Examining Okinawa Today

Thinking About Okinawa: A Historical Perspective on the US Military Presence

Politics Economy Society

Okinawa Governor Onaga Takeshi’s staunch opposition to the Futenma relocation plan has deepened the rift between the local and central governments. In the first of a three-part series, political experts shed light on the issues involving US bases in Okinawa, host to 74% of American military installations in Japan.

Miyagi Taizō (Moderator)

Professor, Faculty of Global Studies, Sophia University. Born in 1968. Was a journalist with NHK after earning a degree in law from Rikkyō University. Went on to graduate school at Hitotsubashi University. Was an assistant professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies before taking his present position. Works include “Kaiyō kokka” Nihon no sengoshi (Japan’s Postwar History as a Maritime State) and Sengo Ajia chitsujo no mosaku to Nihon: “Umi no Ajia” no sengoshi 1957–1966 (Japan and Southeast Asia in the Quest for Order: The Cold War, Decolonization, and Development, 1957-1966).

Endō Seiji

Professor, Faculty of Law, Department of Political Science, Seikei University. Born in 1962 in Shiga Prefecture. Received a master’s degree in law from the Graduate School of Law and Politics, University of Tokyo. Became an associate professor at Seikei University in 1993 and professor in 2001. Has held academic positions at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford University (1995 and 2010), and at Wellesley College (1996). Is the author or editor of Gurōbarizēshon to wa nani ka (What Is Globalization?), Futenma kichi mondai kara nani ga miete kita ka (The Repercussions of the Futenma Base Issue), Shirīzu: Nihon no anzen hoshō (Series: Japan’s National Security), and other works.

Taira Yoshitoshi

Research associate, Regional Comprehensive Research Institute, Dokkyō University. Concurrently a lecturer at Hōsei University. Born in Okinawa in 1972. Graduated from the College of Law, Okinawa International University, in 1995 and completed coursework for a master’s degree at the Graduate School of International Relations, Tokyo International University (2001), and for a doctorate at the Graduate School of Social Sciences, Hōsei University (2008). Holds a doctorate in political science. Works include Sengo Okinawa to Beigun kichi: “Juyō” to “kyozetsu” no hazama de 1945–1972 (Postwar Okinawa and US Military Bases: Between Acceptance and Refusal, 1945-1972).

Different Sets of Assumptions

MIYAGI TAIZŌ   I’d like to begin by asking your views on what’s happening in Okinawa right now.

ENDŌ SEIJI   I think the biggest source of strife between Okinawa and mainland Japan today is the fact that the US bases in the prefecture are regarded as a “local” issue by most people outside Okinawa, whereas Okinawans see them as an issue that needs to be addressed by the whole nation. The underlying premise of the arguments against the plan to relocate Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Henoko in the city of Nago is that the burden of hosting the US bases should be more equitably shared with the rest of the country. Very little progress is being made in the Futenma debate because the arguments traded between Tokyo and Naha—and also between mainlanders and Okinawans in general—rest on different sets of assumptions.

The administration of Prime Minister Abe Shinzō is pushing forward with the relocation plan on the understanding that local authorities have already approved the construction of a new base at Henoko—notwithstanding the recent expressions of Okinawan opinion to the contrary, including the sweep by anti-relocation candidates in the November 2014 gubernatorial contest and the House of Representatives election the following month. The government’s intransigence has alienated the Okinawa public, and escalating hostilities have made it impossible to hold any fruitful dialogue.

Should the international and security environment in which Japan finds itself improve, there may emerge some room for calm discussion on the importance of the bases in Okinawa, leading to greater options about reducing the prefecture’s burden. But given the rising tensions in the South China Sea and, to a now somewhat lesser degree, in the East China Sea around the Senkakus, the importance of the bases in Okinawa viewed not only from the mainland but also from the United States is bound to grow. In such a context, Okinawans are going to find it very difficult to win sympathizers for a reduced US presence in Northeast Asia and, specifically, in their prefecture.

