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Why US military bases divide Okinawa and mainland Japan

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Protesters gather holding placards reading 'NO to the new base in Henoko!' during a demonstration against the construction of a new US military base in an environmentally sensitive part of the island in Nago city, Okinawa island on 28 April 2015. (Photo: AAP)

In Brief

Okinawa is trapped in a dilemma regarding US military bases in the prefecture. For the past 70 years, the bases have helped deter external attacks on Japan, including on Okinawa. But with over 25,000 US military personnel in Okinawa, and about 18 per cent of its land area being used by the US military, the presence of the bases endangers the lives and properties of the local people.


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Since the 27-year US occupation of Okinawa, accidents and crimes committed by US military personnel have instilled a sense of fear among locals. Recent reports that North Korean and Chinese missiles can reach Okinawa enhance the fear of entrapment. Any hostilities between China and Japan could also affect locals due to Okinawa’s proximity to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

The most prominent political battle is over the relocation of US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. About 100,000 people live around the edges of the Futenma air station in Ginowan. There is a university and 19 schools. The rape of a teenage school girl by a US Marine in 1995 intensified local frustrations and an agreement was reached between the Japanese and US governments to relocate Futenma within Okinawa. But it is a difficult condition for the people of Okinawa to accept.

The issue of US bases has turned into a confrontation between Okinawa and the Japanese central government.

In December 2013, the former Okinawa governor Hirokazu Nakaima approved the landfill of Oura Bay in Henoko to construct a replacement facility of the Futenma air station. Since then the Japanese government has been investigating drilling in the area. The Okinawa Defense Bureau (ODB) has restricted access to the investigation area as well as the planned construction site.

On 23 March, Okinawa’s new Governor Takeshi Onaga ordered the ODB to stop the drilling surveys because there was a high probability that the concrete blocks used to anchor marking floats were damaging coral on the seabed. But on 30 March, the Minister of Agriculture Yoshimasa Hayashi invalidated the governor’s order.

Both the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and the Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have since met with Onaga on the issue. Abe and Suga both stated that relocating to Henoko is the only solution, but Onaga stressed, ‘I have a strong conviction that a new base cannot be constructed in Henoko’. In his meeting with Suga, Onaga argued that US bases were constructed against the will of local residents during the occupation. He stated that ‘Okinawa has never offered voluntarily its land for military bases’.

Onaga’s position is somewhat surprising given that it contradicts that of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), of which he used to be the Okinawa Chapter’s president. Despite this, Onaga led the January 2013 protests against building a new military base in Henoko and argues that his opposition is consistent with Japan’s national interests.

Onaga’s determination is backed by a series of election victories. The results of the Nago mayoral election, the gubernatorial election and the lower house election show that many people of Okinawa believe there is a third option regarding the Futenma relocation that does not involve either the Henoko plan or continued use of Futenma air station.

Japan’s government has reiterated that the base must be relocated within Okinawa, but the locals are not convinced. Many locals believe that because US marines are not stationed permanently in Futenma, but rather rotate within the West Pacific, maintaining the base is not necessary to deter an attack on Japan. And even if the Futenma base was relocated, the US Kadena air base and Japanese Self-Defense Forces based in Naha would continue their daily efforts to maintain regional defence and stability.

The people of Okinawa do not dislike the United States. They understand the importance of the Japan–US alliance. They like American culture so much that one former US military base has been turned into a commercial town named American Village. Open-base festivals are also exciting seasonal events for young people and families. But the residents do feel that the negative impacts of US bases — both current and historical — are too heavy. Their minimum demand is that there will be no new base in Henoko.

So can Okinawa and mainland Japan find a compromise on US military bases? Onaga has suggested that Abe tell US President Barack Obama that Okinawa is strongly against the current Futenma relocation plan. But Abe is unlikely to do so because Japan has pledged to uphold the current plan.

If the Japanese government truly believes that the Henoko base is the only option, it will need to convince the people of Okinawa. This will require explaining why all the other options were rejected. The Abe government also needs to reach out to Okinawa and try to understand why it opposes the current plan.

Okinawa must refrain from simply rejecting national policy. Okinawa must instead elaborate a strategy for effectively conveying its concerns to Tokyo and Washington, as well as to other countries if necessary. If Okinawa and mainland Japan do not both make a serious effort to resolve the problem, the Futenma air station will continue to a danger to locals and a thorn in US-Japan alliance relations for decades to come.

Shino Hateruma is a PhD candidate at the Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies, Waseda University. She worked as a researcher at the Regional Security Policy Division, Okinawa Prefectural Government from July 2013 to March 2015.

