Bearing the Burden: An Okinawan Perspective on U.S. Bases

In Okinawa, U.S. military bases are an ever-present issue in local politics. But only once before have residents of the island prefecture been given the chance to express their views on the American presence in a direct vote. This was in 1996, after the rape of a 12-year-old girl by three U.S. servicemen. Sixty percent of voters turned out for the non-binding referendum; of those, nearly 90 percent said they favored a review of the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), the accord that underpins the U.S. military’s activities in Japan.

Okinawans are once again preparing to vote, in a second local referendum set for February 24. Anti-base sentiments are high this time as well; Kyodo polls show that over 67 percent of Okinawan residents’ plan to vote against the central government’s controversial plan to transfer a key U.S. air base to a new location inside the prefecture. Opponents of the plan want the base moved outside Okinawa altogether.

While this referendum, too, will not be legally binding, the occasion will send an important signal to both Tokyo and Washington: Okinawans are unequivocally demanding that their voices be heard and that more be done to address the burden they have been shouldering for almost 75 years. But it is not just the disproportionate distribution of U.S. bases that is a problem — though Okinawa, which comprises a mere 0.6 percent of Japan’s landmass, houses 74.7 percent of all U.S. bases in Japan. It is also the social and cultural aspects that grate.

It is not just the disproportionate burden that is a problem – it is also the social and cultural aspects that grate

Okinawa’s travails have a long history. Traditionally known as the Ryukyu Islands, the region was independent throughout most of it history and it was only in 1867 that the territory was seized by Japan. Okinawans suffered terribly in the so-called “Typhoon of Steel” —  the U.S. invasion during the closing stages of World War II. An estimated 150,000 civilian casualties were killed, both by the Americans and by the Japanese forces that were nominally defending the island. Everything was razed to the ground. The ensuing U.S. occupation of Japan essentially turned Okinawa into an American colony and it was only in 1972 — 27 years after the conclusion of the war — that Okinawa was finally returned to Japan.

Yet the bases remain, and alleviating the burden is easier said than done. Amid the finger pointing over who is responsible for this situation, the population of Okinawa continues to live with the consequences.

The base at the heart of the current referendum, MCAS Futenma, has been dubbed “the most dangerous base in the world” due to its location in the center of densely populated Ginowan city, where the lives of the 100,000 citizens that live around it are put at risk. But moving the base out of Ginowan would simply disrupt the lives of citizens in Nago, its intended new location, not to mention the environmental damage it would cause to the local marine ecosystem in Oura Bay.

Amid the finger pointing over who is responsible for this situation, the population of Okinawa continues to live with the consequences

While the agreement between Tokyo and Washington to relocate Futenma within Okinawa was reached in 1996, it was only in 2012 — after Abe pledged to inject 300 billion yen into the Okinawan economy each year until 2021 — that then-Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima finally agreed to sign the landfill papers required for the base construction in Henoko, a seaside disctrict of Nago. Okinawans viewed this move as a betrayal by Nakaima and it eventually cost him his job, a clear example of the determination of Okinawans to fight back against what they perceived to be discrimination from the central government. The anti-base movement has gone on to reach an all-time high under late Governor Takeshi Onaga and current Governor Denny Tamaki. The latter’s election last year clearly and emphatically expressed Okinawans’ rejection of the Henoko base plan.

Yet the Abe administration continues to forge ahead under the pretext of reducing the excessive burden, stating that there is “no alternative” to the current plan, while the U.S. military dubs the prefecture as the “The Keystone of the Pacific.” This is primarily because of its ideal location — Tokyo, Taipei, Shanghai, Seoul, Pyongyang, and Beijing are all within a 2000 kilometer radius. Both the United States and Japan claim that transferring bases out of the prefecture would strip Japan of its deterrent, a point that has only been stressed further with the rise of China and its assertive behavior in the East China Sea.

These claims don’t stand up upon closer examination. Although Okinawa’s location may be ideal, the Marine Corps can be deployed from anywhere in the Indo-Pacific — Guam, Hawaii, or even mainland Japan. As can be seen from recent U.S. military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, Marines are typically not the first U.S. military assets to be deployed in a conflict. It is the U.S. Air Force that strikes first, followed by aircraft carriers and finally other warships. Only when the ground battle starts are the Marines deployed.

Claims that Okinawa’s bases are essential for deterrence don’t stand up upon closer examination

Furthermore, Marines are not stationed permanently at MCAS Futenma; they rotate within the western Pacific. And it is Yokosuka Naval Base, outside of Yokohama, which is often described as the most strategically important U.S. naval installation overseas. Even if MCAS Futenma were to be relocated outside Okinawa, Kadena Air Base, the largest U.S. airfield in the region, and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces based in Naha would continue their daily efforts to maintain regional defense and stability. If U.S. military bases are essential to Japan’s security, the associated burdens should be — and can be — distributed equally among the other 46 prefectures.