Mainland policy debate, in particular, is increasingly focused on the need to step up Japan’s security, which is invariably premised on the continued presence of US forces in Okinawa. Purely from a military perspective, though, there’s room for debate on whether those bases have to be in Okinawa in order to deter Chinese aggressions. But most government officials and others on the mainland mechanically link the need for deterrence with a continued strong US military presence in Okinawa, without making any attempt to examine other alternatives.

We should remember that the opposition expressed to the Henoko plan by the people of Okinawa isn’t a knee-jerk response; they reached this conclusion after carefully weighing the various factors involved, such as the security needs of the country as a whole, the safety of Okinawa residents, the benefits of relocation to the local economy, and threats to the ecosystem posed by the landfill project. Mainlanders make little attempt to understand all the myriad factors that Okinawans are having to balance.

My perception of the current situation is that the climate for dialogue is deteriorating and that there’s increasing tension in the relationship between the central government and the administration and people of Okinawa.

The Vestiges of Wartime Defeat

TAIRA YOSHITOSHI   From a slightly different vantage point, I would argue that the situation Okinawa finds itself in today is emblematic, in condensed form, of the course taken by postwar Japan. We need to see that the “Okinawa problem” isn’t really about Okinawa per se and that it can’t be explained as long as we continue to use a framework pitting Okinawa versus the mainland. It’s a byproduct of the process by which Japan sought to come to terms with itself following its wartime defeat.

Okinawa’s present situation raises two very fundamental questions. One relates to Japan’s existence as a sovereign state, and the other to the functioning of its democratic institutions.

The latter issue is raised by the fact that recent elections for the mayor of Nago, governor of Okinawa, and the House of Representatives were all won by candidates strongly opposed to the Henoko relocation plan. Now, if Japan is a democracy, can the central government in Tokyo continue to ignore these expressions of the popular will? An even more fundamental question for a democracy is equality in sharing the burden of defending a nation. Unless we analyze the current situation in Okinawa from these two angles, we’re going to find ourselves going around in circles.

MIYAGI  Can you elaborate on the points you just made?

TAIRA  Sure. Six years and eight months of Allied Occupation came to an end when the San Francisco Peace Treaty came into force in 1952, restoring Japan’s sovereignty. During the 1950s, the Japanese government sought the withdrawal of US troops stationed in the mainland and a downsizing of US bases. This continued through the 1960s, and by the 1970s many of the bases in the greater Tokyo area were returned, notably in accordance with what’s known as the Kantō Plain Consolidation Plan. In 1952, US exclusive use military installations covered 135,200 hectares of mainland Japan. This area shrank to 33,500 hectares in 1960, to 19,700 in 1972, and further to 8,500 in 1980. It’s now down to 8,000.

What compelled Japanese politicians to push for the withdrawal and downscaling of US military bases? In the words of Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke, who successfully negotiated the revision of the Japan-US Security Treaty, they were driven by the desire to clear away the “residue” of the Occupation. To a greater or lesser degree, Japan’s political leaders wished to stand on an equal footing with the United States as a sovereign state. This, I think, was the basic driving force for the revision of the Japan-US Security Treaty in 1960 and the reversion of Okinawa in 1972, enabling Japan to end a humiliating chapter in its history and achieve parity with its former occupiers.

But can we really say that the residue has been cleared? After all, US forces continue to occupy 22,700 hectares of land in Okinawa, seventy years after the war. These sprawling bases were built in the years between the Battle of Okinawa in 1945 and the islands’ reversion to Japanese control in 1972. Okinawans are reminded daily that the residue of defeat and occupation have yet to be swept away. This is what I meant when I said that the current situation in Okinawa raises questions about Japan’s sovereignty.

An Okinawa Consensus

MIYAGI   I think it’s interesting to note that the opposition to the current Henoko plan is coming from all across the political spectrum. What does this suggest about what’s going on in the prefecture?

TAIRA   I think you have to look at the changes in Okinawa’s political structure over the years. The kind of polarization into the conservative and progressive wings that marked mainland politics made its way into Okinawa as well from around 1960, but when you look at the phenomenon more closely, you realize that in Okinawa, there had long been common ground on which both sides of the political spectrum could stand regarding local issues.

