everything from anchoring points to nearby entertainment facilities.

“The U.S. forces won’t be satisfied unless they check everything on their own,” said a senior Defense Agency official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They don’t even trust information from their allies.”

The U.S. Navy has said visits by its vessels to commercial ports are to enhance goodwill between U.S. and Japanese people and to allow the crew to see the sights and experience the culture of Japan. Opponents, however, believe there is an ulterior motive.

Katsumi Kumagai, leader of a labor group in Tomakomai, said the Blue Ridge could have docked at the nearby Muroran port, which is not as busy as Tomakomai, if the visit was simply to let the crew attend the snow festival. “The navy badly needed to use the Tomakomai port,” which is close to Chitose Airport and with which the navy has so far been unfamiliar.

Local union members suspect the navy wanted to use the more convenient west port in Tomakomai for the same reason and its citing of a shallow berth in the east port had merely been a pretense.

So who has the final say if local municipalities and the central government differ on cooperating with the U.S. military?

Cooperation not mandatory

In seeking Diet approval of legislation necessary to cover the updated defense cooperation guidelines, the government explained that cooperation by local governments is not mandatory but they “are expected to appropriately exercise their authority.”

The Foreign Ministry has argued that U.S. military vessels have the right to visit any port under the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement.

Toyohisa Kouzuki, chief of the Foreign Ministry’s Japan-U.S. Security Treaty Division, said local authorities do not have the right to deny access to U.S. naval vessels.

After announcing the city would accept the Blue Ridge at the east port, Tomakomai Mayor Torikoshi admitted he had no choice but to relent, pointing out that pressure from the Foreign Ministry was “more severe than I had expected.” City officials said the mayor and Foreign Ministry officials discussed the matter at length over the telephone.

In 1998, then Defense Agency chief Fumio Kyuma told the Diet that the Port Law, which bans discrimination against any party when granting use of a port, has priority over local regulations such as those in Kobe barring ships carrying nuclear weapons.

NGO organizer Niikura, however, said it should be remembered that the 1950 law grants chiefs of local municipalities authority to control port use — a stipulation that arose out of regrets from World War II, when local interests were subordinated to those of the military.

Support from businesses

Asked by reporters for comments on protesters at Tomakomai’s east port, Michael Meserve, U.S. consul general in Sapporo, said in February that only some labor union members were protesting and that local business organizations welcomed the Blue Ridge.

Shun Otsuyama, president of the Democratic Party of Japan in Tomakomai, admitted having doubts about the extent to which many local citizens and politicians consider security issues in their stance on U.S. naval visits.

“Even those who welcomed the (Blue Ridge) visit were only anticipating the favorable effects on local economies,” he said, adding that many opponents simply feel they don’t want the ships in their own backyards.