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INTERVIEW | Denny Tamaki, the Okinawa Governor 'At Loggerheads' with Tokyo

In an exclusive interview, Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki talks about his controversial positions and hopes for peaceful islands for the prefecture's residents.



Governor Denny Tamaki during the interview at the Okinawa prefectural headquarters in Naha. (©Sankei by Naoki Otake)

Okinawa Prefecture stands on the frontline of Japan's defenses. China has been increasing military pressure in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. Meanwhile, the Japanese government has been working to strengthen its defense capabilities to protect the nation. However, the government has found itself at increasingly at loggerheads with Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki

Why are Tamaki (64) and the forces who support him fighting Tokyo on the location of military bases and other issues? The Sankei Shimbun sought to learn why the governor and his supporters oppose policies from the central government. Do they believe that their opposition to Tokyo will protect the lives of the people of Okinawa

Following is the first exclusive interview with Governor Tamaki published in The Sankei Shimbun and JAPAN Forward. Tamaki sat down with former Sankei Naha Bureau Chief Hiroyuki Kawase (2020-2021) and responded to questions probing his actual feelings and intentions. 

Excerpts and analysis follow.

Governor Denny Tamaki during the interview at the Okinawa prefectural headquarters in Naha. (©Sankei by Naoki Otake)

Concern About the Excessive Burden of the Bases 

Tamaki's single biggest concern is the plan to relocate the US military's Futenma Air Station located in the densely populated Ginowan City on the main island of Okinawa. Plans call for moving the base to Henoko in Nago City in the northern part of Okinawa Island. 

A fierce opponent of the plan, Tamaki fought in the courts to keep it from going forward. Despite losing the case in Japan's Supreme Court in September 2023, he has not softened his position. That includes refusing to approve the government's application for construction. As a result, it is unclear when the relocation can be completed. He discussed his views in the interview.

Why are you so adamantly opposed to the Henoko relocation plan?

Okinawa is home to 70 percent of the US military installations in Japan. The plan to relocate the airbase to Henoko involves the construction of a new base equipped to handle new functions. It would also solidify the excessive base burden that Okinawa has to bear. 

The public clearly opposes the plan. That has been demonstrated repeatedly during the last three gubernatorial elections and the prefectural referendum on the issue in 2019. 

Then there is the government's own plan. Recently it revealed the presence of soft ground at the foundation of the construction site. Furthermore, the prefecture believes the plan won't quickly eliminate the current dangers at the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. We must seek another solution through dialogue (between the national and prefectural governments). 

The prefecture's opposition has been unyielding. Wouldn't further dialogue simply deepen the standoff? 

Our vision is one of peaceful islands without military bases. To achieve that, it is absolutely essential for the national and prefectural governments to clearly confirm their respective views on phasing out the US military bases. They need to explain how will they gradually reduce the number of US military bases in Okinawa. That includes how to reduce the burden of the bases on Okinawans. 

We would like the government to respond sincerely to our prefecture's request for dialogue.

If the national government agrees to such a dialogue, is there any possibility that Okinawa Prefecture will approve the relocation to Henoko depending on the content of the dialogue?

At this stage, we have no intention of accepting it. One of the themes of the proposed dialogue would be how to relocate the current functions at Futenma without building a new base at Henoko. 

The Henoko plan is a bilateral agreement between the governments of Japan and the United States. It was made after Japan studied various options. Even the Democratic Party of Japan administration led by Yukio Hatoyama eventually came around to the Henoko plan. It seems you are well aware that there is no viable alternative to Henoko.

Even when the DPJ was in power, I called for opposition to the Henoko relocation. 

Former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama gave the following reason for giving up on relocating the base outside Okinawa. He said at the time he received an explanation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was shown a document that stated that the new base site should not be separated (by more than a given distance) from the training grounds on Okinawa Island. 

However, then he said he looked for the document later but found it had disappeared. Someone should be held accountable for the disappearance of the document used to brief the Prime Minister. 