They took opposing positions on many national issues, such as the Japan-US security alliance, US bases in Japan, and the constitutionality of the Self-Defense Forces, but they were united in seeking a smaller US military presence in the prefecture and in demanding economic stimulus measures from Tokyo, partly for hosting the bases. This is a point that is often misunderstood by many people on the mainland, who unthinkingly assume that the conservatives in Okinawa prioritize economic growth, while the progressives are pushing for a pacifist, antibase agenda.

To some extent, of course, the conservatives do focus on the economy while the progressives are more interested in shutting bases down. So ideally, if Okinawa gains a prosperous economy free of US bases, then the chief issues dividing the two sides would dissipate, and it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see them becoming even less polarized.

Indeed, the end of the Cold War opened the possibility of a withdrawal of US forces from Okinawa, and fiscal measures taken by Tokyo were reducing local businesses’ reliance on the US military. Breaking free of a base-reliant economy and seeking the reduction and consolidation of US military installations now became realistic goals for conservatives and progressives alike, thus drawing the two sides closer together. An awareness of such changes in the political mindset is crucial to an understanding of shifts in Okinawa’s public opinion.

Benefits in Exchange for Acquiescence

ENDŌ   For most of the postwar period, Japan has had conservative governments, and these administrations worked hard for Okinawa’s return. Following reversion, they focused less on eliminating the bases and more on providing economic benefits to local residents in exchange for a continued US military presence. These benefits were offered in much the same way that public works projects were implemented around the country by postwar administrations to drive economic growth. The island’s conservative forces were receptive to such economic measures, and it was to them that the government directed the benefits.

I think it would be fair to describe Onaga Takeshi, who was elected governor in November 2014, as a conservative politician. His supporters are also basically conservative. The fact that such a politician has now become a highly vocal and visible opponent of US bases is a telling sign that the formula of providing benefits in exchange for acquiescence on the American presence no longer works.

There’s a fairly logical economic dimension to this shift. Tourism has become a major industry in Okinawa, and many resorts have been successfully developed and marketed. The community centers and the like that were built with government funds, on the other hand, may have temporarily provided construction jobs for local workers, but they haven’t engendered sustained economic growth, and the outlays needed to maintain them have become a drag on local finances. As Okinawa’s popularity as a resort grew, the US bases become an eyesore, so rather than contributing to the local economy, they came to be seen as a detriment to the prefecture’s growth and self-reliance.

Statistics bear out the fact that the return of US bases in Okinawa has had positive economic repercussions, leading to new jobs and new marketing opportunities. Income from land leased to the US military is often just a fraction of the gains that have been realized from the effective utilization of former bases. These findings have convinced the Okinawa people—both conservative and progressive—that economic growth is not something to be gained in exchange for the continued presence of US bases; even bigger growth can be expected if the Americans return the land. This is the reality in Okinawa today.

Especially since Governor Onaga has stepped into office, the prefecture has been seeking a new approach that doesn’t rely on the pork-barrel policies of the post-reversion years and that have so far proven to generate more economic growth. The prefectural government in Naha is not simply demanding the return of Futenma; backed by statistical evidence, it’s convinced that having the Marines leave would lead to both economic benefits and greater safety for area residents.

Despite these changes on the ground, political leaders in Tokyo continue to assume that bigger economic packages would be enough to appease the opposition. They’re not listening to the arguments from both ends of the political spectrum. The two sides are increasingly speaking with one voice, but people in Tokyo aren’t paying attention and are unaware that the bait no longer works. Or maybe they are aware of this but are just pretending not to notice, thinking that they can force their will on the local populace. This, I think, is the root cause of the current impasses in Naha-Tokyo relations.

Public Outrage

MIYAGI   As both of you just explained, there definitely seem to be structural obstacles to resolving the Okinawa issue. In addition to the economic factors that you’ve pointed out, there appear to have been several turning points that galvanized public opinion against the US forces. One was the rape of a twelve-year-old schoolgirl by three US servicemen in 1995 that caused a public outrage. Another was the negotiations for the return of Futenma, which were concluded in a rush before a replacement site had been agreed upon. Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryūtarō knew this would be a big gamble, but he nevertheless pushed ahead for an agreement.

