How to Safeguard Japan In the Years Ahead: National Security and the Japan-US Alliance

The Okinawa “Base Problem” Today


Remarkably little progress has been made over the years to overcome the “Okinawa problem”—a catch-all label for the host of unresolved issues between the prefecture and the Japanese and US governments. The US military bases in Okinawa, in particular, have been at the heart of the controversy. Robert Eldridge, who has long researched this issue, argues that the key to solving this knotty problem is for all sides to approach it in an objective, unemotional manner.

In 2012, Okinawa will commemorate the fortieth anniversary of its reversion to Japan. During these past four decades, there have been enormous strides to improve the situation in Okinawa by raising its level to that of mainland Japan in a variety of ways, such as improving local infrastructure, education, and social welfare, through special measures laws and four 10-year development plans, and by addressing political and legal issues arising from the relatively large presence of American military and Japanese Self-Defense Force bases in the prefecture. Culturally, as well, interest in Okinawa’s unique arts, customs, lifestyle, food, and music has grown over the years, creating an “Okinawa boom” of sorts, and has led to not only a significant growth in the number of tourists from mainland Japan coming to Okinawa but also a strong surge in pride in being Uchinanchu, or Okinawan, as well as, of course, in being Japanese.

As a result, the residents of Okinawa Prefecture—do we call them Okinawans or the Japanese people of Okinawa?—have also come to highly evaluate the fact that administrative rights were returned to Japan in May 1972. For example, while only 40% viewed reversion as “a good thing” and 55% said it did not “live up to their expectations” in 1977, the fifth anniversary of Okinawa’s return, some 63% highly evaluated reversion by 1982.(*1) This number in fact continued to grow so that in 1992, the 20th anniversary of reversion, the support rate was 88%. These upward trends continued into the late 1990s and in the last of the regular polls conducted at five-year intervals, approximately 82% of the public in 2007 thought reversion was a positive experience.

Lingering Resentment

With this said, there remains a strong tension between Okinawa and the central government over a number of issues, especially the so-called base problem. Some Okinawans still view the central government with suspicion, citing centuries of discriminatory policies, starting with the 1609 invasion of the Ryūkyū Kingdom by the Satsuma Clan, and ending with the current government of Japan plan to relocate Futenma to the waters off of Camp Schwab in Nago City.

It is indeed true that for many years, the Okinawa situation was ignored and Okinawan leaders used every opportunity to educate and to sometimes criticize mainland Japanese officials about their historically poor relations with Okinawa. However, over time the rhetoric has grown to such a level that it has at times become unconstructive and has been called a form of extortion or “blackmail by the weak.” Supposed statements by US and Japanese officials in 2011, namely former Consul General Kevin Maher’s remarks, denied by him, before university students and Okinawa Defense Bureau Director General Tanaka Satoshi’s comments, allegedly taken out of context, over drinks, saw days and weeks of hyper-reporting and the removal of those two officials.(*2) Relating to the latter incident and his lack of detailed knowledge about the 1995 rape of a local Okinawan school girl by three US military personnel, the Defense Minister was censured by the Upper House and was replaced in January 2012 by the Prime Minister.

As the above incidents suggest, the highly politically charged rhetoric of elected officials and the self-admittedly biased local media have led to the geostrategically important Okinawa having a disproportionally large amount of influence within Japan, and particularly vis-à-vis the central government (with its lack of Okinawan and alliance experts), a fact that is increasingly resented in other equally less-well-off parts of naichi, or mainland Japan. Instead of bringing about a resolution or a sense of contentment, however, it has caused the Okinawans to possess an air of pessimism about their future and a combination of complicated emotions toward the central government and the United States. These feelings are often, sadly, exploited by Okinawan leaders and the media to shame the two governments rather than truly seeking a workable and reasonable solution.

In the meantime, many Okinawans feel frustrated over their lack of sustainable economic prospects and embarrassed over the inconvenient fact that while some protest the presence of the bases, their economy is heavily dependent on them, directly through land rents or indirectly through numerous compensation and stimulus packages. Even the tourist industry, viewed through rosy glasses as an alternative future for Okinawa, is heavily dependent on the presence of the bases—many school trips, media tours, academic visits, government and political fact-finding missions, counted as “tourism” in the statistics, are actually related to the bases.

What Is the “Okinawa Problem”?

