Examining Okinawa Today

Thinking About Okinawa: The Regional Security Context

Politics Economy Society

The Japan-US security setup and moves by China have a major bearing on prospects for the US bases in Okinawa. In the last of a three-part series, political experts consider the regional security context and domestic political situation relating to the “Okinawa problem.”

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).

An Unequal Relationship Forged Under Postwar Occupation

MIYAGI TAIZŌ   We’ve heard your thoughts on the current situation regarding the US bases in Okinawa and about the widening perception gap between the mainland and the island prefecture. Next I’d like to ask you about the future prospects for the Okinawa problem in the context of East Asian security.

TAIRA YOSHITOSHI   Ever since the administration of Ikeda Hayato [1960–64], the Liberal Democratic Party has espoused a security stance that takes the pacifist provisions of Article 9 of the Constitution as a given and seeks safety for Japan in the security treaty with the United States. I think it’s quite difficult to find a solution for the issue of the US bases in Okinawa under this two-part security policy.

On the knotty issue of relocating Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, for example, I believe the key question is why Japan is unable to tell the United States to move it outside the country. In his book Kokubōgun to wa nani ka [The Meaning of “National Defense Forces”], Ishiba Shigeru answers this question quite straightforwardly: Because of the restraints imposed by Article 9, Japan cannot supply military forces, so instead it provides bases to the United States, which defends Japan in return. Under this asymmetrical relationship, when the Americans say, “We can’t defend Japan unless we have this base,” we can’t compel them to return it. As Ishiba puts it, it’s very hard for the Japanese side to tell the Americans we want them out [of a base or bases] because they’re getting in our way. With this reference to the asymmetrical nature of the bilateral security treaty, he explains why Tokyo can’t tell Washington to move the Futenma facility outside of Japan.

To extend that explanation, I believe that we are operating under a “Japan-US Security Treaty setup” that took shape during the post–World War II Allied Occupation. This is a concept from my master’s degree program faculty advisor, according to whom the six years and eight months of the US-led Occupation gave rise to a setup under which Japan is subordinate to the United States politically, militarily, and even psychologically. And it’s this setup, I believe, that keeps Tokyo from pressing Washington to relocate the Futenma facility outside of Japan.

As Ishiba puts it in his book, it would be a different story if the Japan-US relationship were one between equals. This was what people like Foreign Minister Shigemitsu Mamoru hoped to achieve in the early postwar period. It would mean revising the Constitution, recognizing the right of collective self-defense, and cooperating with the Americans on a people-to-people basis—in other words, turning Japan into a country that is not merely defended by the United States but that also helps defend the United States in return. If we had this sort of bilateral relationship with the United States, Ishiba explains, Tokyo would be in a position to tell Washington, “We’ll extend our defense range as far as Guam, so pull your forces out of Okinawa and move them there.” This could be presented not as a supplicant’s petition but as a partner’s demand.

Whether the idea of seeking this sort of relationship is a good one or not, in logical terms, it’s a valid option for resolving the issue of the bases in Okinawa. I’m not sure what Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s personal views are on this matter, but I might note that Foreign Minister Shigemitsu’s thinking was shared by Kishi Nobusuke [prime minister 1957–60], Abe’s grandfather, whom he respects.

Meanwhile, those on the liberal side, the members of the camp that wants to preserve the current Constitution, don’t have a viable way of dealing with the issue. The pacifism of Article 9 is paired with the existence of the Japan-US Security Treaty. So opposition to collective self-defense as unconstitutional means upholding not just the current Constitution, including Article 9, but also keeping the bilateral security treaty as it is. And in this case, I fail to see how it will be possible to scale back the US military presence in Okinawa.

The members of the liberal camp need to come up with a plan that combines respect for the pacifist spirit of Article 9 with concrete, specific means for maintaining Japan’s security—and that will also make it possible to downsize the US bases in Okinawa. Unless they can come up with this sort of concrete proposal, I don’t think they can hope to win on an intellectual level against the position set forth by people like Ishiba. As I see it, this is the prime intellectual challenge that they face.

The Importance of a Stable Japan-US Relationship


SEIJI   It seems to me also that the preserve-the-Constitution camp hasn’t fully grasped the significance of the security-treaty setup. In the context of the Cold War the United States went to war in places including Korea and Vietnam here in East Asia, and it also backed dictatorships, and so to the members of this camp it probably looked like an imperialistic power bent on expansion and aggression. But the Obama administration that came to power following the experiences of war in Iraq and Afghanistan has taken a consistently cautious approach.

I personally believe that it’s very important for Japan and the United States to maintain a stable relationship of political cooperation in the face of the instability in the international environment, where mutual mistrust is liable to grow. I don’t think that it’s a good idea for Tokyo to toe Washington’s line in exercising collective self-defense in the context of international relations in East Asia, but I do think that we need to maintain our close security relationship with the United States as a framework for political cooperation, just as the countries of Europe have continued to participate in NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization] as a cooperative political framework even after the end of the Cold War that this military alliance was created to respond to.