Relocating to a site within Okinawa Prefecture is next to impossible, as shown by the fact that the plan to move Naha Port Facility has been held up for decades. Hashimoto was a policy expert, so I’m sure he knew this. But he needed a dramatic, political breakthrough that could change Okinawa’s public opinion, since Governor Ōta Masahide was refusing to sign an extension of the leases on land provided to the US military, which meant that many of the bases, including Kadena Air Base, would be in a state of illegal occupancy when the leases ran out the following year.

When the Futenma relocation agreement was announced in April 1996 by Prime Minister Hashimoto and US Ambassador Fritz Mondale, they noted that the Marines stationed there would be split up, moving to a newly built heliport at an existing installation in Okinawa and to another facility on the mainland. For one reason or another, though, the “heliport” soon turned into a huge landing strip. After studying the options available, Hashimoto settled on a plan to create an offshore, floating runway.

Japan’s Okinawa policy had long been on the verge of collapse, although this had remained hidden from view. The Futenma controversy, though, exposed the barrenness of this policy.

Hatoyama’s Hollow Promise

ENDŌ   I think it was Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio’s promise in 2009 to move Futenma off Okinawa that transformed what was an already entangled situation into an entirely different political landscape. Before then, there were people in Okinawa who were willing to accept the Henoko plan, as long as there were guarantees that the facility would not become a permanent fixture on the island. When Hatoyama announced that Futenma would be relocated outside the prefecture, though, even those people began insisting on pushing the US bases out.

MIYAGI   You sound quite negative toward Hatoyama.

ENDŌ   Well, it’s hard to say whether he was a good or bad leader, but one thing you can say for certain is that he gave the people of Okinawa a reason to put aside their differences and to move in a single direction.

I personally feel that Futenma should be returned without having to provide a new site in the prefecture. This is because that is what the people of Okinawa want. And this singleness of opinion is, intentional or not, a byproduct of Hatoyama’s announcement.

MIYAGI   Another aspect of the statement was that it triggered strong opposition in other areas that were cited as relocation candidates, exposing the aversion people on the mainland also feel toward hosting the Marines.

ENDŌ   Yes, that’s true. Everyone looked the other way, and Hatoyama wasn’t able to keep his promise. This deepened the fissure between Okinawa and the rest of the country and revealed the unfairness of the arrangement with which Okinawans were being asked to live.

MIYAGI   People could no longer pretend they were unaware of Okinawa’s burden. By saying no to US bases, mainland Japanese were essentially asking Okinawa to continue living with them.

A Balancing Act

TAIRA   I agree that the Hatoyama announcement had tremendous repercussions. Ties between Tokyo and Naha quickly deteriorated after Governor Ōta ultimately refused to accept the Henoko plan in 1998. His successor, Inamine Keiichi, prioritized ties with Tokyo in order to advance economic development, though, and reversed Ōta’s decision—on the condition that Henoko be turned into a dual, military-civilian facility.

Inamine sought to walk a fine line between the strong public opposition to the relocation plan and the wishes of the central government, trying not to appear to be pandering to either side. This balancing trick got conservatives to go along with Henoko, albeit reluctantly, during the Inamine years.

Things started going off-kilter when Nakaima Hirokazu replaced Inamine, and everyone turned against Henoko when Hatoyama subsequently announced he was going to take Futenma outside the prefecture. Inamine has been quoted as saying that not having to balance competing interests was a big weight off his shoulders. I think that this is a sentiment shared broadly among the conservatives in Okinawa. They were now free to openly join the progressives in the fight against Henoko. The conservative who led the effort to build a unified front was Onaga Takeshi, who is now governor.

MIYAGI   Left-leaning Governor Ōta rejected the Henoko plan after struggling long and hard with his decision, but his more conservative successor, Inamine Keiichi, accepted it, although with the condition that it be a dual-use airfield with a 15-year limit. The limit was unilaterally removed by Tokyo, however, in the 2006 cabinet decision on the realignment of US forces.

