Examining Okinawa Today

The Okinawa Issue and East Asian Security


The knotty problem of relocating US Marines Air Station Futenma in Okinawa casts a shadow over prospects for the US military presence there. Meanwhile, China’s expansionist strategy presents a major challenge for Japan and the United States. Respected foreign policy commentator Okamoto Yukio explains the background and regional implications.

The Futenma Deadlock

The Japanese and US governments agreed in the 1990s on a plan to close down US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, a facility located in a heavily populated area on the main island of Okinawa, and move its operations to a facility to be constructed in Henoko Bay on the Pacific coast of the island. The agreement still stands, but it is unclear when, if ever, this move will be completed.

The new facility in Henoko is supposed to have a runway built on landfill covering just a third of the area of the current air station at Futenma. The noise from the aircraft using it and the danger of accidents would be shifted from a populous district to an area over the sea. Clearly this represents a major improvement over the current situation. So I originally supported the planned move. But in 2011, when I was invited to speak as a witness to the House of Representatives Budget Committee, I expressed the view that the government should stop trying to force this plan through. And I repeated my call for abandonment of the plan when I spoke before the House of Councillors Budget Committee in 2012. Why did I change my mind?

Opinion in Okinawa was formerly split fairly evenly on this issue, with about a third of the people willing to accept the planned move to Henoko, a third opposed to it, and another third with intermediate views. But in 2009, when the Democratic Party of Japan came to power, Hatoyama Yukio, the new prime minister, declared that the Futenma facility must be moved to a location “at least” outside of Okinawa Prefecture. And after hearing this, almost everybody in Okinawa came to oppose the Henoko plan.

The DPJ administration’s handling of this matter was irresponsible. Finding a replacement site outside of Okinawa is not practical. The reason is simple: Ospreys, the vertical/short-takeoff-and-landing aircraft currently deployed at Futenma, serve as an essential means of transport for the US Marine Corps in Okinawa. They cannot be moved to a distant location unless the entire Marine contingent goes too. This would mean also moving the headquarters now located at Camp Foster and the training facilities at Camp Hansen and Camp Schwab.

The DPJ administration looked at over 40 potential locations elsewhere in Japan, but in the end it was unable to find a replacement site, and in April 2010 Prime Minister Hatoyama apologized to the people of Okinawa, asking them to accept the relocation of the Futenma facility within the prefecture. But their willingness to do so was gone. It was as if they had been about to have a meal at a restaurant, albeit with some reluctance, when a DPJ big shot came barging in and cried, “The food here is lousy. There are lots of good restaurants out there, so let’s go to one of them.” He led the diners out, but of course there was no such restaurant to be found. The group ended up going back to the original place, but the food was no longer fresh, and nobody felt like eating.

I have seen many activists from mainland Japan taking part in the campaign against the US military bases in Okinawa. Their objective is not limited to the complete reversion of the Futenma facility. By fomenting the local anti-base movement and promoting disruption, they seek to close down all the US bases, particularly Kadena, the biggest US Air Force base in the Eastern Hemisphere. Meanwhile, the deadlock between the national government in Tokyo and the prefectural government in Naha continues to drag on. And if one of the Ospreys were to have a major accident, Okinawa could explode, much as it did back in 1956, when an “island-wide struggle” broke out against the US military administration.

Is there an alternative? When I expressed my opinions to the National Diet committees, I called for the adoption of “Plan B.” Though I did not state the specific contents of this plan, the idea was to make the move to a new facility at Henoko unnecessary by revising the deployment structure of the US Marine Corps in Okinawa and elsewhere in the western Pacific and modifying the role of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces.

This would have required careful bilateral deliberations with the United States over an extended period of time, meaning a delay in reversion of the Futenma facility. But considering that almost two decades had passed since the original US-Japan agreement on the matter, I felt that it was worth considering my proposal. But the government ended up sticking with the existing plan, and in December 2013 the governor of Okinawa gave his go-ahead for the landfill at Henoko, where work has now started. At this point, pushing for an alternative approach will only confuse matters. So I have regretfully decided to put my Plan B under wraps and return to supporting the move to Henoko as the best we can hope for under the current circumstances.

Deterrent Power: The Importance of Perceptions

Though the move from Futenma to Henoko may need to be implemented as a stopgap, I would like to consider the longer-term prospects. How can we achieve a major reduction in the US Marines’ presence in Okinawa without decreasing Japan’s deterrent power?

Japan’s current deterrent is not based on the ability of the US Marines stationed in Okinawa to respond immediately to an attack from North Korea or China. It is based on the Japan-US security arrangements as a whole. A key element of the bilateral security setup is the US Seventh Fleet. The ships of this major fleet, including the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington, along with the aircraft they carry, cost several trillion yen to build. The fact that this fleet is based in Yokosuka, a port near Tokyo, sends a clear message to neighboring countries that the United States is truly committed to Japan’s defense. It is this clear commitment that is the essence of the deterrent.

The deterrent is ultimately a matter of perceptions: It depends on the belief of neighboring countries that the Japan-US security arrangements are certain to operate. Absent this belief, the Japan-US Security Treaty becomes no more than a piece of paper. So the core of Japan’s deterrent power consists of the ongoing maintenance of a close alliance with the United States that leaves no room for doubt in the minds of other countries in the region.

If, however, a large-scale reduction of the US forces in Okinawa were to be conducted in the face of local turmoil without a sound basis in military thinking, it would create a big hole in the fabric of the deterrent. Neighboring countries would sense a power vacuum. Consider what has happened in the South China Sea: After the United States pulled out of Vietnam, China grabbed the Paracels, and after the Russians left, it pushed the Vietnamese off Johnson South Reef. And after the US forces left the Philippines, China took over Mischief Reef from that country.