9 responses to “Why US military bases divide Okinawa and mainland Japan”

  1. It is good to see the Okinawa problem recognised. I would like to make a couple of comments, however. Perhaps the greatest damage to the Okinawan people presented by the continual presence of huge US bases here is economic. With no military presence, there is simply nothing to attack. With the huge US bases on this island, Okinawa becomes a primary target. And for this reason, investors keep away. Okinawa is a tourist paradise, with its very mild climate, its own living culture, very friendly people and gorgeous beaches and nature. The Tokyo government completely ignores the feelings of Okinawans. The huge new base in Henoko is being built directly against the wishes of the Okinawan people. The coral reefs in the area – some of the most beautiful in the world – are being destroy with the laying of two 1.7 kilometre runways. The Okinawan Dugong, an endangered species will be extinct as a result of this. The beautiful beaches of Amami Oshima are being destroyed to provide sand for the concrete for these structures. This has to stop. It has gone too far. Please do what you can to make people aware of this problem.

    • I appreciate your comments. Your point about economic damage of US bases is true. After 9.11 happened the number of tourists to Okinawa dropped dramatically. It was an example that the local economy was affected by the presence of US military.
      I understand your opinion that the effort to raise awareness of Okinawan maritime environment is necessary. It will help thicken the layer of anti-Henoko plan. However, it leads to different discussions: do the people of Okinawa accept landfill not for a base but for beaches and housing? The land area of Okinawa has been expanding due to landfill for housing and tourism development. Governor Onaga argues that the Henoko landfill would deprive Okinawa of control over its land and sea because the landfill area is to be nationalized. Nevertheless, the Okinawan development policy gives a weak point of the opposition of the Heonoko construction for the sake of environmental damage.
      Another question is how much environmental consciousness weighs against strategy and national/ regional security reason. The environmental assessment has already done by the Japanese government. Thus, environmental impacts were considered on the administrative procedure.

  2. Shino San,

    Very nice article. I recently retired from the Marine Corps where I was a Japan Desk Officer for Marine Forces Pacific. I worked Japan/US alliance issues for the Marine Corps. I have been to MOD/Ichigaya and Okinawa many times and have been stationed at Camp Schwab.
    The Okinawa people are correct there are other options for the FRF on Okinawa instead of Heneko and they make much better sense then Heneko.

    Unfortunately, instead of looking to the future of the alliance DPRI and SACO was negotiated by looking at the past and we are paying the price for those poorly negotiated agreements.

    I care very much about the Japan-US Alliance and I also care about Okinawa and its beautiful people.


    ps-I will actually be at Waseda Business School this summer on an exchange with UCLA.

    • Jeff san,

      Thank you so much for your kind comment. It is very nice to hear opinions from different perspectives.

      I am much interested in your saying the current realignment plan was negotiated by looking at the past not the future. I assume you mean that if the negotiators had sought for more stable/sustainable deployment in Okinawa, or a plan that could gain more support from the people in Okinawa, results would have been different.

  3. “Since the 27-year US occupation of Okinawa, accidents and crimes committed by US military personnel have instilled a sense of fear among locals.”

    Seems like unwarranted fear mongering to me.

    A review of official police statistics for 2014 shows the number of U.S. servicemembers, family members and civilians under SOFA jurisdiction accused of committing crimes on Okinawa continued its downward trend to bottom out at the lowest figure since the prefecture’s return to Japan more than four decades ago.

    The Okinawa Prefectural Police made 3,410 total arrests last year, and a mere 27 involved SOFA personnel.

    The number of SOFA personnel arrested for serious crimes such as arson, murder or rape was just one for the entire year, and the charges were later dropped by the police.

    On a per-capita basis, the Japanese are much more likely to be involved in crimes of all sorts on Okinawa.

    • Thank you so much for finding this article and making a comment. I am fully aware of the police statistics that show the dropping number of crimes conducted by U.S. service members. I believe that behind the number the U.S. military stationed in Okinawa made constant efforts for improvement such as education to newly assigned troops and other preventive measures. However, what is puzzling is that despite the fact that much less crimes by U.S. service members, the people in Okinawa still have “unwarranted” fear.
      A criminological perspective offers an answer. It is “fear of crime” that flourishes among local communities. Once you face that fear through news or story, you bear it and even if time goes by, it comes back when you anticipate potential threats that might harm you. This tendency is not exclusive case seen in Okinawa. In Japan, for example, the number of crimes dropped in the past decades, people think the society is not safe (You can refer to the opinion poll Crime itself has been decreased but the source of the fear is not casted aside. To get rid of this fear, both the U.S. military and the people in Okinawa need to seek for measures. For the former, effort to build a good image could be one thing, while the latter may be able to face the fear by comparing their own assumption with the reality.