Amid these complicated feelings, economic dependency, ideological extremes, intentional misrepresentations, and complete misunderstandings, the question of what exactly is the “Okinawa problem” has become blurred almost beyond recognition. This was true in the past, but it has gotten worse today.

More than 10 years ago, I conducted a survey in Okinawa, asking approximately 100 people from all walks of life what they thought of when they heard the phrase “Okinawa problem.” The answers were quite varied. While most readers might think that the “Okinawa problem” equals the “base problem,” in fact it is much more complicated. During my interviews at that time, I received a variety of answers, such as “a problem of local autonomy,” “a problem of political and economic dependency,” “the result of losing World War II,” “a product of discrimination (by mainland Japan),” “the problem of being unable to live peacefully,” and “the result of a weak-kneed Japanese government.” Many others talked about economic matters, high unemployment, low income, limited education, and other concerns. In any case, a common theme among those of all political persuasions was “distrust of the central government,” feelings of structural discrimination, and victimization.(*3)

There are those, of course, who also identified the “base problem” as being the equivalent of the Okinawa problem. Some of the commonly mentioned basing issues are: the contested presence of a large number of US bases and personnel in Okinawa, the alleged high rate of crimes, incidents, and accidents that arise from this presence, and the perceived inequality of the Status of Forces Agreement.

These issues will be discussed in some detail below, but two important points have to be identified. First, the perception of the respective issues is not necessarily true—there are two sides to every story, and quite often the story that is reported in the press is not entirely accurate and purposely misrepresented. And second, many concrete actions have been taken to date to address the actual concerns of the local residents, which have not necessarily been widely known or acknowledged by political leaders and the media. These measures are numerous and would require a separate article in and of itself.

Distinguishing Fact from Fiction

Individually, the above issues seem to be highly problematic and together give the appearance of an untenable situation. In fact, for several reasons, the situation is far from desperate, which makes it a highly ironic state of affairs—one of the most high-charged issues in national politics in Japan and bilateral affairs with the United States—Japan's only alliance partner—is actually one that is little or not understood, and not necessarily based on reality but more on antibase and antigovernment rhetoric.

This situation is really the essence of the Okinawa problem—a failure to distinguish fact from fiction, which thus creates intense but unnecessary bilateral and domestic friction, and the ongoing inability to develop smart and less politically and fiscally costly policies from there. The problem, essentially, is that there is no “Okinawa problem”—at least anything so significant nowadays to warrant the extent of time, energy, and national treasure both countries have devoted to Okinawa to date, with little or nothing to show in return.

For example, the relocation of Futenma Air Station recently is by far the most well known of the issues. While it is the most famous, it remains the least understood. Recently, I attended a conference about US-Japan relations after Operation Tomodachi—the massive effort by the United States to support Japan after the horrific earthquake and tsunami disaster of March 11—and heard two academics, one American and the other Japanese, speak. Both referred to Futenma, but when they used the name, they were using it completely differently. One used “Futenma” to mean the air station, and the other used it to mean the relocation problem. Neither realized they were using the term differently. I doubt the audience did either.

The air station was constructed as a B-29 base in the spring of 1945 during the Battle of Okinawa, one of nearly a dozen airfields on the island at the time. Over the years, most of these airfields were closed and the land returned to Okinawa or used for other military purposes, so as of today there are just two US full-time operational airfields in Okinawa. In 1976, Futenma was designated a Marine Corps Air Station and today plays a variety of important roles, including: supporting Marine Corps aircraft (both helicopters and fixed wing), as well as those of other services; functioning as a United Nations Command (Rear) Airfield; serving as a diversionary airfield for Kadena Air Base–bound military and Naha International Airport–bound commercial aircraft; and operating as an emergency hub if a tsunami-like natural disaster were to strike Okinawa (as Naha airport, which lies on the shoreline, would likely be heavily damaged much like Sendai Airport was in the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami).