I don’t believe we can suddenly eliminate the military functions of the Japan-US security setup entirely and move to a purely political relationship. But I did think that the concept of an “East Asian Community” represented one approach that might promote the relaxation of tensions in the region while lessening the military elements of the Japan-US security relationship—though not removing them entirely.

Unfortunately, Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio’s administration [2009–10] set forth this regional community concept in a careless manner, without concrete preparation or staging, instead of approaching it initially by thinking of how it could act as a supplement to Japan’s security cooperation with the United States. That sort of approach can’t get us anywhere.

The United States isn’t preparing to go to war with China, and in the context of today’s East Asia, Japan should cooperate firmly with the United States and take the initiative in building a regional order in which our relationship with China is not a hostile one. As I see it, we can’t hope to resolve the problem of the bases in Okinawa unless we undertake this sort of process to reduce tensions in East Asia as a whole.

One condition for this process is China’s active participation in reducing tensions. Unfortunately, though, China’s current behavior makes it hard to be optimistic about the prospects.

How Should We Assess China’s Intentions?

TAIRA   I agree that China is indeed a factor to note when considering the issue of the bases in Okinawa. How should Japan assess China? Is it acting within the framework of the current international order centered on the United States? Or is it thinking of destroying this order? I believe it’s important for us to discern its intentions. But in practice it’s extremely difficult to determine whether a country is seeking to maintain the status quo or destroy it. This ties in closely with the idea of establishing an East Asian Community. So what should we think?

ENDŌ   My view is that our only option is to continue dealing with China while withholding our judgment for the time being. Diversity exists within China, the United States, and Japan. In each of these countries, different people have different assessments of the other countries. In the United States, some see China as a country that wants to maintain the status quo, while others see it as aiming to destroy this order. Those who take the former view believe that it is possible to bring China into the existing international order as a responsible great power, and they favor keeping up dialogue for this purpose. Meanwhile, those who take the latter view believe that, inasmuch as the Chinese are fundamentally aiming to destroy the current US-centered order, dialogue will not work; they think some sort of containment is necessary. These two camps are in rivalry, with neither commanding a strong lead. Then there are those who believe China will act to maintain the status quo for the time being but that it is also necessary to consider the risk that it will turn against it at some point. So we can expect the United States to keep an eye on both possibilities.

Here in Japan we see a stronger tendency than in the United States to view China as seeking to destroy the status quo, partly because we get more coverage of remarks from Chinese voicing that sort of sentiment. My own view is that, while China’s growing power is a source of problems, there are also problems that might arise from internal governance issues. Both a China that’s too strong and one that’s too weak present serious problems for the countries around it. Instead of looking exclusively at the “China as an international superpower” aspect, we need also to note the country’s weaknesses. Otherwise we can’t get a proper view of China’s future prospects.

As I currently understand it, President Xi Jinping’s administration has been successful in establishing its authority over the political forces around the Communist Party of China, so in that sense the situation is stable, but over the long term, as it becomes harder to keep up economic growth, it will also become difficult to deal with the social issues that have already emerged, and even the legitimacy of the party’s rule may be questioned. I believe that the Communists themselves are deeply worried about whether the party will be able to stay in control on into the future. They’ve been using nationalism as the basis for asserting the CPC’s legitimacy, but this makes it increasingly difficult to take a soft line on the external front. So we hear repeated hard-line statements from Beijing, which inevitably make neighboring countries more wary.

Turn Okinawa into a Go-Between for Regional Détente

MIYAGI   What’s the outlook for the issues relating to Okinawa?

ENDŌ   I personally believe that the issue of the bases in Okinawa can be resolved. We need to move beyond the current framework, where proper dialogue is impossible, and find solutions that will satisfy more people. And for this purpose we need to have a vision for the regional order in East Asia accompanied by a consistent vision of Okinawa’s place in this order. If we can come up with this sort of vision, I think we can find the way to resolution of this issue.

In order to accomplish this, we need to have a stable international order in East Asia. I formerly thought that if we could relax the tensions between countries in the region while building a stable order, it would become possible to reduce the US military presence in Okinawa, and that we could eventually reach a point where rather than having US forces stationed permanently, we would arrange for them to be stationed only when necessary to deal with contingencies. I thought we could create this sort of setup allowing us to manage international relations in the region.

But now, with Sino-Japanese relations having become so antagonistic, and with China exhibiting the sort of unilateral behavior that we see in the South China Sea, tensions have also arisen in the relationship between Washington and Beijing, making it difficult to progress in this direction.