Governor Denny Tamaki during the interview at the Okinawa prefectural headquarters in Naha. (©Sankei by Naoki Otake)

Tokyo is the Problem ー First We Need a Full Explanation

The government is currently considering deploying Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) missile units. They would go to the Sakishima Islands (the Miyakojima and Yaeyama island groups) as well as Okinawa Island. It is also considering developing training grounds in these locations. Governor Tamaki has repeatedly denounced this government policy along with the Henoko relocation. He explained why.

What is your honest opinion of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF)?

I believe that in addition to their defense mission, they also make a significant contribution to the protection of the lives and property of the nation's citizens. That includes the residents of our prefecture through emergency medical transportation and disaster relief. 

If the SDF presence is expanded without reducing the US military forces stationed in Okinawa, however, the burden of the bases on our prefecture will not be alleviated. We are calling for consideration of a system of joint deployment for the SDF and US forces.

Governor, back in 2012 when you were a Diet member you served as a member of the Standing Committee on National Security of the House of Representatives. During a committee meeting, you said, 'It is essential to further strengthen the SDF presence (in the Nansei Islands chain that stretches from south of Kyushu to Yonaguni near Taiwan) and ensure there are adequate personnel there.' Doesn't that contradict your current position? 

I believe what is contradictory is the government's policies. 

At that time a plan for the installation of surveillance radar was being considered and I expressed my support for that. But the deployment of missile units is something entirely different. If a plan is going to be changed, it goes without saying that you should first provide sufficient explanation and seek understanding.

You claim that 70% of the installations used solely by US forces are concentrated in Okinawa. But if you include facilities used jointly by the SDF and the US military, the figure is only 20%. The sharing of bases is proceeding outside Okinawa, and some observers contend the same thing should happen in Okinawa. 

Okinawa Prefecture is of the opinion that to reduce the burden of the bases on the prefecture, SDF as well as US facilities should be taken into account. Both should be included when considering the area occupied by military installations. There are bare minimum requirements. The government must provide adequate explanations and gain the understanding of local residents. Therefore, we will be looking to see whether the government can create such conditions.

Are you closely monitoring such sharing?

Yes, we are.

Two Japan Coast Guard patrol boats (in front) block a Chinese Coast Guard ship (center back) off the coast of Uotsuri Island in the Senkaku Islands, on the morning of April 27. In Ishigaki City, Okinawa Prefecture @Sankei by Naoki Otake)

The Emphasis Should be on Diplomacy 

China is rapidly expanding its military. Therefore, the SDF and US forces need to improve their deterrent strength to protect Japan, including Okinawa. Moreover, China continues to cause provocations, including making repeated incursions into Japan's territorial waters near the Senkaku Islands. Those, too, are part of Okinawa Prefecture.

We asked Governor Tamaki why he assiduously avoids criticizing China. 

Why don't you protest to China about the Senkaku Islands incursions?

Issues regarding sovereignty over territory and territorial waters should be thoroughly discussed between national governments. 

Regarding the Senkaku Islands issue, I think it would be best for both Japan and China to prevent the situation from worsening. That should be through dialogue and consultations. Both sides should strive to build trust through calm and peaceful diplomacy to seek to resolve the issue.

Regarding the base issue, you have repeatedly made protests and demands to the US Embassy in Japan and other US government agencies. Yet you refuse to protest to China. Doesn't that reflect a double standard?

Here in Okinawa, we face an extremely vexing situation. We have the heavy burden of the bases, as well as incidents and accidents caused by US military personnel. I am the governor, responsible for safeguarding the lives and property of the residents of my prefecture. Naturally, I have the responsibility to strongly urge the governments of Japan and the United States to offer adequate responses. 

The Senkaku Islands issue is also a cause for concern among people in the fishing industry. For example, in Ishigaki City, which is the administrative jurisdiction for the Senkakus. 

It is my understanding that the Japan Coast Guard is securely guarding the waters in the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands. They are doing so despite the ongoing high level of tension. 

There is also growing concern about a possible Taiwan emergency. As governor, what measures are you taking to protect the lives of the residents of the prefecture?

