Okinawa’s Burden

January 11, 2019 | 2:21 pm
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

The author with Gov. Masahide Ota in his office at the Okinawa Peace Research Institute in April, 2017

China isn’t the only country tearing up precious coral reefs to build new military outposts in the Pacific. Just before the new year holiday, in order to fulfill obligations to the US military, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe began covering the coral reefs of Henoko Bay with landfill.

It’s the latest move in a decades old struggle between the people of Okinawa, who don’t want another US military base on their tiny island, and the central government of Japan, which agreed to construct the massive new Henoko facility under the terms of a controversial agreement with the United States. US military bases already occupy nearly a quarter of the 466 sq. mi island, which is home to approximately 1.5 million people. Three quarters of all US military bases in Japan and over half of the US military personnel stationed in Japan are concentrated in Okinawa, which accounts for less than 1% of Japan’s total land mass. 

Legacy of US Military Occupation

The huge US military footprint in Okinawa is a product of post-war US-Japan relations. US forces took the island in the closing months of World War II in one of the most gruesome and costly battles of the Pacific war. Of the estimated 200,000 people killed during twelve weeks of fighting between US and Japanese forces, 120,000 were Okinawan civilians, many of whom were pressed into military service or encouraged to commit suicide by a depleted Japanese military that knew it was on the verge of defeat. Imperial officials did not expect to hold the island, but sought to fight a costly war of attrition that would discourage a US invasion of Japan’s main islands. The strategy worked. The horrific consequences of the Battle of Okinawa influenced President Truman’s deliberations about the potential costs of invading Japan.

The perception that Tokyo sacrificed Okinawans to spare the Japanese continues to define the island’s relationship with the rest of Japan. In a conversation in his office in Naha, the revered former governor of Okinawa, Masahide Ota, a survivor of the battle, told me the people of the island were far less angry at the invading American soldiers than they were at the Japanese officials who condemned them to senseless death.

Ota also noted that in the early days of the US occupation many Okinawans hoped the United States would return at least some of the autonomy they lost when Imperial Japan annexed the island in 1879. Unfortunately, according to Ota, the US occupation government showed little regard for Okinawan rights.

The new post-war Japanese government imposed limitations on US military activity in the main islands, including prohibitions on bringing US nuclear weapons into Japan. The US Joint Chiefs of Staff responded by concentrating US forces, including US nuclear forces, in Okinawa. The chiefs sought to hold on to the island indefinitely in order to preserve their freedom of action, and US nuclear deterrence, in the Pacific. It took enormous pressure from the Japanese public to force political leaders in Tokyo and Washington to negotiate an agreement that returned sovereign control of Okinawa to Japan in 1972.

Ever since, the people of Okinawa and their elected representatives have been fighting with the government in Tokyo to recover at least some of the land appropriated by the US military. They argue that if these US bases are really necessary to defend Japan–a claim many Okinawans doubt–then the burden of hosting them should not fall so heavily on the people of Okinawa. At the very least, any new US military facilities, like the new construction at Henoko, should not be built in Okinawa.

Glimmer of Hope

A new Japanese government, led by a new Japanese political party, assumed office in the fall of 2009. For the first and only time since the end of World War II, a set of Japanese leaders from a political party other than the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won control of the government at the polls. They campaigned on the promise of establishing a more balanced relationship with the United States that would allow Tokyo to exercise greater independence over Japan’s foreign and military policy. Yukio Hatoyama, who led the party to victory and became its first prime minister, promised to renegotiate the controversial agreement over the new US military facility in Okinawa. Stopping construction of the new US base was a central issue during the campaign.

US Asia experts in the Obama administration found the Hatoyama government’s desire for a more balanced relationship “unwelcome” and “disturbing.”  Defense Secretary Robert Gates refused to dine with the new prime minister during a trip to Tokyo shortly after the election. President Obama refused to renegotiate the base agreement. Relentless US criticism of Hatoyama’s government, and its failure to deliver on a key campaign promise, contributed to his decision to resign less than a year after his historic election.

Despite this setback the people of Okinawa continued to try to stop the base. The provincial government used legal and administrative regulations to prevent construction. Demonstrators, many of them elderly villagers, impeded progress by lying down in front of massive earth moving vehicles. But the Abe government, under pressure from the US military, used highly questionable interpretations of the law to override the legal and administrative prohibitions enacted by the provincial government. The prime minister replaced local police with rent-a-cops from other regions of Japan who were more willing to beat the elderly demonstrators protesting outside the base. Abe also used a new national security law and increased control of the Japanese press to limit and shape reporting on the base issue.

Given the increasingly formidable obstacles at home,  Okinawan governmental and non-governmental organizations turned to the international community for support. They made their case to block the base and invalidate the US-Japan military agreements that mandate its completion to special rapporteurs of the UN Human Rights Council. They also enlisted the support of US environmental organizations to call attention to the harmful impacts of the construction in Henoko Bay and filed suit against the US Department of Defense to try to stop construction.

Most recently, Okinawan heritage groups in the United States organized a series of demonstrations and petitioned the White House in an effort to alert US lawmakers to an upcoming referendum meant to demonstrate the extent of local opposition to the new base. The hope is that a new and more progressive US Congress might take action in support of Okinawan democratic rights to determine their own fate and preserve Okinawa’s environment.

Uphill Struggle

US lawmakers routinely pass resolutions and enact laws to support the human rights of various aggrieved populations around the world, but they’ve been conspicuously quiet on the question of Okinawa. Last year I accompanied former primer minister Hatoyama as he pleaded with several powerful members of the House and the Senate to take action to stop the base. Most responded to his entreaties with mild surprise or polite indifference. Members of Congress with an interest in US Asia policy who take the time to travel to Japan routinely confine their fact finding to meetings with the defense and foreign policy officials in Tokyo who are pushing the base construction forward.

Those same Japanese officials praised a Trump administration nuclear and defense posture that may impose an even a greater burden on the people of Okinawa. Vice Foreign Minister Takeo Akiba told a US congressional commission that preparing to re-deploy US nuclear weapons in Okinawa is a reasonable next step. US advocates of abrogating the INF Treaty are discussing deploying US land-based intermediate range missiles on the island. Okinawan hopes to shoulder less of the burden of the US military presence in the Pacific need to overcome not only the intransigence of Abe’s LDP, but a new push by US defense and foreign policy professionals to build up US forces in the region.

About the author

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Gregory Kulacki is a Senior Analyst and the China Project Manager for the Global Security Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). He is also a Visiting Fellow at the Research Center for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (RECNA) at Nagasaki University. He works on improving cross-cultural communication between the United States of America, China and Japan on nuclear weapons and related security issues. Prior to joining UCS in 2002, Dr. Kulacki was the Director of External Studies at Pitzer College, an Associate Professor of Government at Green Mountain College and the China Director for the Council on International Educational Exchange. Gregory completed his doctorate in government and politics at the University of Maryland College Park.