Against the Locals: Japanese Persistence in Maintaining US Bases in Okinawa

Okinawans protest against US base relocation
Okinawans gathered to hold a sit-in demonstration against the relocation of the Futenma air base in Henoko on Feb. 14, 2020. Image credit: Ivan Gonzalez Pujol

Under the influence of China and Japan, Okinawa developed as a vassal kingdom (Ryukyu Kingdom) until late XIX century, when the new Japanese Empire incorporated it as the southernmost prefecture. After being devastated during the WWII, the prefecture fell under the U.S. occupation until 1972. The U.S. bases in Okinawa served the purpose of balancing against communist states in Asia and played a prominent role during the Vietnam War. This role of Okinawa in Japan and the U.S. security has put Okinawa citizens on the front line of any eventual major conflict.

Okinawa has it all, but not for good

Okinawa has become one of least developed, least GDP per capita, highest unemployment, and fewer job opportunities for high-skilled individuals of all prefectures in Japan. Its population accounts for over 1 percent of the total Japanese, but its total GDP is considerably less than 1 percent. It contrasts with its strategic location in-between China and the Pacific Ocean, close to Taiwan and near the sea lines of communication to North East Asia. That explains in great measure why Okinawa prefecture is hosting over 70 percent of all the U.S. forces in Japan. Ironically, Okinawa is one of the smallest prefectures of Japan by territory. After the WWII, Okinawa’s GDP depended on the U.S. forces settled there; but this is no longer the case. Today, the U.S. forces in Okinawa account for less than 6% of the gross income of the prefecture and occupy a territory that might be used for more value-added economic sectors.

From Futenma to Henoko

Problems with the U.S. forces in Okinawa have an extensive history. It includes insecurity posed by frequent aircraft crashes and accidents, and criminal offenses by the U.S. forces. The foreign nature of the U.S. forces and its proximity to residential areas (including Futenma base) amplify civilian involvement into these incidents. Regarding Futenma base, in the 1940s, the surroundings of the base where inhabited by little population; but later on, its surroundings become a fully developed residential area. It explains why in the 1990s Japan and the U.S. agreed on moving the base. 

After several proposals, the Japanese government decided that Henoko (a northeastern location in Okinawa) was the only realistic alternative for relocating the Futenma base. The relocation carries some strengths: (1) Okinawa keeps being a geostrategic place for the U.S. and Japan; (2) Henoko district is a lot more rural area than Futenma surroundings, thus diminishing the probability of civilian involvement; and (3) It does not require creating a new base from scratch but enlarging the existing Camp Schwab through land reclamation. These points seem to have influenced Japan’s decision to support the relocation to Henoko.

The not so easy relocation

Even if the Japanese government affirms that they are not considering alternatives to the relocation to Henoko, political and technical setbacks have surfaced. On the political front, a coalition aimed to stop the U.S. bases in Okinawa, “All Okinawa”, harvested many political victories. This coalition has been winning Okinawa’s governor elections since 2014. Similar trends happened in the Prefectural Assembly and Japanese General elections, when parties opposing the relocation collected significant victories in Okinawa. The political front started many initiatives to stop the relocation, though with minor success, as legal actions to stop the landfill works have been unsuccessful to the date. In addition, Okinawa prefecture held a non-binding referendum in 2019 on the relocation plans to move the U.S. base to Henoko. As a result, 72 percent of the voters opposed the relocation. However, the Japanese government decided not to comply with the results and has kept the relocation works. These political initiatives are receiving support from protesters. Thus, rallies have eventually gathered several thousand people, but there are also been smaller acts of protest. One of these protests is the daily sit-in in front of Camp Schwab to oppose and delay the landfill works. 

Base enlargement works at Henoko will also change the landscape, which has raised many concerns. First, it will put at risk Henoko surrounding ecosystem, as the landfill works will affect the endangered living beings dwelling the area. Second, geological composition of the grounds is much softer than expected, thus posing great technical challenges. On the top of that, reclaimed area will stand on a geological fault, making it more prone to seismic activity.

In short, moving Futenma base have encountered political, technical, and social obstacles. The latest estimates draw a scenario where costs rise almost threefold and completion will delay many years. Still, Japanese government persevere in its will to move the base to Henoko. 

To the uncertain future

The U.S. forces in Okinawa come with several pros and cons. Stationing the U.S. forces in Okinawa offer security and political advantages for Japan. The bases not only ensure the U.S. closeness to potential conflicts in the East and South East Asia, but Okinawa is key in protecting the sea lines of communication. Domestically, the minor role of Okinawa on the overall Japanese economy and population makes maintaining troops in Okinawa an easy call to avoid the political costs that an alternative relocation to mainland Japan would carry.

On the other side, the relocation is surfacing social and political mistrust between Okinawa people and the Japanese government. Alienation of the locals in issues such as the U.S. bases relocation have already led to political changes in Okinawan politics. It also may perpetuate Okinawans’ sense of being an expendable minority within the Japanese political game. This has fostered the willing of more autonomy in Okinawa, where maintaining the status quo seems to lose rapidly its popularity.

A last remark is to be pointed out. Over the long run, governments cannot rule against geographically concentrated voters. Besides, Japanese government should acknowledge the special indigenous status of Okinawans by taking their collective rights into special consideration and protection. Thus, the only long-term option is to diminish the number of the U.S. bases established in Okinawa. The longer it will take for the Japanese government to realize it, the more alienated will Okinawans be, the longer it will take (if possible) for the Japanese government to recover their sympathy, and the more difficult will be for the U.S. to pursue their duty under an amicable environment.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.