As Okinawa marks 40 years of postwar sovereignty, US bases still an irritant

Okinawa marked the 40th anniversary of its reversion to Japanese sovereignty from US postwar control Tuesday amid political deadlock over the relocation of a key US military base.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters/File
The airplane carrying Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda flies US and Japanese flags as it arrives at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, April 29.

It has been exactly 40 years since the United States relinquished its postwar control over Okinawa, but events held Tuesday to mark reversion of the island chain to Japanese control were clouded by questions regarding the future of the continuing US military presence there.

It was significant that the main ceremony, attended by Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, US Ambassador to Tokyo John Roos, local leaders, and hundreds of Okinawan citizens, was held in Ginowan: The city of 95,000 people is also home to Futenma, a Marine Corps air base that has become the focal point of a seemingly intractable dispute over the US military footprint.

A heavy concentration of military bases is Okinawa's legacy of its ideal strategic location and almost three decades spent under US control after World War II. Futenma, by far the most controversial base, draws complaints about noise pollution, accidents, and crime.

Weeks before the reversion anniversary ceremony, the US and Japan appeared to have broken the deadlock over a two-part 2006 agreement. The deal would require Futenma's relocation to a less-populated part of the island and the transfer of about 8,000 troops and their dependents to the US Pacific territory of Guam by 2014.

After failing to win local support for Futenma's relocation, Tokyo and Washington finally delinked it from the troop transfer, announcing in late April that about 5,000 personnel would move to Guam, with another 4,000 or so spread around other bases in the region, including Hawaii and Australia. Futenma, however, will stay put for the time being.

The 1995 abduction and rape of a local 12-year-old girl by three US servicemen prompted the US and Japan to find ways of lessening the military presence on Okinawa, which makes up less than 1 percent of Japan's total area, yet hosts three-quarters of all US bases and just under half its 47,000 troops in the country.

Despite recent progress on the troop transfer, Japan's government has failed to persuade the people of Henoko, a town located along a largely unspoiled stretch of coastline, to agree to host Futenma's envisaged offshore replacement.

The government's job has been made harder by opposition among potential host communities elsewhere in Japan. Sympathy for the people of Okinawa – where 20 percent of the land is occupied by the US military – has not been matched by a willingness to share the burden.

But resolving the Futenma issue is less urgent now that agreement has been reached on reducing the troop headcount on Okinawa, according to Jun Okumura, a Japan analyst at the Eurasia Group political risk and consulting firm.

 "Separating Futenma from the Guam transfer takes the pressure off both parties to do something about it now," he says. "They can put it on the back burner until, or if, the political climate is more conducive [to base relocation]."

Kurt Campbell, the US assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said the deal should satisfy critics in Congress who had dismissed the original plan as unclear and costly.

"We think it breaks a very long stalemate that has plagued our politics, that has clogged both of our systems," he said last month.

What people (don’t) want

Many Okinawans, though, do not share Mr. Campbell's optimism. In a new poll of the island's residents by the public broadcaster NHK, 71 percent say people from elsewhere in Japan do not understand their plight, up 10 percentage points from a decade ago.

"Nothing has changed since reversion to Japan, when there was a growing expectation that US bases in the prefecture would go away," a 79-year-old woman in Ginowan told Kyodo News. "The Japanese government should examine the situation throughout Okinawa and find out how things really are."

Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo, says it is highly unlikely that Futenma will be moved.

"The Japanese government has known that since the 2006 road map," he says. "If that's the case, the remaining marines will stay at Futenma, and that is an accident waiting to happen."

Alternatives suggested by Jim Webb and two other US senators have gone unheeded, including the option of moving Funtenma's marines to the nearby Kadena air base.

"The Pentagon has ignored them and ignored public opinion in Okinawa, which is why we have the impasse today," says Mr. Kingston.

Okinawa’s burden

Mr. Noda said Thursday he was aware of Okinawa's heavy burden. "I pledge again to alleviate that strain at an early date in specific and tangible ways," he said, adding that it was one of "one of the most important challenges for my cabinet."

The Japanese leader appears to have less to lose by sticking to the original plan than by suggesting alternative sites in Japan – a strategy that led to Yukio Hatoyama's resignation as prime minister in 2010.

"Outside Okinawa, most people support the US-Japan alliance and agree with hosting military bases, as long as they stay on Okinawa," says Kingston. "Politically, Noda won't have to pay that big a price. His Democratic Party of Japan is already a spent force in Okinawan politics, so why should he stick his neck out and alienate the US in the process?"

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