  4. Professor Joseph Nye of Harvard’s Kennedy School, who served under Bill Clinton, said that it is not necessary for the US bases to be concentrated on Okinawa. In fact, he said, given the modern weaponry – eg, submarines carrying ballistic missiles – it would be wiser for the US military personnel to be more dispersed and moved around and not be concentrated and fixed in Okinawa. Richard Armitage and defense experts agreed and said that, if Japan were to propose another location within Japan, US WOULD consider it as an alternative to Henoko. Strategically and operationally, it does not have to be within Okinawa.

    So, then, why does Tokyo insist on the replacement site of Futenma airbase to be Henoko and refuse to even consider any other location on the Japanese mainland? Because no other prefecture is willing to do so, even with the huge sums of money Tokyo would give them every year for the use of their land by the US military. But why is that so? If the US-Japan Alliance is so important for Japan’s security AND the bases do not have to be on Okinawa, AND Tokyo is willing to continue to reward the host prefecture with big money, then why is it that no prefecture is raising its hand high? This is a very important question to ask when trying to understand Okinawa Governor Onaga’s and the majority of Okinawan people’s big NO to the relocation of US bases to Henoko.

    Consider the following facts for starters: US military stored nuclear weapons on Okinawa and on the islands of Chichi-jima and Iwo Jima in the 50’s and 60’s. This was a big dark secret the US kept from the public during the period. Needless to say, it was a violation of the treaty the US had with Japan. This fact came to light only in the late 90’s when previously classified documents were declassified. But perhaps for the Okinawans, the most shocking news was that the very top officials within the Japanese government knew about it but looked the other way and kept totally silent. Furthermore, dozens of barrels were found last year buried in the former military grounds on Okinawa containing Agent Orange and military defoliants which had been used by the US during the Vietnam War. Even though those chemicals hidden in the grounds actually harmed many of the marines stationed there, the US military had been denying their existence to its own men. No military that willfully lies to its own cannot be trusted to behave in civilized manners towards the land and the people they pretend to be protecting against presumed “enemies”.

    In addition to the above-mentioned violations to the treaty between the US and the Japanese governments that, rather than being addressed and dealt with for the sake of everyone’s safety, were deliberately hidden by the both governments from the public and ignored, there are today also issues of noise pollutions from ospreys flying so low all day all night and of heinous crimes being committed by some unruly US military men stationed on Okinawa. Furthermore, despite arguments to the contrary, having US military bases taking up the best properties on Okinawa is more a serious detriment to Okinawa’s economic growth and development than otherwise. Recent analyses done by the prefectural government and third parties prove that potentials for local employment gains and economic growth are many folds greater without the presence of the US bases than with them. This conclusion remains the same even when considering the loss of the huge sums of money Tokyo is currently paying Okinawa that enriches only a very small percentage of the Okinawan population.

    For all these reasons and more, nobody on mainland Japan wants to host US military bases. After all, some of the Marines stationed on Okinawa today had been on other locations on mainland Japan before they were moved to Okinawa as the result of violent local protests against the US Military presence in their backyard. It would be a great political challenge for PM Abe’s government to ask prefectures outside of Okinawa to take the US military bases back now. But is it really fair for a prefecture that is only 0.6% of Japan to have to bear over 70% of the total US military presence in Japan for so long? Is it really democratic to do so when the overwhelming majority of the voters in Okinawa oppose it? Do the US and the Japanese governments really want to take the risk of letting a large-scale anti-US base movement already spreading from Okinawa to mainland Japan to grow and potentially become more violent?

    • “heinous crimes being committed by some unruly US military men stationed on Okinawa”

      I addressed this issue with official statistics in my first comment. What exactly are all these heinous crimes you are talking about?

  5. “US military stored nuclear weapons on Okinawa and on the islands of Chichi-jima and Iwo Jima in the 50’s and 60’s. This was a big dark secret the US kept from the public during the period. Needless to say, it was a violation of the treaty the US had with Japan.”

    Those islands were under the control of the U.S. in the 1950s and most of the ’60s, and not Japanese sovereignty. The Japanese government, wishing to be under the protection of the U.S. nuclear umbrella during the Cold War and with grave concerns about a potentially hostile communist China, was party to the deception as well.

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