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Okinawa Is the Key to Japan’s Defense – Even If Okinawans Don’t Like It

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Okinawa Is the Key to Japan’s Defense – Even If Okinawans Don’t Like It

The Indo-Pacific’s increasingly unstable security environment will ensure that Okinawa remains at the center of Japan’s defense strategy. 

Okinawa Is the Key to Japan’s Defense – Even If Okinawans Don’t Like It

Anti-U.S. base posters adorn the wall separating Camp Schwab and Henoko in Okinawa, Japan.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Vitalie Ciubotaru

On September 4, the Japanese Supreme Court ruled that Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki is legally obligated to approve the relocation of a U.S. military base from the Okinawan district of Ginowan to Henoko district in the prefecture’s Nago city. The decision follows Tamaki’s years-long legal battle to prevent the relocation after landfill work, which began in 2018, unearthed the fact that a significant portion of the sea floor where the base is being built was too soft to support the original construction plan.

In April 2020, the Japanese Defense Ministry’s Okinawa Bureau attempted to submit a revised building plan to account for the soft ground, which civil engineers described as “soft as mayonnaise,” but that was rejected by Tamaki in November 2021, after he claimed there was “insufficient research” into whether the revised plan would be feasible. Previous geological surveys indicated that the seabed was so soft that the base is likely to continuously sink. Tamaki claimed that “it was unacceptable to proceed with the construction of a new base that has no prospect of being completed.”

Tamaki said that he “will consider what steps to take after going over the [Supreme Court’s] ruling contents.” However, this latest decision has left the Okinawa governor in a difficult position.

Tamaki won a second four-year term in September 2022 by defeating Sakima Atsushi, who had the backing of the Liberal Democratic Party, which controls Japan’s government. Notably, Sakima was supportive of the U.S. base in Henoko. Tamaki’s re-election, while expected, thus highlighted how contentious the U.S. military still remains for the local populace given the unequal burden placed on Okinawa by U.S. bases.

While only accounting for 0.6 percent of Japan’s territory, the prefecture houses 70 percent of the 50,000 U.S. troops in the country under the Japan-U.S. bilateral security pact due to its strategic location in the Indo-Pacific region. Okinawa has a crucial role in both Washington and Tokyo’s security posture toward China’s increasingly hostile activities in the region.

Despite that, many Okinawans have called for a reduction of military personnel on the island. A 2022-2023 public opinion poll conducted by researchers at several universities, including the University of the Ryukyus, found that nearly 70 percent of local residents think the heavy concentration of U.S. military personnel in Okinawa is “unfair.”

However, the survey also revealed a notable trend: respondents of the younger generation (those 18-34 years old) expressed less anti-base sentiment than their older counterparts. For example, 55 percent of those surveyed in this age group said they believe that seeking to change the share of U.S. personnel hosted by Okinawa is “meaningless as the [Japanese] state has the right to decide national defense policy.”

Hiroyuki Kumamoto, the head of the research group, was quoted in the Japanese news outlet Mainichi Shimbun saying that the younger generation in Okinawa is being forced to “give up” on rectifying the U.S. military sharing imbalance between Okinawa and the rest of Japan.

The Supreme Court’s recent ruling will likely further hasten this “giving up” trend among the younger generation and further sour relations between Okinawans and Tokyo. Moreover, should construction at Henoko move forward, it could lower the likelihood of Tamaki being re-elected during the next gubernatorial elections, making way for the central government to exert more influence over Okinawa-related matters.

Given this trend, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio is highly unlikely to alter his position toward the island prefecture. Historically, the faction that Kishida leads within the ruling LDP – the Kochikai – is known to be quite dovish toward security or foreign policy compared to other influential factions such as former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s Seiwakai. However, the former LDP policy chief appears to have taken on a more hawkish approach since the assassination of Abe last year. Indeed, in an apparent effort to fulfill Abe’s legacy, Kishida has capitalized on the growing geopolitical uncertainty in the Indo-Pacific to increase the Japanese Ministry of Defense’s 2023-2027 budget by 60 percent compared to its 2018-2022 counterpart.