Inamine was succeeded by fellow conservative Governor Nakaima, who focused on economic development. While his opponent in the gubernatorial race ran on a strongly anti-Futenma platform, Nakaima merely said he was against the “existing plan.”

One can see from this that the relocation plan was never unconditionally embraced by conservative forces. There was indeed a moment, during Governor Nakaima’s term, when both he and the Nago mayor expressed their approval of the plan, but it was really only for a moment.

TAIRA   As Mr. Endō noted, Hatoyama’s promise to take Futenma outside Okinawa was a major turning point, but a development of equal significance, I think, was his admission after stepping down that the explanation he gave for ultimately sticking with the Henoko plan—that the Marines needed to be on Okinawa as a deterrent—was an expedient. This was further exacerbated by the December 2012 remark by Defense Minister Morimoto Satoshi that a replacement facility for Futenma didn’t necessarily have to be in Okinawa from a military point of view but that it was the optimum political solution.

This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Both Japanese and American experts and former government officials had been quoted in the local media as saying that the Marines really didn’t need to be in Okinawa. But to have a former prime minister and the incumbent defense minister say so showed that the deterrence argument was just a white lie. From then on, resentment and distrust of mainland policy spread like wildfire.

Why Okinawa?

ENDŌ   The deterrence that US forces provide, as described by Japanese officials, is a very tenuous one; in fact, the US presence probably does nothing more than give the Japanese people a vague sense of reassurance, a feeling that American soldiers would be there to protect us should the Chinese try to bully us around. For most people on the mainland, it’s like a security blanket.

From the Okinawans’ point of view, it’s a slightly different story. If the Marines are to be deployed at all, they’d have to be picked up by a warship docked in Sasebo [in Nagasaki Prefecture]. That means there’s no reason at all that the Marines have to be in either Futenma or Henoko. They might as well be somewhere closer to Sasebo. The number of Marines in Okinawa fell dramatically while they were deployed in Afghanistan and during the Iraq War, but the reduction in deterrent power didn’t invite any attacks during their absence.

From a strategic perspective, moreover, the presence of the Marine Corps does not act as much of a deterrent. As far as Okinawans are concerned, there is no logical or convincing reason for them to have to host the Marines on their soil.

If the Marines aren’t really much of a deterrent, Okinawans ask, then why must we put up with the dangers of hosting the bases, the noise, and the crimes committed by servicemen? Even the defense minister has admitted that the Marines don’t need to be in Okinawa, as long as they can be stationed somewhere in western Japan, so there must be a fairer way to share the burden of guaranteeing Japan’s security with the rest of the country and easing Okinawa’s disproportionately heavy load.

My personal view is that a smaller US military footprint in East Asia right now, when China is rising and the United States is in relative decline, would lead to a destabilization of the region. But the ongoing realignment of US forces will mean a greater Marine Corps presence in Guam and Hawaii, as well as in Darwin, Australia. These forward deployed troops should enable the United States to maintain its deterrence in East Asia, even without a Marine Corps base in Okinawa.

The Importance of Kadena

ENDŌ   That said, Kadena Air Base of the US Air Force is another story, and not even Okinawans are calling for its scale-down or withdrawal. Kadena has a very important place in America’s global strategy, and there should be a way of moving the Marines out of Okinawa so that the US commitment to the security of Japan and Okinawa is firmly maintained and so that Beijing won’t misconstrue it as indicating Washington’s loss of interest in maintaining the status quo in East Asia. This is the sort of idea that Japan can propose, but our officials haven’t been doing so.

MIYAGI   I think the important thing is to deescalate the growing tension between Naha and Tokyo. There’s been a proliferation of political parties in national elections, but they all seem to take the same view on Okinawa, with the possible exception of the Social Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party. Proceeding with the existing Henoko plan will only further alienate the people of Okinawa. Wouldn’t this become a destabilizing factor in the Japan-US security framework, which relies heavily on the bases in the prefecture? Isn’t there a way to defuse the Henoko issue so that it isn’t so divisive?