Naturally, such things as civil defense training are in accord with the thinking of the central government. But the prefecture is also conducting such things as tabletop exercises, as called for. However, a Taiwan emergency could be a life-or-death situation for the Japanese people as a whole. There should be no unforeseen circumstances. 

I hope the Japanese government will reaffirm Japan's role in maintaining peace and stability in Asia. And I hope to see it go all out in its diplomatic efforts. 

Governor Denny Tamaki during the interview at the Okinawa prefectural headquarters in Naha. (©Sankei by Naoki Otake)

On the Shift from Popular Okinawan to Ideological Politician 

Governor, aren't you being unduly influenced by the opinions from the left?

I have made my positions clear to those who lend me support. That is, I recognize the SDF and I recognize the Japan-US Security Arrangement. Among my supporters are all kinds of people with various ideological beliefs. 

However, as former governor Takeshi Onaga said, what unites the people of our prefecture is identity rather than ideology. 

What the people of Okinawa have desired since before [the Okinawa] reversion is to see a peaceful and prosperous Okinawa. And to create a society in which no one is left behind. As governor of Okinawa, those are my goals as well. I am not motivated by ideology. 

About Denny Tamaki

Denny Tamaki was a popular radio personality who turned politician. He became popular among a wide range of residents of Okinawa Prefecture in part because he did not come across as highly ideological. However, once he started receiving strong backing from the Japan Communist Party and other left-leaning forces, he adopted a high-profile stance of strong confrontation with the Japanese government.

He was born Dennis Tamaki in 1959 in the Yonashiro district (now part of Urama City) on Okinawa Island. His father was a US Marine who returned to the United States before his birth. He has had no contact since then. Instead, he was raised by his Okinawan mother and her female friends. 

Tamaki later changed his legal name to Yasuhiro Tamaki, but continued to use his childhood nickname "Denny." After graduating from the Sophia School of Social Welfare, a trade school in Tokyo, Tamaki worked at a welfare facility and as a music manager. Then, at age 30, he established himself as a musician, DJ, and popular radio personality. He was known for speaking in the Okinawan dialect. 

In 2002 Tamaki was elected to the Okinawa City Council. From there, he then went on to serve four terms as a Lower House Diet member. Tamaki won his first election as Okinawa's governor in 2018 after the sudden death of then-governor Takeshi Onaga in August 2018. He was reelected in 2022. 

Governor Denny Tamaki during the interview at the Okinawa prefectural headquarters in Naha. (©Sankei by Naoki Otake)

Commentary and Analysis

I peppered Governor Denny Tamaki with a series of sharp questions of a kind that the local media in Okinawa rarely ask. Nevertheless, he politely answered all of them. That does not, however, mean that I found the content of his answers very convincing.

To what extent has the governor faced up to the growing severity of the security environment around Okinawa? The relocation of the Futenma Air Station to Henoko was designed to reduce the burden on Okinawans living near it while maintaining an adequate deterrent force. Yet, Tamaki opposes the relocation plan. 

However, Tamaki calls for dialogue between Tokyo and Okinawa Prefecture to resolve the situation. Meanwhile, he admits that even with dialogue, there are no prospects for the prefecture accepting the plan. 

Ruling out compromise hardly provides hope for a realistic solution. 

It also raises serious doubts about whether the governor's stance is enough to protect the residents of the prefecture. Tamaki declined to criticize China in connection with its incursions around the Senkaku Islands. He asserts that it is an issue that should be addressed through consultations between the Japanese and Chinese governments. However, these islands that Beijing has its sights on are part of Okinawa Prefecture. 

Tamaki has leveled criticism at the United States on numerous occasions concerning base issues. His unwillingness to say a bad word about China seems contorted. 

Tamaki also emphasizes that he understands the role of the SDF and agrees that the Japan-US security arrangement is vital. He doubtless has a genuine desire to see Okinawa enjoy peace and prosperity and the Okinawan people be happy. But if that is true, he would helped by adopting a more realistic approach to the administration of Okinawa. 


(Read the interview in Japanese.)

Interview by: Hiroyuki Kawase