The Contentious U.S. Presence in Okinawa, Japan

Okinawa residents are tired of bearing the burden of the U.S.-Japanese military alliance

By Tamami Kawakami


A U.S. military CH-53E helicopter flew overhead with a deafening roar. The sound was nothing unusual for students and teachers at the Futenma Daini Elementary School, as the school is located right next to the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station in Ginowan, a city in Okinawa prefecture, Japan. But Dec. 13, 2017, was different. A window, 3 feet by 3 feet, weighing 17 pounds, fell from the helicopter and landed near the center of the school’s playground.

At the time, around 60 second- and fourth-year students were outdoors for a physical education class. A group of students jumping rope were only 11 yards away from where the window landed. Students shrieked in terror and teachers guided them inside the school building at once, but some children began crying in panic. One boy’s hand was slightly injured by small pieces of stone that flew up when the window hit the ground.

Futenma Air Station occupies one-fourth of Ginowan City and is surrounded by many schools and residences. Okinawa locals refer to it as “the most dangerous base in the world,” though they darkly joke that they have gotten used to the danger. But this unprecedented incident renewed the fear of living close to military bases.

On hearing the news, parents and neighbors, concerned for their children’s safety, rushed to the school and gathered in front of the gate. Wakako Izumikawa spotted her 8-year-old daughter and hugged her tightly in relief. “We live close to the base, but I never thought much about it until today. It’s the first time I really felt that the bases are dangerous,” said Izumikawa.

Takehiro Kamiya, the head of the Midorigaoka Nursery School—which is 15 minutes’ walk from the elementary school—also felt resentful. It had been less than a week since a cylindrical object that allegedly fell from another U.S. military helicopter was found on the rooftop of his nursery school. “I can’t believe that incidents are occurring in less than a week. As long as the U.S. military bases are here, incidents will continue to happen,” said Kamiya, clearly distressed.

The III Marine Expeditionary Force put out a press release following the incident at the elementary school indicating that the fallen window was designed to be removed if a pilot needed to exit the helicopter in an emergency situation, but that the appropriate procedures for ensuring the window was secured were not correctly followed. The U.S. marine colonel visited the elementary school to apologize for the anxiety the incident caused.

Still, many Okinawa residents are growing mistrustful of the U.S. military. From December 2017 to March 2018, there have been at least three U.S. military aircraft precautionary landings and three incidents in which an aircraft part fell from the sky. On Feb. 9, an engine intake cowling that dropped from an MV-22 osprey was found on the shore of Ikeijima, an island in Okinawa; on Feb. 27, an antenna fell off an F-15 stationed at Kadena Air Base.

Kamiya and other parents with children at Midorigaoka Nursery School started a petition to stop U.S. military aircraft from flying overhead in order to avoid further incidents. Chiemi Yonashiro, who has a 3-year-old daughter, said, “Who knows what will fall next. We just want our kids to play outside safely.” Over 120,000 signatures were collected by February and submitted to the Japanese central government.

* * *

The history of U.S. military presence in Okinawa goes back to World War II. Okinawa prefecture is a chain of islands approximately 400 miles south of mainland Japan. It is the site of the devastating Battle of Okinawa, in which one in four local civilians were killed between March and June 1945. It is commonly believed that the Japanese government at the time sacrificed Okinawa to prevent the U.S. military from invading mainland Japan.

Upon conquering Okinawa, the U.S. military detained local residents in camps and began to build bases, including the Futenma Air Station. Houses and schools were confiscated to construct the base, so locals could not return home and instead were forced to settle in the surrounding areas. Under U.S. military rule, Okinawa residents were denied basic human rights, such as property ownership and freedom of speech. U.S. military expansion in the region continued until 1972, when Okinawa reverted to Japanese sovereignty. Today, Okinawa prefecture, which makes up less than 1 percent of Japan’s total landmass, is still home to some 70 percent of U.S. military facilities in the country.

It’s true that Okinawa has derived economic benefits from the bases in the form of jobs and money spent by U.S. military personnel and their families. This peaked in 1950-60s, but as the national economy recovered in the postwar years, the excessive burden of hosting the bases became a political flashpoint. Okinawa locals have repeatedly demanded a reduction of the noise and accidents caused by U.S. military aircraft, as well as an end to  misconduct by U.S. military personnel.

Activists have kept detailed records of disruptions caused by U.S. military aircraft and crimes committed by U.S. servicemen. Each incident is a reminder of the hardship the residents of Okinawa were forced to live through in detention centers and under military rule. People were outraged when a 12-year-old girl was brutally raped by three U.S. servicemen stationed in Okinawa in 1995. The crime triggered the release of long-held anger over the presence of bases and the terms of the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement, which gives U.S. servicemen an exemption from prosecution by Japanese courts under specific circumstances. In this case, U.S. officials initially took custody of the suspects; the Okinawa police requested that they immediately be handed over, but it took three weeks for the U.S. to finally do so. To ease Okinawans’ anger, the Japanese and U.S. governments agreed in 1996 to relocate the Futenma Air Station and return the land it sits on to the original owners, with the condition that a substitute base be built within the Okinawa prefecture. Henoko, a remote coastal area in Nago City, 30 miles away from Ginowan, was selected in 1997 to host the new base.

* * *

Since the end of WWII, the Constitution of Japan has explicitly renounced the state’s right to wage war. As a result, Japan has depended on its alliance with the U.S. to deter threats. The majority of Japanese support this alliance. And as North Korea advances its nuclear and missile programs, U.S.–Japanese ties are increasingly seen as indispensable. Moreover, U.S. forces stationed in Okinawa have been a key part in maintaining the relationship. With these strategic considerations in mind, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government insists on seeing through the relocation of Futenma within Okinawa prefecture. The administration’s talking points make its position clear: “Henoko is the only solution to ease the danger of Futenma Air Station and reduce Okinawa’s military burden.”