If the Chinese judged that the US military had been driven out of Okinawa, it would greatly increase the likelihood of their grabbing the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea from Japan by force. And once they landed on these islands, it would become very difficult to dislodge them. Doing so would mean undertaking a combat operation that could well result in the first deaths in action for Japanese armed forces since World War II. Would Japan actually fight to get the Senkakus back? It is possible that the Japanese government would instead declare its intention to “negotiate persistently,” a line it has often used, and that the Senkakus would remain under China’s effective control indefinitely, just as Takeshima has since South Korea took it over in the 1950s.

Discrimination Against Okinawa

The people of mainland Japan do not fully understand the troubles that the Okinawans have experienced or the sense of discrimination that they feel. When reminded that a whopping 74% of the area occupied by US military bases in Japan is concentrated in Okinawa, one of the smallest of the country’s 47 prefectures, people think, “That’s not fair,” but they do not do anything about it. And the reason the figure for Okinawa has risen so high is that since its reversion to Japanese administration in 1972, the reductions in the US military presence in Japan have been largely on the mainland. Over the decades since then, the area of the bases on the mainland has been slashed by 65% with the closure of a number of major facilities in places like Tokyo and neighboring Kanagawa Prefecture, while the area they occupy in Okinawa has been trimmed by only 20%.

It will not be easy to reduce the 74% figure. Just closing bases in Okinawa will reduce the denominator as well as the numerator, so the share will not change that much. In order to lower the figure substantially, base closures in Okinawa will need to be accompanied by increases in the area of bases on the mainland. But, with the exception of Iwakuni, no sites on the mainland have agreed to take on some of the burden currently borne by Okinawa. All we hear is words about the need for better balance. When Hashimoto Tōru was governor of Osaka, he suggested moving a base there, but no other prefectural governor has said anything similar.

The emotional rift between Okinawa and the mainland is deep. In the final months of World War II, the Japanese military sacrificed Okinawa as a pawn for the defense of the mainland and forced local residents to act as human shields against the advancing American forces. This memory has left the Okinawans profoundly distrustful of their mainland compatriots.

The Strategic Outlook for East Asia

In view of China’s expansionist strategy, we clearly need to deal promptly with the issue of Okinawa. The Chinese have been pursuing a two-stage maritime strategy. In the first stage, through around the year 2010, their aim was to achieve military control of the seas within the First Island Chain, a line extending from Okinawa to Taiwan, the Philippines and Borneo—in other words, the waters of the East and South China Seas. The second stage, through 2020 or so, involves achieving “anti-access” capability against US naval vessels in the area within the Second Island Chain, stretching from the Izu Islands to the Ogasawara (Bonin) Islands, Saipan, Micronesia, and south to Papua New Guinea. In other words, the Chinese strategy is to win control over most of the western Pacific. And they have repeatedly sent naval vessels through the islands of Okinawa out into the Pacific to conduct large-scale exercises.

Today’s Japan is incapable of responding to this Chinese strategy. Japan’s former strategy was to keep the Soviet Union’s nuclear submarine fleet bottled up in the Sea of Okhotsk by blocking the Sōya, Tsugaru, and Tsushima Straits. In line with this objective, it acquired a fleet of 16 submarines. But in addition to these three straits, there are four international waterways open to free passage between the islands of Okinawa. To keep the Chinese navy in check at Okinawa would surely require more than 30 submarines, double the present number. This is far beyond our reach. The figure has been increased to 22 by the expedient of postponing the scheduled mothballing dates of existing submarines, but the budget has not been increased. Over the past 10 years, while China’s military appropriations have increased by a factor of five, Japan’s defense spending has remained flat.

Staying Safe in a Dangerous Neighborhood

Japan’s four neighbors in Northeast Asia—China, Russia, and North and South Korea—all rank among the world’s top six countries in the scale of their military strength. No other region of the world has such a concentration of military might. And it is quite conceivable that unintended or accidental factors could lead to an armed clash at any time.

Despite its location in this tense region, Japan has been able to carry on without fear of invasion thanks not to the war-renouncing Article 9 of its Constitution but to its security treaty with the United States. In this light, it is clear what direction we need to head in resolving the Okinawa issue and maintaining security in East Asia. Though it will take time, Japan must enhance its own deterrent power. This means, for example, having the Ground Self-Defense Force take over defense duties from the US Marines, and thereby reduce the need to station the latter in Okinawa. Building this sort of role-sharing relationship with the United States will be a key to maintaining Okinawa’s strategic position.

Note 1. When the post–World War II Allied Occupation ended and mainland Japan regained its autonomy in 1953, Okinawa remained under US military administration, much to the discontent of the island prefecture’s residents (reversion to Japanese rule did not come until 1972). The island-wide struggle of 1956 occurred following the release of the Price Report by a subcommittee of the US House Armed Services Committee. The report basically approved the status quo regarding the US military in Okinawa. In the face of widespread popular protests, the Americans were forced to revise some of their policies, shifting from lump-sum payments for expropriated land to payment of appropriate rents based on lease agreements with landowners.

(Originally written in Japanese and published on July 16, 2015. Banner photo: An MV-22 Osprey aircraft lands at US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on June 10, 2015. © Jiji.)

Japan-US Security Treaty China Okinawa Senkaku Islands defense US Marines Air Station Futenma