Japanese Island Looks For a Few Less Marines

As a key US military beachhead, Okinawa chafes at heavy burden.

About 100 men and a handful of women sit in a darkened briefing room on an early summer afternoon and consider what it means to be a United States marine stationed in Okinawa, Japan, in the waning years of the 20th century.

Gunnery Sgt. Johnnie Jones is using slides to make his message memorable. One is titled "Problem Areas," a list that includes rape, mugging, and stabbing. "How many of you do not know about the rape case?" he asks, referring to the 1995 rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl by three US servicemen. None of the new arrivals raises a hand.

Now that you have made it through boot camp, he says as he paces the aisle, "the hardest thing about being a marine ... is staying out of trouble."

Members of the US military in Okinawa, once conquerors, now must remind themselves that they are merely "invited guests" whose misbehavior could jeopardize the network of US bases and training areas on this Pacific island.

US and Japanese officials argue that the 100,000 troops the US maintains in East Asia - 29,000 of whom are in Okinawa - are the key to stability in the world's most economically dynamic region. The US forces protect Japan, thereby eliminating the need for Japan to develop a full-fledged military, a state of affairs that conforms with the Japanese Constitution and keeps many countries in Asia calm.

But the Okinawans - annexed by Japan in the 19th century, slaughtered during World War II, and all but ignored for the last five decades - have decided that the time has come for the Americans to go someplace else.

Oddly, the leaders and activists who oppose the US presence, many of them galvanized by the September 1995 rape, have no tangible leverage. Okinawa's weak economy is dependent on contributions from the Japanese government. Okinawans are pacifists and seem unlikely to offer any violent opposition to the US.

The power of the Okinawans is most clearly seen in the actions of the Japanese and US officials who want the bases to stay. The US military is making unprecedented attempts to prevent "problem areas," and Tokyo is trying harder than ever before to appease the Okinawans financially.

A different history

Okinawa is part of a chain of islands called the Ryukyus that drifts off the southern tip of the Japanese archipelago like the tail of a kite. The Ryukyu kingdom was once a more or less independent entity that traded between China and Japan, but maintained cultural traditions of its own.

In 1872, the Japanese government made the kingdom into a prefecture and in World War II the islands became a key part of Japan's military defenses. During the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, approximately 100,000 civilians died as the Japanese military fought to forestall an invasion of the main islands.

The Allies turned the Ryukyus into a staging area, building airstrips and bases, and the US held on to them, even after it ceased occupying the rest of Japan in 1952.

Opposition to US administration increased during the 1960s. Okinawans agitated for reversion to Japanese rule, believing that becoming a Japanese prefecture again would mean a reduction in the US military presence. On May 15, 1972, they got their wish.

A quarter century has passed, but for many here the deal they thought they were getting has never been honored. The US has returned about 16 percent of the land it controlled in 1972, but it still uses 58,000 acres in the prefecture, including one-fifth of the Okinawan main island.

An agreement between the US and Japan announced last year to ease Okinawan concerns would return 12,000 acres over the next 5 to 7 years. The Okinawans want the Americans to pull out of the congested central and southern portions of the main island, but most of land to be returned is in northern Okinawa.

The US has agreed to vacate the Marines' Futenma Air Station in southern Okinawa, but this is conditioned on the construction of a huge offshore platform for helicopters elsewhere in Okinawa that will serve many of Futenma's functions.

"Okinawans believed that after reversion the bases would be reduced, but during 25 years the situation hasn't changed," sighs Tetsumi Takara, a law professor at the University of the Ryukyus.

Outside the university, a leafy enclave not far from the prefectural capital of Naha, a cabdriver named Kimie Miyagi shakes her head when she hears about the professor's views. "It's fine if college professors oppose the bases, because they'll still have jobs if the bases disappear," she says. "But the rest of us will still have people to feed."

Ms. Miyagi's comments illustrate the economic ambivalence that the bases inspire. Tokyo spends billions of dollars each year to help finance the cost of the US military's presence, money that trickles down to the Okinawans.

Besides paying salaries of Okinawan civilians who work on the bases, Tokyo also pays thousands of local landlords who lease their land to the US. Some have lately been refusing to renew their leases, forcing the Japanese government to revise a law to compel them to do so, but most are happy to take the money.

Since 1972, Tokyo has invested almost 4.6 trillion yen (if it were a lump sum, the amount would be worth $39 billion at today's rates) to develop Okinawa - money that is seen as compensation for hosting a foreign military. It is a level of support that surpasses that of any other nation where the US stations its troops, and the Tokyo government is now coming up with plans to provide even more assistance.

But despite all this cash, many Okinawan leaders say the bases have stunted Okinawa's economy, not bolstered it. The prefecture has the lowest per capita income in Japan, and the unemployment rate for young people - around 12 percent - is alarmingly high in a country where the national average is 3.4 percent.

Fixing the blame for Okinawa's economic troubles is complex. Critics of the bases say Tokyo's money has sapped Okinawa's entrepreneurial spirit and been spent in the wrong way. About 90 percent of Tokyo's investment has gone into roads, harbors, and other public-works projects, leaving relatively little for schools and training.

"The biggest problem is that Okinawans don't make efforts," counters Ryunosuke Megumi, a manager at the Bank of the Ryukyus and a former Japanese military officer.

Now the prefectural government is developing plans to rejuvenate Okinawa's economy by trying to exploit its geographical position as a crossroads in East Asia. Over the years, says Masaharu Miyagi, of the prefecture's "Cosmopolitan City" Development and Promotion Office, "Okinawans have been trying to convince the central government [to reduce the US military presence] from a rather emotional point of view. We realized we had to have something concrete in our hand." Many of the ideas call for deregulation and the use of land now occupied by the US military.

Relying on principle

Meanwhile, Okinawans keep driving home the idea that the current arrangement is fundamentally unfair. Okinawa's governor, Masahide Ota, has made several trips to the US to try to win American support for a reduced presence in Okinawa. His appeal relies on principle.

As a top prefectural official, Masaaki Aguni, puts it, the question asked of Americans is this: "When it comes to justice and democracy, the US is so proud of itself. It is the world leader. Why don't you operate that way toward us?"

But Pentagon officials say the matter is out of their hands, since it is up to Japan to decide where the bases should be. The Japanese government has voiced sympathy for the Okinawans, but its officials seem to rule out the idea of moving any major US facilities to the Japanese main islands because of opposition there.

The bottom-line inequities of the arrangement - 75 percent of the US bases in Japan are in Okinawa, which constitutes just 0.6 percent of Japan's landmass - make Okinawans believe they are being discriminated against.

In their private moments, they elaborate at length and with deep emotion about the differences in temperament and outlook that separate them from the Japanese.

Okinawans aren't the only ones sensitive to the historical injustices of their situation.

Col. Ann Testa, one of she commanders of the Air Force's Kadena Air Base here often greets newly arrived troops. "When I ... talk about all of the burdens that the Okinawan people have had to put up with since World War II and the Battle of Okinawa, it makes you really start thinking about ... the fact that we occupy an awful lot of this island and that everywhere you look there is an active-duty military person."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Japanese Island Looks For a Few Less Marines
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today