ENDŌ   Americans, too, are concerned about the local opposition to their presence. I’m not referring just to active military personnel but to Japan experts like Richard Armitage and Joseph Nye. They’ve suggested that a replacement facility in Okinawa wouldn’t do much good if it’s not going to make it easier for American soldiers to operate there. But when Governor Nakaima finally agreed to the plan, this gave the impression that their concerns were largely groundless. I have a feeling that Mr. Nakaima’s decision was a big disservice to the people of Okinawa.

MIYAGI   The national government, for its part, seems straitjacketed by its past policy decisions and is not being very creative. Most of the dynamic changes to Japan’s postwar foreign policy, it appears to me, have come from Washington’s initiative.

Japan’s Lost Opportunity

TAIRA   The crux of the problem may have been inability or refusal of Japan’s leaders to ask the Marines to leave Okinawa after the 1995 schoolgirl rape.

They may still have been bound by a Cold War mentality. Up until the early 1970s, Japan’s politicians were eager to achieve parity with the United States as a sovereign nation and, at the same time, anxious about the country’s security environment. While they were keen on eliminating the residue of the Occupation, they were also afraid of what would happen if the Americans left completely.

As I mentioned earlier, many US installations were returned by then, particularly in the greater Tokyo area, and in 1972 Okinawa was also returned. Recent research has revealed that when Washington proposed further cutbacks in US forces in 1970, Japan’s Defense Agency and Self-Defense Forces were of the opinion that force levels were already at or below the minimum required for the country’s security.

What this suggests is that while there was a desire for US withdrawal from a political perspective, security needs dictated that troop strength be kept at existing levels. That was the equilibrium point at which the desires for parity and the needs for security were balanced.

US ground combat troops left mainland Japan by the late 1950s and the only remaining ground forces were the Marines in Okinawa. Washington proposed in the early 1970s to withdraw the Marines, but Tokyo asked that they stay to provide deterrence for contingencies in the Far East. This, too, is something that recent research has turned up.

The Japanese government’s position on the presence of the Marines, established in the 1970s, no doubt remained intact even after the end of the Cold War, and this prevented officials from asking the troops to leave following the rape incident.

MIYAGI   While I hope that a similar tragedy will never happen again, one can’t say that the probability is zero. I shudder to think what might occur if there is an incident or accident involving US forces under the present circumstances.

ENDŌ   This concern is probably shared more strongly by the US military than the Japanese government. Our national leaders are astonishingly obtuse when it comes to the political ramifications of the US presence. US personnel are more realistic about their impact on the local community.

MIYAGI   That was true in the wake of the rape incident. Even a die-hard liberal like Foreign Minister Kōno Yōhei was very restrained in his reaction, as if worried that an angry outburst would jeopardize the bilateral security arrangements. Governor Ōta, frustrated by Tokyo’s weakness, was more direct, as he refused to sign the land leases for US bases. Because of their physical presence in Okinawa, I think the US forces tend to be more sensitive to local opinion.

TAIRA   The difference in perception is a factor of visibility. By the end of the 1970s, most US bases on the mainland were gone, and incidents involving US personnel fell correspondingly. The negative image of the bases faded, leaving only the positive contributions the US presence was making to Japan’s security. Quite naturally, efforts were directed at further deepening and growing the bilateral security alliance.

But from Okinawa’s perspective, the US military still constitutes a huge presence, along with all the lingering minuses. This is a chief source of the perception gap between the mainland and Okinawa.

ENDŌ   It’s quite sobering to think such a gap continues to exist more than four decades after Okinawa’s reversion.

(Translated from a roundtable discussion conducted in Japanese on June 19, 2015, and edited by the Nippon.com editorial department. Banner photo: Houses cluster around Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, located in the middle of a densely populated area in the city of Ginowan. © Jiji)

Japan-US Security Treaty Kadena Hatoyama Yukio LDP Okinawa Futenma national security Ryukyu Henoko Onaga Takeshi US bases conservatives progressives right of self-determination economic development Marine Corps