Meanwhile, many Okinawa locals view the move as just another burden imposed by the Japanese central government. Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga, who made a campaign pledge in 2014 to halt to the relocation plan, said in an interview in 2016, “I understand the importance of U.S.-Japan alliance. But the burden that comes with national security should be shared equally by all prefectures.” He cautioned that if the U.S. and Japanese governments ignore the voices of local residents and push the relocation plan through, the simmering anger would boil over and pose difficulties for U.S. forces stationed in Okinawa.

In a May 2017 poll conducted by Ryukyu Shimpo, a local newspaper agency in Okinawa, over 70 percent of locals disagree with the relocation plan and want the Futenma base removed entirely. Solidarity among Okinawa residents drives their hostility to the relocation of the base within the prefecture: Several parents from the Futenma Daini Elementary School told me that although they want the Futenma Air Station out of their neighborhood, they do not want to force another Okinawa community to host a U.S. base. Meanwhile, candidates who disagree with the relocation won three of Okinawa’s four single-seat constituencies in the lower-house election in October 2017.

Under the relocation plan, approximately 420 acres of sea off the coast of Henoko will be reclaimed to build two 1.1-mile runways for U.S. military aircraft. According to Sakurai Kunitoshi, professor emeritus in environmental studies at Okinawa University, the area is home to more than 5,000 species, including endangered corals, and construction would introduce non-native species, destroying the environment irreparably. “The Japanese government should consider the harm the relocation plan may cause to the environment. The sea of Henoko is a treasure we should hand on to our descendants,” he said. Despite local opposition, though, construction of seawalls off the coast began in April 2017, and by this summer, the government plans to pour soil into the sea.

Okinawa residents make up just 1 percent of the Japanese population, so no matter how strong their objections, their voices are still a minority on a national scale. Mainland Japan has yet to get behind the people of Okinawa, and their protests are silenced by the rhetoric of national security. There is a wide gap between opinion in Okinawa and the position of the Japanese central government. Any negotiation appears deadlocked.

The situation now seems to be changing in favor of the federal government. On Feb. 4, Taketoyo Toguchi, a newcomer backed by the political party led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, defeated the incumbent mayor, Susumu Inamine—who opposed the U.S. base and is a close political ally of Governor Onaga—in the Nago mayoral election. It was the first time in eight years that an anti-U.S. candidate lost an election. During the campaign, Toguchi criticized the incumbent mayor for rejecting the central government’s policy and promised to work closely with Tokyo to promote the economic revitalization of the city. In contrast to Inamine, Toguchi avoided discussing the complaints about U.S. bases and the relocation plan. The day after the election, Prime Minister Abe thanked Nago citizens for voting for Toguchi and indicated further progress on the relocation.

Not everyone who voted against the incumbent mayor agrees with the relocation plan, however, and even among those who did support it, some are questioning their decision. A local fisherman in his 50s who voted for Toguchi responded to my interview under the condition of anonymity. He pointed at the construction crane dumping stones into the water and said in disgust, “The sea is our treasure. Nobody wants to see this beautiful sea destroyed.” The local Fisherman’s Union gave up the right to fish in the portion of the Henoko sea now being developed in exchange for billions of yen from the Japanese central government. “Neither the Japanese government nor the U.S. government has ever listened to our objection. We know we cannot stop the relocation plan anymore, so it is wiser to accept the relocation and receive the compensation money,” the fisherman said.

Another fisherman in his 70s, who also gave up his fishing rights, muttered that he fears U.S. military aircraft. In December 2016, an MV-22 Osprey crash-landed in his neighborhood. He told me, “If the Futenma Air Station comes to Henoko, it’s certain that more Ospreys will come too. Of course, I’m scared, but there is nothing we can do about it.”

Others are simply fed up with the endless debates. A local woman in her 30s had voted for Inamine in the last election, but in February switched her vote. She told me, “I neither agree nor disagree with the relocation plan. But the struggle over U.S. bases has been going on for decades in our hometown and I am tired of being involved in it.”

Still, the opposition campaign has not lost its momentum. Activist groups have held demonstrations every morning in front of the Camp Schwab base at Henoko; dozens of people were protesting the morning after Inamine was defeated in the mayoral election, despite a drizzle. Yoshitami Oshiro, age 77, had campaigned against the relocation plan for more than 20 years. Straining his voice, he said, “We lost the election, but we will keep fighting against excessive military burden.” In response to continued protests of his constituents, Okinawa Governor Onaga made his fourth visit to Washington D.C. in mid-March to speak against the relocation plan.

After all, doubts and fear of the U.S. military remain strong in Okinawa. Resentment among locals can lead to further tension between Okinawa and mainland Japan. A majority of Japanese support the U.S.-Japan alliance, but as Okinawans continue to express this sense of inequality, it could cast a shadow over the bilateral relationship. I recalled what Kamiya from Midorigaoka Nursery School told me, “Japan’s national security is obtained at the expense of dangers Okinawans are forced to face. People living in mainland Japan should confront this truth.”

* * *

* * *

Tamami Kawakami is a journalist at a Japanese national newspaper agency, The Mainichi. She covers news about U.S. military bases stationed in Japan. Find her on Twitter @kawakamit4

[Photo courtesy of Nelson Duenas]


More Posts