Last week, Japan’s southernmost prefecture of Okinawa marked the 50th anniversary of its return to Japanese rule after an extended U.S. occupation following World War II. When Okinawa was returned to Japan in 1972 the government pledged to make it a “peaceful island.” But that goal remains incomplete. Okinawa has been plagued with discord and division with the “mainland” over the burden of U.S military bases on the island and continuing economic disparities.
Okinawa residents have spent decades protesting the constant presence of the U.S. military in their daily lives. There are now 31 U.S. military installations on the island prefecture of Okinawa, which accounts for 70 percent of all U.S. military bases in Japan.
The current flashpoint is a plan to relocate U.S. Marine Corp Air Station Futenma, currently located in a dense residential area. All parties agree that the base – once dubbed “the most dangerous base in the world” – needs to be moved away from the apartment buildings, schools, and workplaces that crowd around it. A plan to revert the Futenma base to Okinawa’s control was announced back in 1996. The problem is that Okinawans hotly contest the plan to replace the base with a new one, built on reclaimed land in Henoko, a less populated coastal area of the prefecture.
The Okinawan local government and central government approved the controversial relocation plan in 2006 which has been criticized for being legally flawed on environmental protection grounds.
Okinawans are overwhelmingly against the replacement plan, saying their prefecture already carries too heavy a burden in terms of hosting U.S. bases. They want the Futenma replacement facility either moved to another prefecture within Japan or scrapped altogether. Successive governors of Okinawa prefecture have sought to delay construction through legal wrangling, including revoking permits for necessary work and questioning the environmental impact. Japan’s central government, however, remains committed to the current plan, seeing it as crucial for the overall Japan-U.S. alliance.
The current governor of Okinawa, Denny Tamaki, came to power in 2018 riding on public opposition to the construction of the new base. Tamaki, who was born to a Japanese mother and U.S military father, is an staunch advocate for reducing the American military presence in Okinawa. In campaigning against the new air base, he has stressed that he objects to the high concentration of bases in Okinawa prefecture rather than seeking the closure and removal of all U.S. military bases in Japan.
Tamaki has criticized Tokyo’s disregard for local democracy, stating it takes a back seat to U.S. military operations. Despite a 2019 referendum showing 72 percent of residents are against the construction of a new air base at Henoko, Tokyo rejected the result and gave the go-ahead. The issue even made it into this week’s Japan-U.S. Joint Leaders’ Statement, which saw U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio confirmed “the steady implementation of the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan, including the construction of the Futenma Replacement Facility at Henoko as the only solution that avoids the continued use of MCAS Futenma.”
A day before the 50th anniversary commemorations, a “peace march” began at Futenma Air Station, once again calling for the base to be relocated outside the prefecture. The annual peace march was canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tamaki has linked the future prosperity of the prefecture to the need for fewer bases, saying that “the U.S. bases present the biggest obstacle to the economic development of Okinawa.” On May 10 Tamaki visited Tokyo, where he presented “A Proposal for the Realization of a Peaceful and Prosperous Okinawa” which aims to make Okinawa’s economy sustainable and self-reliant.
Okinawa is known as Japan’s smallest and poorest prefecture. While it has seen growth in tourism-related and communications infrastructure, it still suffers from an economic gap with the mainland.
Okinawa is home to 1.74 million people, but residents’ per capita income has failed to reach the national average. It struggles with child poverty, a fragile industrial structure, and infrastructure difficulties in its more remote islands. Tamaki says the land currently used for U.S. bases scheduled to be returned to the prefecture could generate $6.9 billion – more than triple the current base-related income in the prefecture – and create 80,000 jobs as opposed to 9,000 jobs currently offered to locals on U.S. bases.
Locals are fed up with daily noise pollution from aircraft and drills, along with safety concerns from frequent plane accidents and falling debris as well as environmental pollution. Public resentment over sexual assaults and other violent crimes peaked after the 1995 gang rape of a 12-year-old girl by three American servicemen. The case fueled the perception that U.S. troops pose a danger to locals and sparked mass protests calling for personnel to leave the island, jolting the Japan-U.S. alliance. The civic group Okinawan Women Act Against Military Violence detailed as many as 350 sex crimes committed by U.S. forces since the U.S post-war occupation of Okinawa.
Local residents are also still reeling over the outbreak of COVID-19 across U.S military bases in Okinawa early this year and the PCR testing exemption for U.S personnel arriving in Okinawa that led to the outbreak. The pandemic reinforced existing concerns about the ways U.S. bases conflict with local sovereignty: Japan is unable to enforce its preferred COVID-19 prevention measures on U.S. bases. “It is extremely regrettable that the infections are rapidly spreading among U.S. personnel when we Okinawans are doing our utmost to contain the infections,” Tamaki said during an outbreak on U.S. bases in 2020.
Tamaki’s four-point proposal to revitalize Okinawa includes a sweeping overhaul of the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which has not been amended since it came into effect in 1960. Tamaki said the agreement is “out of step with the needs of the public” and should reverse special privileges for U.S. personnel and their families – including exceptions to domestic Japanese laws – and allow local authorities to enter U.S. military facilities.
The Japanese government has continued to plan for the economic development of Okinawa. But the prefectural government and the central government are at odds on how to tackle the core issue while maintaining U.S. deterrence. Okinawa is geographically closer to Taiwan than it is to the mainland of Japan and U.S. air bases on the island serve a strategic role in terms of access to the Asia-Pacific region and deterrence against China’s expanding military presence and aggression from North Korea.
Prime Minister Kishida Fumio spent two days in Okinawa to commemorate the 50th anniversary and to offer flowers at a national cemetery for the war dead. In the final stages of World War II, 200,000 local residents lost their lives the tragic Battle of Okinawa. Kishida pledged to “steadily make progress on the alleviation of the burden [placed on Okinawa] while maintaining the deterrence offered by the Japan-U.S. alliance.”
Japanese Emperor Naruhito also gave a virtual speech at the anniversary celebration acknowledging the “various issues” and reflected on the hardships the people of Okinawa have faced since World War II.
In his anniversary address, meanwhile, Tamaki hoped “the government will make sincere efforts to create a peaceful and prosperous Okinawa where every resident can feel happy in the truest sense.”