In line with this argument, Joseph Nye, a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense, has spoken about the vulnerabilities of fixed bases to ballistic missile attacks, especially from China. Nye has consequently emphasized that a long-term goal of the alliance with Japan should for the United States to reduce the conventional emphasis on fixed bases. An eventual goal should thus be for the U.S. to gradually transfer its bases to Japanese control, leaving U.S. forces to rotate amongst them.

The burden is not an abstract matter. The aforementioned 1996 gang rape of a 12-year-old Okinawa girl by three U.S. servicemen sent shockwaves across Okinawa and led to demands for the revision of the SOFA, which governs how U.S. military forces and related civilians, including the families of U.S. service personnel and civilian contractors, are to be treated by Japanese authorities in everything from minor traffic accidents to more serious crimes while in Japan. Though Tokyo and Washington reached an informal SOFA deal at the time with the aim to protect the lives of Okinawa citizens from such incidents, in actuality the agreement has never been formally revised since its inception in 1960.

Both Germany and Italy negotiated a relatively more equal SOFA that protected their citizens to a higher degree than what Tokyo has been able to muster to this point

Tokyo’s inability to protect its citizens can be seen in the startling revelations as to how little the Japanese Government has actually settled for in its accord with the U.S. Studies conducted by the Okinawan prefectural government compared the Japan-U.S. SOFA with those that the United States has with other SOFA signatories such as Germany and Italy. They concluded that unlike Japan, both Germany and Italy had negotiated a relatively more equal SOFA that protected their citizens to a higher degree than what Tokyo has been able to muster to this point.

Repercussions of this continued neglect can be seen as issues related to drunk-driving, or the precarious behavior of U.S. marines at Okinawan pubs and restaurants. The danger posed to women, specifically, persists. For example, in 2012 Japanese authorities charged two U.S. Navy sailors with gang raping and robbing an Okinawan woman outside Kadena Air Base. In 2016 a 20-year-old woman was raped and murdered.

The bases also cause significant noise pollution while threats of crashes and of parts falling from military aircraft are a constant worry for local citizens. Another less well known example is the fact that Okinawa is Japan’s sole prefecture without a railway. Okinawa’s railways were destroyed during the World War II and while the railways built throughout Japan became a symbol of the country’s postwar reconstruction, no such work was carried out in Okinawa. Presently, there is only a short 15-station monorail line that runs through the prefectural capital of Naha.

U.S. military bases have actually become an impediment, rather than an asset, to the growth of the prefecture’s long-troubled economy

The prefectural government plans to build a 69-km rail line to transport people between Naha in the southern part of Okinawa Island and Nago in the north in about an hour Currently, it can take up to three hours by car or bus due to traffic congestion. To put this into perspective, a 2010 survey conducted by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism found main roads in Okinawa, which ranks ninth among Japan’s prefectures by population density, are as congested as those in central Tokyo and Osaka. But plans for the railway are uncertain as they initially included constructing a station on land occupied by MCAS Futenma that would become available after the base is relocated.

Against this backdrop, claims of the bases’ benefits become increasingly tenuous. Contrary to prevailing belief, U.S. military bases have actually become an impediment, rather than an asset, to the growth of the prefecture’s long-troubled economy. A study by the prefectural government has shown that the percentage of the base-related revenue in the Okinawan economy declined from 30.4 percent in 1965 before Okinawa’s reversion to Japan, to 15.5 percent immediately after the reversion, to an even lower 5.1 percent in 2013.

Furthermore, after seeing a number of successful redevelopment projects on former U.S. base sites, Okinawa’s political and business leaders are increasingly realizing that commercial development of land currently used by the U.S. military would actually generate far more income. Successful examples include the Aeon Mall Okinawa Rycom which has been built on the site of a former golf course used by the U.S. military, while Naha Shin-toshin and Mihama American Village were also built on land that was previously occupied by U.S. military.

Opinion polls have showed that much of mainland Japan is sympathetic to Okinawa’s over-stressed burden and criticism is mounting, both domestically and internationally. But no other prefecture has yet stepped forward to host the bases.

The result is that after 20 years, Futenma remains as it was. There are indeed many fingers to be pointed: Tokyo needs to incorporate political creativity into their policymaking while Washington has its own share of responsibility as well. Meanwhile, Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki summarized the frustrations of many Okinawans when he asked “Until when, and how much must Okinawa (bear the burden)? ” The upcoming referendum will offer the prefecture’s answer — but the fact that the ultimate outcome lies with Tokyo and Washington epitomizes Okinawa’s situation.

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Vindu Mai Chotani is a PhD student at the University of Tokyo's Graduate School of Public Policy. Her dissertation focuses on Abe’s Kantei Diplomacy, while her broader research examines Japanese foreign policy, India-Japan relations, and the evolving security architecture of the Indo-Pacific.

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