Outlined in Tokyo’s National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, and Defense Build-up Plan, Japan’s military is taking a sharp left turn from its traditional “defense first” approach and investing in acquiring counterstrike capabilities. While concerns remain over Kishida’s plan to fund this defense boost through increased taxes – instead of other methods such as bond issuance – even the proposed amount is unlikely to be sufficient given the shifting security dynamics surrounding Japan.

Indeed, last month Japan’s Defense Ministry requested a 13.4 percent budget increase for the next fiscal year, which includes funding for stand-off missiles, missile defense, and Aegis-equipped naval vessels. Japan continues to strengthen its capabilities against North Korea and China’s increasing saber-rattling and remain in lockstep with Washington’s Asia-focused security plan.

Despite Kishida’s attempts to keep diplomatic and economic corridors with China open, his increasingly militarized defense policy shows Tokyo’s increasing willingness to entertain the idea of a military conflict over hotspots like Taiwan. For example, LDP Vice President Aso Taro’s recent statement that Japan, the United States, and Taiwan need to show the “resolve to fight” against China’s increasing claims over Taiwan’s sovereignty soured Sino-Japanese relations.

Kishida’s Cabinet reshuffle on September 13 is unlikely to alter Tokyo’s security approach. Most notably, Kishida’s alleged decision to replace Defense Minister Hamada Yasukazu with Kihara Minoru, who currently heads a Japan-Taiwan inter-parliamentary group, underscores Tokyo’s growing commitment to Taipei.

High-ranking Japanese officials have refrained from making any official verbal confirmations that Japan would come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of an emergency in Taiwan. But other top LDP officials, such as Chief Cabinet Secretary Matsuno Hirokazu, have claimed that achieving  “peace and stability” in the Taiwan Strait is of the upmost importance for the international community.

These Japanese politicians’ ambiguous stance toward Taiwan has been a part of Tokyo’s decades-long strategy playbook for cross-strait tensions. However, China’s increasingly provocative behavior in the Indo-Pacific has made Tokyo’s intentionally ambiguous and nuanced approach increasingly less tangible. For example, Beijing’s firing of five ballistic missiles into the sea near Okinawa’s western islands following U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s 2022 visit to Taiwan brought Japan and Taiwan’s security considerations into further alignment.

However, Okinawa’s role within Japan’s security strategy should not only be viewed vis-à-vis the growing threat posed by Beijing. Indeed, the fortification of Japan’s defenses through Okinawa is also being used to counter the growing partnership and threats posed by Russia and North Korea.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had global impacts on not only Japan but global socioeconomic stability as well. Meanwhile, China and Russia have stepped up joint military drills near Japan, including naval transits of Japanese straits and fighter approaches close to Japanese airspace.

Meanwhile, Pyongyang’s record-number ballistic and cruise missile tests since last year have also had destabilizing impacts on the Indo-Pacific’s security environment. Notably, this week’s meeting between North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin – the first since 2019 – has heightened speculation that Putin and Kim might provide each other with substantive assistance, such as arms sales or economic aid, to help their two nations with their strategic objectives. There has even been speculation about a North Korea-Russia joint military drill, or a trilateral drill involving China.

It remains to be seen if Putin will be willing to provide Kim with financial or technical support regarding the development of its ballistic and nuclear programs. Nevertheless, the uncertainty over this will likely heighten concerns among policymakers in the Japan-U.S. alliance and result in additional calls for heightened security cooperation with fellow U.S. ally South Korea.

Therefore, tensions over China, Russia, and North Korea will likely remain a long-term point of concern for the Kishida administration. As such, it is highly unlikely that the Japanese prime minister will give in to the demands of the Okinawan people for a reduce U.S. military presence. This will ensure that anti-U.S. military sentiment will remain high on the island as Japan-U.S. security cooperation continues to strengthen.