Being co-located in Okinawa with the ground troops, the aircraft facilities at Futenma allow the Marines to train and deploy together, which is essential to the Marine-Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) doctrine. But it is more than a simple rotary-wing airfield; its 9,000-foot runway is capable of supporting the largest transport aircraft in the world, and thus it is very much a strategic asset, not only for the United States and the United Nations, whose flags fly in front of the headquarters building, but for Japan as well, whose flag is the first one you see as you enter the station. It is, as we saw above, also an important asset for Okinawa as well, due to its role in a local disaster or for diversionary purposes.(*4)

While it currently has approximately 74 tenant aircraft assigned to it, many are deployed at any given time. The supporters of the former antibase mayor of Ginowan City, which surrounds the air station and has gradually encroached on the air station due to the lack of local zoning laws, have called it the “most dangerous airfield in the world,” but it in fact has a high record of safety (despite opposition groups dangerously flying balloons and putting up cranes to obstruct the approach to the runway), with well established procedures. Indeed, there are numerous restrictions on hours of operations, flight paths, and holidays, examinations, and other sensitive days. I live and work very close to Futenma. There are once-in-a-while noise complaints, but it is not a loud or invasive base. One group of reporters who visited the air station later wrote, in contrast to the above comment, that it was “the quietest airfield in the world.”(*5)

With this said, US officials have nevertheless agreed to seek the relocation of the facility within the prefecture, a decision first reached in December 1996 as part of a set of recommendations announced by the Japan-US Special Action Committee on Okinawa, an official body established in November 1995 in the wake of the unfortunate rape incident and the request to relocate Futenma made by the Okinawa Prefectural Government. That US willingness to work with the Japanese government to relocate Futenma has been restated many times in the past 15 years, but there has been no concrete movement by the Japanese government in the meantime. Okinawa and Japan have been trying to find a political solution to an operational problem, one which they seem not—or choose not—to understand.

A Vicious Cycle

While the United States recognizes the political reasons and the practical necessity of relocating Futenma, particularly as it is located in the middle of a crowded city of 90,000, it is up to the central government and prefectural and local governments to make it happen. Due to the finger-pointing among the central government, Okinawa Prefectural Government, and Nago City, the planned location of Futenma Replacement Facility, there has been no movement in any direction in about a decade. Indeed, one could argue that the situation has only gotten worse. If this remains the case, the FRF could go the way of the early 1970s decision to relocate Naha Military Port—at the time of this writing, the port’s relocation remains incomplete.

Indeed, the inability to follow through on the relocation of Futenma compounds the other issues and perceptions of those problems. This then causes the discussion about Okinawa to become more contentious and emotional, and turn into a vicious and endless cycle devoid of objectivity and reason. It becomes nearly impossible to reach a middle ground or look at the issues dispassionately and solutions open-mindedly.

Often, when Okinawa is discussed, the first “fact” mentioned is that “75% of US bases are in Okinawa.” This percentage is not true for two reasons: first, if “US bases” means “all US bases” then the percentage is approximately 24%; second, if “US bases” is meant as “US exclusive use bases” then the percentage is not 75% but closer to 62%. This is because two-thirds of the Central Training Area, located in the central and northern parts of Okinawa, is used jointly with the Ground Self-Defense Force.

In fact, if the SACO agreement were implemented, which includes the return of 51% of the Northern Training Area and MCAS Futenma, the percentage of exclusive use facilities in Okinawa would be reduced to about 49%. Moreover, if the 2006 base realignment plan known as the “Roadmap” were realized, then that figure would drop even further to 42%. This number is a lot less than the 75% commonly used. Sadly, however, moving forward on any of the agreements is out of US hands. It is entirely a domestic issue in Japan.

For some, 42% may still sound high, but one has to remember the geostrategic importance of Okinawa, which is why there have been bases—both US and Japanese—there for decades. Moreover, were the Japanese government to show more interest in joint basing and joint training, those percentages would decrease even further. However, until recently, the GOJ has avoided even talking about most joint use opportunities and remains reluctant and indifferent. Indeed, it has its own problems with trying to station more Self-Defense Forces in Okinawa and establishing new bases in the prefecture’s southernmost islands, such as Yonaguni.(*6)

Challenging Misconceptions

Many of the problems with the “Okinawa problem” are therefore ones of “omission” rather than “commission.” In other words, arguments go unchallenged, “facts” unexamined, and opportunities unexplored.

One sees the same thing when one looks at crime statistics. There is a perception that US forces in Okinawa are a lawless bunch, and that Japan has no control over them. This perception is incorrect in at least two respects. US personnel and their dependents comprise only a tiny fraction of all arrestees in Okinawa, even though they make up 3% of the local population. In contrast, on average, the local Okinawan crime rate is six times more than those committed by US forces. Secondly, the Status of Forces Agreement and other arrangements allow Japanese authorities to arrest and detain suspects for off-base crimes and have access to suspects on base for suspects that are under US jurisdiction until they are ready to charge them.

