On a Key Anniversary, Rethinking Okinawa’s Future
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On a Key Anniversary, Rethinking Okinawa’s Future


June 23, 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa. This was the final confrontation of the Pacific War, and also one of the largest sea-land-air battles in history. The cost was high: more than 100,000 Okinawan civilians, 107,000 Japanese conscripts, and 12,000 Americans perished in the battle.

The anniversary is also a stark reminder that Okinawa prefecture, which represents just 0.6 percent of the total Japanese land mass, still houses 74 percent of all U.S. bases in Japan. As the Japanese government under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pursues its new policy of “proactive contribution to peace” through “rule of law” and “democracy,” it should look first at its domestic situation, and contribute to peace and stability among its own people, specifically Okinawa.

Located south of Kyushu, 20 percent of this 100 km long island is given over to U.S. bases. Over the years, numerous accidents and crimes involving U.S. military personnel have instilled a sense of fear among locals. The 1995 rape of a 12-year-old girl by three servicemen intensified local opposition to the U.S. presence. Yet the political back-and-forth between Tokyo, Washington, and the Okinawan prefectural government have left the issue of the bases unsolved.

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The most prominent political battle is taking place over the relocation of the controversial U.S. Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Futenma to the Henoko district of Nago. Located in the center of the densely populated Ginowan city, MCAS Futenma puts at risk 100,000 citizens that live around it. If this base were to be transferred to Henoko, it would be to the detriment of the local marine ecosystem, not to mention the citizens of Nago.

In 1996 an agreement was reached between Tokyo and Washington to relocate Futenma within Okinawa. However, 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 agreed to sign the landfill papers required for the base construction in Henoko. This move cost Nakaima his job, and demonstrated the determination of Okinawans to fight back against Tokyo’s perceived discrimination.

Anti-Base Sentiment

Local election results underscore the anti-base sentiment. In November 2014, anti-base campaigner Takeshi Onaga won the gubernatorial election in a landslide victory. In national elections the following month, all four seats in the Lower House of the Diet were taken by anti-LDP contenders who opposed the construction of a new base. Then, in the January 2015 Nago mayoral election, Sususmu Inamine emerged victorious. At the top of his campaign agenda: a vow to remain a staunch opponent of the base relocation issue.

Despite these results, alleviating the base burden is easier said than done. The arguments put forth by Tokyo and Washington in defense of the burden on Okinawa are many. Washington believes that, with its ideal location (Tokyo, Taipei, Shanghai and Seoul, Pyongyang, and Beijing are all within a 2000 km radius), Okinawa is the “cornerstone of peace and stability in East Asia.” Tokyo similarly sees Okinawa’s role as crucial for the U.S.-Japan alliance, and that transferring these bases off the prefecture would strip Japan of its deterrent. With the rise of China, and its assertive behavior in the East China Sea, the Japanese government has only stressed this point further. In addition, claims have been made that Okinawa, Japan’s poorest prefecture, depends on the benefits that accrue from the military facilities.

However, these claims don’t stand up to closer examination. First, although many believe that Okinawa’s location may be ideal, but the Marine Corps can be deployed anywhere in the Asia-Pacific – Guam, Hawaii, or even mainland Japan. It is not essential that they be stationed on Okinawa. Rather, it is the Japanese government that claims the Marine Corps is necessary to provide “deterrence.” Recent U.S. military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq suggest that the Marines are not typically the first U.S. military asset to be deployed in a conflict. It is the U.S. Air Force that strikes first, followed by aircraft carriers and other warships follow. Only when the ground battles start do the Marines appear.

Second, if U.S. military bases are essential to Japan’s security, the associated burdens should be shared equally among the other 46 prefectures. Opinion polls have showed that much of the mainland is sympathetic to Okinawa’s over-stressed burden, yet no other prefecture is willing to house the bases. As this anniversary reminds us, World War II ended long ago. Okinawa is no longer the captured Ryukyu Kingdom. It is, and has long been, an integral part of Japan. Tokyo must acknowledge and respect this, and afford Okinawa the same treatment it accords other prefectures.

With regard to Okinawa’s deterrence value, it should be noted that the U.S. Marines are not stationed permanently at MCAS Futenma. They rotate within the Western Pacific. Thus, maintaining the base is not necessary to deter an attack on Japan. Even if MCAS Futenma were to be relocated, Kadena Air Base and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces based in Naha would be able to maintain regional defense and stability.

Additionally, 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. For the future of the alliance with Japan, he has emphasized that the U.S. should reduce the conventional emphasis on fixed American bases, with more emphasis on rotating them throughout Japan.

Third, contrary to prevailing belief, Okinawa’s economy is not base dependent. The prefectural government in Okinawa argues that the U.S. bases actually serve as a disincentive for growth. Studies have shown that revenue related to the U.S. military presence declined from 15.5 percent of the local economy in 1972 to 5.3 percent in 2008.

Since taking up his post as governor of Okinawa in December 2014, Onaga has gone to considerable lengths to ensure that the voices of his people are heard. In April 2015, he was finally able to speak with Abe, who had long refused a meeting. In May 2015, Onaga visited the U.S. and met with senators as well as officials from the Departments of State and Defence to encourage a better understanding of this base issue. Most recently in Tokyo, he met with Caroline Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador to Japan.

Despite these efforts, Tokyo continues to state that it will go ahead with its current base relocation plan to Henoko, claiming that it is the only realistic option. Yet criticism is mounting, both domestically and internationally. Japanese Communist Party leader Kazuo Shii criticized the prime minister for ignoring the wishes of the Okinawan people and said that it is unthinkable in a democracy for a government to disregard the feelings of local residents on such an important issue.

The government’s decision displays the submissiveness of the Japanese government. Morton Halperin, who served as senior negotiator of the U.S. government during the Okinawa reversion of 1972, has spoken about this attitude. He noted that during the reversion he “had to urge the Japanese government to voice their wishes to have Okinawa returned, because they did not do so. It appeared that they were too afraid of being turned down. The attitude of Japanese government seems not to have changed.”

Tokyo and Washington must understand that when constructing a military base in a democratic country, the popular will and voices of local citizens who bear the brunt of the military presence should be carefully considered and heard. If the Japanese government truly wants to, it can reflect the will of its citizens, but it must be able to strongly convey this to the U.S. This 70th anniversary is a good opportunity for the government under Abe to look inward, rather than outward.

Vindu Mai Chotani is a Research Assistant, and Professor K V Kesavan is a Distinguished Fellow, at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

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