So what should we do? I would like to see Okinawa play a positive role in contributing to regional détente. For example, there’s a drive to turn Okinawa into a logistical hub for aviation linking Japan and the rest of Asia. This could be extended to the cultural sphere, with a view also to profits from the promotion of tourism, based on the strengthening of frameworks for economic exchange and of people-to-people cultural interaction. The idea would be to have Okinawa serve as a regional base for diverse people from around the Asia-Pacific region to confirm the importance of mutual trust.

This way, even if Japan and China were squabbling at the national level, it would still be possible to go to Okinawa and see all sorts of people from the Asia-Pacific region mingling and getting along with each other. The island prefecture could serve as a venue for interaction among many people from various places around the region: Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China; the United States; the Pacific island nations; and Japan. While recognizing their differences, they could deepen their mutual understanding. And by building up this sort of experience, Chinese people could learn that the basic way of dealing with disputes in international relations is by resolving them while they are still minor rather than letting them escalate into tests of strength.

But the current administration in Tokyo isn’t moving in this direction; on the contrary, it’s heading toward the heightening of political tensions in the region. For example, it’s pushing ahead with the construction of a new US base in Henoko to replace the Futenma facility. This will seriously exacerbate the mistrust Okinawans feel toward mainland Japan, and it will leave the Americans with a base that’s not accepted by the local population; it will thus create an unstable situation. It will also deepen Chinese people’s suspicions that Japan is stepping up its military role for the purpose of containing China. In these respects I believe the results will be severely negative.

A Shift from the Policies of the Postwar Period

TAIRA   I think the biggest problem for Okinawa now is the US Marines’ presence. The Marines account for 75 percent (17,550 hectares) of the total area of the US bases in Okinawa and for 57 percent of the US military personnel stationed there. They are also the prime source of local incidents involving US forces.

If we consider the issues of Japan’s sovereignty and status as a democratic state, it seems to me that we need to seriously examine whether the Marines truly need to be stationed in Japan. If not, we should aim to have them move out. And if they really must be stationed in Japan, then it is only fair for the mainland to host them.

But if, as I noted earlier, the persistence of the security-treaty setup is keeping Japan from asking the Americans to move their forces out of our country, then we need to break away from this setup. That will represent a true move beyond the postwar legacy. And if mainland Japan were to agree to host US forces now stationed in Okinawa, this would also be a major switch from the postwar course.

In any case, as I noted at the beginning of our discussion, the situation Okinawa now finds itself in is emblematic of the course Japan has taken over the seventy years since the end of World War II. This means that if we want to change Okinawa’s situation, we need to fundamentally reconsider Japan’s postwar course. As I see it, the Okinawa problem has deep roots and is actually an extremely important problem for Japan as a whole.

The Okinawa Problem as a Key Test for Japanese Politics

MIYAGI   Listening to what the two of you have said, I strongly sense that thinking about the issues relating to Okinawa really means thinking about Japan’s domestic politics and foreign policy. And these issues serve as a mirror of Japan’s path over the twenty-plus years since the end of the Cold War. When the Cold War ended, initially the focus was on Asia’s economic rise, and we saw frequent references to Okinawa’s potential as Japan’s gateway to the rest of Asia, hearkening back to its role as a major trading center in the days when it was the Ryūkyū Kingdom. But at a certain point the spotlight shifted to Okinawa’s geostrategic location and security role.

Today’s Asia has two contrasting aspects: an economic sphere where integration is progressing and a security situation where latent tensions continue. The biggest question for the period to come will be how to manage these two aspects without failing. And Okinawa will present the key test of our ability to do so. In the field of tourism, for example, we can see that affluent visitors from other Asian countries are the most promising target for the future. But in the context of dealing with China’s claim to the Senkaku Islands, Okinawa is seen as the front line for Japan’s security. This contrast is a reflection of the “two Asias” that we must deal with.

In the domestic political sphere, over the past two decades various leaders have undertaken efforts intended to help Okinawa. But as you’ve noted during our discussion, the result has been to make the situation extremely intractable. The politicians in Tokyo are clearly suffering “Okinawa fatigue,” feeling that nothing they might try to do for Okinawa’s benefit offers hopes for success.

The situation also involves our relationship with the United States, and this makes it even more difficult to find a way out. The Abe administration is not coming up with any sort of new initiatives to resolve the issue. Instead it’s insisting on implementing the existing plan [to relocate the Futenma facility to Henoko]. I believe this represents a lack of political acumen and creative thinking. And I think we can say that Okinawa presents a key test of the ability of Japanese politics to deal with the problems we face.

(Translated from a roundtable discussion conducted in Japanese on June 19, 2015, and edited by the Nippon.com editorial department. Banner photo: The Senkaku Islands, part of the city of Ishigaki in Okinawa. China has been pressing its claim to these currently uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, and this has led to heightened tensions in the area. © Jiji)

Japan-US Security Treaty China Liberal Democratic Party Hatoyama Yukio East Asia Okinawa Futenma US military Ishiba Shigeru Ryukyu Henoko