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Why a row over military bases on Okinawa spells trouble for US-Japan relations

Why a row over military bases on Okinawa spells trouble for US-Japan relations

The beautiful subtropical island chain of Okinawa is officially Japan’s 47th prefecture, but it’s also home to thousands of US marines. Many are stationed at Futenma Airbase, which some have called “the world’s most dangerous [military] base” for its location in the middle of a city. Debates over the future of the base have been rumbling for decades but, despite the decision to relocate the facility, decisive action to resolve the situation is so far not forthcoming.

Hosting American forces overseas has always been a complex business, but the unpredictablity of the Trump administration complicates it further – and this is especially true when it comes to Okinawa. The newly directed White House is pursuing what looks like a fundamentally new foreign policy, and the president himself has explicitly said that he considers the US’s military support for Japanese interests too expensive. This could offer the chance for places that bear the burden of hosting US bases to improve their social, economic and environmental conditions, but it could also start to recalibrate the concept of security altogether.

On Okinawa, this could mean choosing between the short-term economic and military security provided by US forces currently stationed on the islands, or the longer-term peace and prosperity that might take root if the Americans are persuaded to leave. As far as the base’s local detractors are concerned, their departure is long overdue.

While it formally reverted to Japanese rule in 1972, Okinawa still hosts very nearly 75% of all US military bases located in Japan. Their origins lie in the US’s WWII victory in the Battle of Okinawa, which claimed around 200,000 lives. Today, the island chain is host to some 25,000 military personnel.

As do their counterparts around the globe, the bases where they live bring noise pollution and environmental degradation. US personnel stationed at the base have on occasion been charged with serious crimes, including rape and murder. Military facilities also eat up space that could be used for local development projects. Opinion polls suggest that more than 75% of Okinawans would like to see the US presence on their islands removed or reduced.

But some see upsides to the heavy military presence. In hard-power terms, US forces stationed on Okinawa are well-placed to support Japan’s territorial claims against China – something reinforced by the Trump cabinet’s reassurance that the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands do indeed fall under Article 5 of the US-Japan security alliance. But then there are the knock-on effects of hosting US forces: increased revenues from consumption (sometimes including the sex industry), on-base jobs for locals, and some improvements to infrastructure and amenities. US troops have become part of modern-day Okinawa’s so-called “champuru” (mixed-up) culture and, as such, feed into the area’s tourist trade.

US reconnaissance aircraft on the Okinawa tarmac. EPA/Hitoshi Maeshiro

Now a staunch US ally, Japan is also increasing its own fortification of the island chain in response to the perceived threat posed by China’s military expansion. Amid this, debates over Okinawa typically accuse the US and Japanese central government of putting security objectives and other foreign policy interests ahead of the rights and wishes of a majority of the Island’s people.

There’s some truth in this narrative, but it nonetheless misrepresents a far more complex situation. Life on Okinawa is shaped by unique economic and social circumstances – as illustrated by the fact that despite the opposition to US forces, polls also indicate that Okinawans both consider China a direct threat and support the US-Japan alliance as a protective measure.

Pros and cons

Okinawa, in all its complexity, is becoming a focal point once again, not least since the visit of the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, to the US to meet Donald Trump, during which the security of Japan was an important theme. Lying in such a strategically key location puts Okinawa in a pivotal position when it comes to influencing US-Japan relations, responding to the (military) rise of China and enforcing regional security.

It’s clear that the US bases on Okinawa are hardly the foundations of a glorious and sustainable future, but the picture of their pros and cons is often very distorted. This is rarely portrayed accurately by the mainstream media – and certainly not by heavily partisan politicians (both American and Japanese) who are in a position to change things.

Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe. EPA/Toshifumi Kitamura

The current debate is highly polarised, meaning real progress is not forthcoming. Politicians and business leaders need to start thinking with clarity, and to approach this unstable moment as an opportunity rather than a crisis. This includes acknowledging that while the heavy US military presence comes with some short-term advantages, in the long-term, it comes with serious social, environmental and economic ills.

Okinawa’s maverick governor, Takeshi Onaga, wants to see the troops’ presence greatly reduced. He is lobbying to draw Trump’s attention to the issue, but is struggling to get his voice heard. If he and his team are serious about their cause, they not only need to attract greater international support, they need to pitch it in economic and political terms. Given the Trump team’s “America first” mantra, only a persuasive “deal” that features something to the US forces on the ground is likely to convince Trump and his team.

For Okinawa, policy changes need to fully prosecute and prevent heinous crimes, reduce damage to fragile ecosystems and take concrete measures to protect local identity and culture. If this can be done, these “paradise islands” could serve as a model for how to scale back and manage the impact of US military bases around the world, where they still cause so many problems.