Views on US bases are shifting in Japan’s Okinawa

For decades, residents of Japan’s Okinawa have firmly opposed US military bases in the region, but a subtle shift is afoot, fueled by Chinese saber-rattling and economic challenges.

The bases are often seen as placing a disproportionate burden on Japan’s southernmost subtropical region.

Okinawa includes 0.6 percent of the territory of the Japanese archipelago, but contains 70 percent of the land used for US bases and more than half of the 50,000-strong troop presence.

Base-related crime, accidents, and pollution are major nuisances for Okinawa’s 1.5 million residents.

But with Okinawa now a front line in the burgeoning confrontation between China and US regional allies, the bases are becoming increasingly important to American and Japanese defense strategies.

“An excessive burden has been placed on Okinawa,” said 39-year-old Ryo Matayoshi, a municipal councilor in Ginowan City, Okinawa.

But “when we think about the security of Japan and East Asia, the presence of bases on Okinawa is in a way inevitable,” he told AFP.

“Many people of our generation recognize this reality.”

Japan has long been suspicious of China’s burgeoning military, but the stakes have risen as Beijing hardens its rhetoric towards Taiwan and angers Tokyo with incursions over disputed islands.

In August, Chinese exercises advanced in response to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan on the issue, with several missiles landing in waters near Okinawa.

“China’s response to the Pelosi visit and the Russian invasion of Ukraine … have heightened threat perceptions,” said Yoichiro Sato, a professor and foreign policy expert at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University.

– crime, noise, pollution –

Opposition to bases is deeply rooted in Okinawa, which was an independent kingdom prior to Japanese annexation in the 19th century.

Tokyo used it as a buffer to slow US forces during World War II, and over a quarter of the population died in the 1945 Battle of Okinawa.

The US occupation did not end until 1972 under a mutual agreement that left American bases.

And persistent aircraft noise, pollution and crime have kept anti-grassroots sentiment strong, according to 82-year-old politician and peace activist Suzuyo Takazato.

Between 1972 and 2020, the Okinawa government recorded 582 violent crimes involving base residents, and the kidnapping and rape of a 12-year-old girl by three US soldiers in 1995 drew more than 80,000 protesters.

The US Armed Forces treaty restricts Japanese legal oversight — a persistent sore point, Takazato said.

“When a helicopter crashed at Okinawa International University, it was surrounded by US soldiers and did not allow inspection,” she said.

In recent years, opposition has emerged to the proposed relocation of Futenma Air Force Base in Ginowan, sometimes described as the world’s most dangerous base because of its proximity to residential areas.

The government wants it moved north to less-populated Henoko, but opponents of the base want it removed entirely.

That is the position of Governor Denny Tamaki, a prominent anti-base politician who was recently re-elected.

But locally, candidates backed by the grassroots Liberal Democratic Party, Japan’s ruling party, are gaining ground, including in the areas where Futenma and Henoko are located.

– “Economic Realities” –

The postponement reflects security concerns but also financial challenges, Councilman Matayoshi said.

“You don’t just focus on the fundamentals… people focus on the economic realities.”

Okinawa is Japan’s poorest prefecture and its tourism-dependent economy has been hit hard by the pandemic.

Polls ahead of Tamaki’s re-election found that the economy was the top concern for most voters, and the proportion citing bases as their top priority rose from 45 percent in 2014 to 32 percent this year.

The bases contributed just 6 percent of Okinawa’s GDP in 2017, but they bring in lucrative government subsidies.

Conservatives woo Okinawa voters by telling them that the LDP “brings these benefits from the mainland,” Sato said.

Politician Takazato points out that “three generations have grown up with the US presence,” which is now so entrenched that some think “they have no choice but to accept it.”

But Matayoshi sees real connections being made between Okinawans and troops thanks to US military work and friendships.

“We’ll be good neighbors,” he said.

The traditional anti-base sentiment makes it “difficult in Okinawa to say publicly that you accept their presence”.

But “I think the opposition is gradually fading”.