Of course, Okinawan political leaders will tend to point to the accumulative number of crimes and incidents over the years, noting that the numbers continue to grow. Indeed, in a clear misrepresentation of statistics, a report released in the summer of 2000 by a national lawyers’ group announced that US crime statistics in Okinawa were 10 times that of local citizens. The story was widely carried in the local press. The data of the report, written by a member of the Okinawa Lawyers’ Association, however, was later found to be highly inaccurate. However, the damage was done. Even after small corrections were made, without notice, in the press, a speaker at a rally on July 15 that year in Ginowan cited the same figure, and the impression continues that crimes by US forces are high.(*7) If anything, crime rates for US personnel have been decreasing over the years.

It also needs to be pointed out that punishment is much more severe on the US side as well. Not only are military members punished in civilian courts if found guilty, but they would likely be punished in military courts as well for chargeable offenses. Moreover, alleged crimes dismissed by Japanese prosecutors may still be punished within the military if regulations and codes of conduct were found to have been broken.

Despite this, there remain calls for the revision of the SOFA, even though comparatively speaking, Japan is better off than other countries with similar agreements, and Japan’s own SOFA-like agreement with Djibouti is even more far-reaching with regard to giving Japan special rights with prosecution. This is not to say that Okinawans do not have legitimate concerns about the presence of US forces on their island, but just that facts need to be acknowledged, perceptions corrected, and contradictions addressed in order to move forward.

It is important to do so because the Okinawa problem is in fact very much like a knot. The “base problem” is one of the many strings—the others are economic issues, social issues, historical issues, and a host of other problems—making up this knot. If one yanks on the string labeled “base problem,” the knot will only get tighter. As when untying a knot, all of the issues should be carefully separated, studied, and appreciated. Comprehensive solutions, based on objective data and un-emotional considerations, are needed, not simply tugging on the string.

The Okinawa problem involves all three actors—Okinawa, Japan, and the United States. As such, if a solution or resolution is truly desired, then the needs and views of all three need to be accommodated. If any party adopts an inflexible position, particularly a politically insincere, purely posturing one, then the chance to move Okinawa forward gets increasingly remote, as it will be nearly impossible to find common ground. In this, Okinawa must be part of the solution, and not just part of the problem.

(*1) ^ See Robert D. Eldridge, Post-Reversion Okinawa and U.S.-Japan Relations: A Preliminary Survey of Local Politics and the Bases, 1972–2002 (Toyonaka City: Osaka University Center for International Security Studies and Policy, 2004), pp. 19, 29.

(*2) ^ Kevin Maher, Ketsudan dekinai Nippon (The Japan That Can’t Decide) (Tokyo: Bungei Shunjū, 2011).

(*3) ^ Robert D. Eldridge, “Okinawa ga motomeru koto Okinawa ni motomeru koto” (What Okinawa Is Demanding, What’s Demanded of Okinawa), Chūō Kōron, vol. 115, no. 8 (August 2000), p. 162.

(*4) ^ Dan Melton and Robert D. Eldridge, “Emotionalized debate blurs valuable functions of Futenma,” The Japan Times, March 7, 2010.

(*5) ^ Katsumata Hidemichi, “Yokushiryoku to futan keigen no hazama de” (Between Deterrence and Reducing the Burden), Chūō Kōron, vol. 125, no. 12 (December 2010), p. 132.

(*6) ^ “Yonaguni ‘min’i’ nibun rikuji setsumeikai funkyū” (Yonaguni “Public Opinion” Divided; Ground Self-Defense Force’s Explanatory Meeting Turns Upside Down), Okinawa Taimusu, November 18, 2011, p. 29.

(*7) ^ Kuroki Masahiro and Hayakawa Toshiyuki, Okinawa shinjidai sengen; fukki 30 nen Okinawa mondai no tabū o toku (Declaration of a New Okinawa Era: Breaking the Taboos on the Okinawa Problem on the Thirtieth Anniversary of Reversion) (Tokyo: Sekai Nipponsha, 2002), pp. 26–27.

Self-Defense Forces Operation Tomodachi Kadena Okinawa Futenma Robert Eldridge military bases US military Nago City Camp Schwab Ryūkyū Kingdom base problem Kevin Maher Okinawa Defense Bureau Tanaka Satoshi Status of Forces Agreement Marine Corps Air station Marine-Air-Ground Task Force Okinawa Prefectural Government Futenma Replacement Facility Naha Military Port Yonaguni Okinawa Lawyer’s Association