Earlier this week, Okinawa Prefecture marked the 40th anniversary of its reversion to Japanese sovereignty following U.S. occupation. Yet four decades on, and the future of Japan’s southernmost prefecture remains uncertain, with slow progress on key issues. For Okinawans, the harsh reality is that they are still living on occupied territory.
Despite the 1972 transfer, U.S. military bases still occupy almost a fifth of the main Okinawa island, while 75 percent of all U.S. bases in Japan are concentrated in Okinawa.
For the central government and the U.S. at least, progress seemed to have been made last month on the question of the future of U.S. forces in Japan. Under a new agreement, the U.S. and Japanese governments decided to stick to an existing plan to relocate the controversial U.S. Marine Corps Air Station in Futenma to Henoko, Nago, in northern Okinawa by constructing a new sea-based replacement facility off Camp Schwab.
But the deal, which includes the transfer of about 9,000 troops and their dependents to U.S. Pacific territory of Guam, has left many Okinawans cold.For a start the United States is reportedly planning to deploy the MV-22 Osprey vertical take-off and landing transport aircraft to Futenma, in what is an already built-up area, in July. In addition to longstanding concerns over crime, locals also point to concerns over safety and noise pollution from aircraft. Such concerns have only been compounded by a series of accidents involving the Osprey during its development. Indeed, only last month, a Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey crashed in Morocco, sparking further safety concerns.
Today’s problems are rooted in a deal reached during the U.S. occupation following Japan’s defeat in World War II, when Emperor Hirohito suggested to U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, then the post-surrender potentate in Tokyo and protector of the Japanese monarchy, that the U.S. continue occupying Okinawa and other islands in the Ryukyu chain in exchange for keeping the imperial system intact.
MacArthur saw limited Japanese opposition to the U.S. retaining Okinawa because “the Okinawans are not Japanese.” Hirohito’s Okinawa message, and MacArthur’s willingness to retain Okinawa, underscored the reality that the islands were being sacrificed for the purpose of defending the traditional national polity.
But since Hirohito’s death in 1989, his thinking on Okinawa has remained deeply embedded in the minds of mainstream conservative political elites, bureaucrats and politicians in Tokyo, including in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is often criticized as being subservient to U.S. diplomacy.
Although they will never admit it openly, Japan’s elites have “Ameriphobia” – a fear of the United States – that’s rooted in the devastation of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This fear was on display even after almost six decades of Liberal Democratic Party rule was broken in 2009, when the government of Democratic Party of Japan Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama was toppled in June 2010 in part over his mishandling of the U.S. Futenma Air Station issue in Okinawa. Hatoyama’s failure to renegotiate the relocation with the United States due to strong opposition from the nation’s conservatives, as well as the Obama administration, created a damaging and ultimately devastating political impasse for the Japanese government.
Against this backdrop, and taking advantage of Tokyo’s traditionally weak-kneed approach, the U.S. government has consistently asked Japan to increase the share of the security burden that it carries. Last month, for example, while the two governments said the total cost of relocating marines and their dependents from Okinawa to Guam would be lowered to $8.6 billion from the original $10.27 billion, the cost to Japan was to rise from a maximum of $2.8 billion to $3.1 billion.
Still, while the central government may be averse to standing up to the United States, Okinawans have traditionally had fewer qualms about doing so. And ultimately, time may well be on the side of Okinawans.
For a start, with both the U.S. and Japan facing significant budget deficits, it’s becoming increasingly hard to sustain the security alliance at its current levels. The United States may well, whether it likes it or not, be forced to reduce its military footprint in Japan, particularly in Okinawa.
Meanwhile, for Japan – whose finances are the weakest among the world’s major economies, with government debt reaching 230 percent of gross domestic product – the growing burden of realignment of U.S. forces is becoming a major problem. This has only been compounded by the enormous costs of recovering from last year’s earthquake, tsunami and nuclear incident.
But there’s another reason why the U.S. may rethink its presence in Japan: China’s growing military might. Tackling China’s rise is the biggest common interest between the United States and Japan, and China’s growing naval power, and its enhanced strike capabilities, is helping reshape the security dynamic in the region. This has prompted the United States to shift its security focus to expanding its presence in Australia, the Philippines and Singapore. The Pentagon is wary of China’s anti-access/area denial strategy, and may be keen to shift U.S. Marines currently stationed on Okinawa to regions more out of reach of China’s missile strikes.
In addition, support for an “offshore balancing” strategy is gaining support in Washington, a strategy that would likely see a reduction of U.S. troops in Japan. Such a shift would force Japan to do more itself to counter China, driving a further political wedge between Tokyo and Beijing and in the process scuppering any prospects for the establishment of an East Asian Community or the like – an initiative proposed by Hatoyama, but which the United States has indicated it is opposed to.
Aside from the Communist Party and its supporters, few doubt that the United States is Japan’s most important ally, and that the U.S.-Japan alliance is the cornerstone of peace, security and stability in the Asia-Pacific region. Resolving the problems over U.S. military bases on Okinawa as quickly as possible would therefore contribute to enhancing the security partnership between the two countries.
The withdrawal of additional U.S. forces from Japan would bring challenges, for sure. But for Okinawans, at least, the time seems to have come for U.S. Marine Corps to leave their islands.
Kosuke Takahashi is a Tokyo-based journalist. His work has appeared in the Asahi Shimbun, Bloomberg, Asia Times and Jane’s Defence Weekly, among other publications. You can follow him on Twitter @TakahashiKosuke.