Controversy over a plan to relocate a key US military base in Japan is straining relations between Okinawa and Tokyo. Constructive dialogue between all parties is required to move forward, Alexandra Smith writes.
In 2003 then-US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld declared the Futenma Marine Corps Air Station in Okinawa, ‘the most dangerous base in the world’ due to its proximity to Japanese civilians and the failure to uphold US military safety standards.
A relocation plan to move troops stationed at Futenma to the less populated Henoko Bay has been ongoing over the past two decades; however, a local non-binding referendum in February 2019 revealed that 72 per cent of voters in Okinawa oppose the move. Despite the referendum result, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe remains steadfast that the construction of the new base is the only way forward, much to the dismay of Okinawans.
Okinawa was the site of Japan’s last and bloodiest battle of World War II. Following Japan’s defeat, the island remained under US rule, which continued 20 years after the rest of Japan regained sovereignty. It is viewed as the ‘cornerstone’ of Japan and US security due to its strategic location and because it acts as a powerful deterrent. Of the current 50,000 troops in Japan, around 65 per cent are stationed in Okinawa.
Due to the high number of US base-related accidents, high-profile crimes, noise pollution and environmental damage, it has become apparent that Okinawans, relative to other Japanese, bear a disproportionate burden when it comes to Japan’s regional security relationship.
As Okinawa is a small region, any misstep by the US military can attract outrage and fuel the perception that the US military poses a danger to locals. In 1995 the particularly heinous abduction and rape of a 12-year old girl by three US servicemen caused uproar and became the main catalyst for the Henoko Bay base construction agreement in 1996.
More recently, in April 2019 a US Navy sailor killed a 44-year-old Japanese woman in a murder-suicide incident despite US military officials being aware of previous domestic and sexual violence reports. According to local police reports, 741 serious crimes involving US military personnel or contract employees were investigated between 1972 and 2015, including 129 convictions for rape and 26 for murder.
Due to the proximity of military facilities to civilians, there is a heightened risk of military accidents breaking into the public sphere.
In December 2017, the loose window of a transport helicopter fell into an elementary school playground while children were playing and on 4 June 2019, a piece of rubber protective tape attached to a helicopter blade fell onto a tennis court of a junior high school, reaching national headlines and further igniting safety fears.
Several drink driving incidents involving US servicemen have also injured or killed civilians. In November 2017, a 61 year old man was killed when an intoxicated Marine collided into his car.
Okinawan officials have described measures to combat crimes committed by US military personnel, as ‘extremely insufficient’. There are often promises of military reform following incidents, but these are tokenistic in nature as crimes and accidents continue to happen.
Takeshi Onaga, former-Governor of Okinawa, argued that the Henoko relocation plan would be merely transferring the risk. Instead of scaling down the military presence, the central government is fortifying its position through the relocation plan to Henoko Bay.
It is now more than 20 years since the relocation agreement was made between the US and Japan and the facility is yet to be completed. Ongoing protests by locals and activists, changes in Okinawan leadership, and planning issues have impeded construction efforts.
The relocation has been particularly contentious as the soft sea floor needed to be fortified through mass depositing of sand before construction could begin. This poses significant environmental risks to the bay’s coral reef and endangered animal species, including a unique dugong population.
In September 2018 Denny Tamaki, whose father is a US Marine he has never met, was elected Governor of Okinawa on a platform which promised to counter Tokyo’s efforts to push ahead with the controversial US military base.
The initiation of the landfill work impelled Tamaki and his supporters to hold a referendum in an attempt to prevent construction, the first official prefecture-wide survey in 23 years. Despite the referendum’s successful turnout, the poll was non-binding and has little bearing on the central government’s decision making, leading many to question whether Okinawa is sufficiently democratic and autonomous. The only concession made so far has been the plan to transfer of 9,000 Marines to Guam and Hawaii.
Despite strong opposition towards US military bases, it should not be inferred that Okinawans hold resentment towards the US military itself. The chief concern is that Okinawa is being ignored by the central government, a sentiment which has endured since Japan’s imperial past.
Although it may be too late to halt the relocation plans, it is not too late to minimise environmental destruction and build a constructive tripartite dialogue that not only listens to, but also addresses the legitimate concerns of Okinawans.