Why Okinawa is outraged – again – over US military presence

The governor of Okinawa opposes plans to relocate a US military base, continuing a twenty-year saga that pits the Japanese-American alliance against locals fed up with Tokyo. 

Koji Harada/AP
Protestors scuffle with police at an attempted sit-in at American Camp Schwab in Okinawa, Japan on Tuesday. Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga revoked approval today for a plan to relocate a US air base from one part of the island to another, although the federal Japanese government plans to fight his decision.

Efforts to relocate an unpopular US marine base in Okinawa, Japan, to a less populated part of the island are meeting with renewed resistance, as Gov. Takeshi Onaga makes good on campaign promises to revoke approval for the plan. 

Okinawa, which makes up less than 1 percent of Japan’s land, has long hosted American forces, contributing almost 75 percent of land occupied by US military bases in Japan.

Okinawa is part of a chain of islands 400 miles south of the rest of the country, in a key position for the US and Japan to keep an eye on China’s growing aggression in the South China Sea.

In recent decades, a series of crimes committed by American servicemen, including the rape of a 12-year-old girl, have embittered locals against the US presence. Around 25,000 troops are stationed around the island of roughly 1.3 million.

Bowing to safety concerns, Japanese and American officials agreed more than 20 years ago to move Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from its current location in a crowded city center to a less populated corner of the island, but that's not far enough, say locals.

For two decades, local politicians and public protesters have called for the base to move off Okinawa entirely – a change Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is reluctant to consider.

Governor Onaga’s opposition, which included canceling construction permits, promises to draw out the base drama even further. It also forces the Abe Administration to decide whether the relocation merits a lengthy legal fight with Onaga – an move guaranteed to be unpopular with the people of Okinawa and one that could reinforce the prime minister’s "reputation for imperiousness," according to The New York Times.

Meanwhile, the US reaffirmed its support for the plan as key to Japanese-American military cooperation.

Military issues have dominated Japanese politics this year, as Mr. Abe pursues a controversial plan to reinterpret the Constitution’s ban on using so-called "Self-Defense Forces" in overseas combat.

The ban, imposed after World War II, sought to prevent Japan from projecting military power abroad and fend off any resurgence of colonialist aggression as in the years before and during the war.

Today, the US welcomes a strengthened Japanese military as it warily eyes China’s expanding might.

But Okinawa has its own reasons to treat military bases with caution.

Locals interviewed by the Japan Times report feeling "repeatedly betrayed" by the national government, part of a long history of distrust worsened by the last days of World War II, when up to 25 percent of civilians died during the Battle of Okinawa – many of them allegedly ordered by Japanese troops to commit suicide.

Today, the feeling persists that Okinawans' opinions don't matter in Tokyo.

"Okinawa doesn’t want to be a bargaining chip," said Okinawan Professor Masaaki Gabe to the New York Times in July. "And it is speaking out in ways that the rest of Japan has not."

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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