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On Okinawa, trouble at home base
By Kosuke Takahashi

TOKYO - The recent crash of a US military transport helicopter in a densely populated residential area near the United States Marine Corps Futenma Air Station on Okinawa in southernmost Japan is again arousing latent anti-American sentiment there. This presents more than public relations problems, since the strategic value of Okinawa cannot be overemphasized. The revived resentment comes as the US military strives to expand the global scope of its operations from Japan, South Korea and elsewhere in East Asia to the Middle East and the Indian Ocean in "war against terrorism".

Okinawa is home to 25,000 of the almost 40,000 US troops in Japan, excluding the Navy Seventh Fleet's 12,000 personnel, with their home port at Yokosuka in Kanagawa Prefecture. It is considered part of a global forward base in the new US basing strategy. Reconciling the local demand to move the base with US strategic interests appears impossible at this time.

The mounting anti-base movement in Okinawa could eventually hurt Japan-US security arrangements, the centerpiece of the two countries' solid strategic relations, unless the two nations swiftly ease the burden of US military bases, long carried by the Okinawans alone. The return to Okinawa of the contentious Futenma Air Station could be one political feasible way for both governments to avoid aggravating the situation.

On September 8, 1951, Tokyo and Washington signed the Japan-US Security Treaty that has served as the cornerstone for peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region, and on which both nations have built a close security relationship.

"Okinawa has been the cornerstone for Japan's own safety and prosperity for years, firmly supporting the US-Japan security alliance," professor Haruo Shimada at Keio University in Tokyo and a special adviser to the Cabinet Office under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, told Asia Times Online. "Thus, to realize a society where the Okinawans can live feeling reassured, without any anxiety about their safety, itself contributes to the security partnership of Japan and the US." Shimada served from 1996 to 2000 as chairman of two committees created to study the domestic complexities and problems involving US bases on Okinawa, advisory groups to Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary.

Marines go to university
A large US Marines CH-53 military helicopter crashed and burst into flames on a sunny Friday afternoon, August 13. It struck a school building on the Okinawa International University campus in Ginowan, a southern city in the main island of Okinawa. Three US Marines on board were injured, but there were no civilian casualties, though some vehicles and homes were damaged by crash debris. One piece smashed a window in a house 50 meters from the crash site and bits of glass sprayed a baby's cradle. On a wing and a prayer just a minute earlier, the baby was grabbed from his cradle and rushed outside by his mother who had been surprised by the roar of the falling helicopter. She escaped from the house while hugging her baby close, news reports said.

The university is located in a populated residential area bordering the south side of US Marine Corps Futenma Air Station, from where the chopper took off. For the university, it was not the first such accident. In 1972, a fuel cell dropped from a US surveillance plane hit the campus, but caused no injuries. But in 1959, a US fighter jet crashed into an elementary school in central Okinawa island, leaving 17 people dead, including 11 children. Okinawans remember these accidents and the recent crash revives bitter memories.

This time, even more than the accident itself, what infuriated the Okinawan people is that the US military apparently made the campus its virtual extraterritorial sanctuary. US Marines sealed off the crash site and barred Japanese police from joining the on-site investigation conducted by the US Marines. Japanese media were also kept away from the site, but Japanese TV stations still managed frequently to broadcast some disturbing and offensive scenes, including one in which several young Marines on the Japanese camps repeatedly yelled at the media, "Get out! Get out!"
All of those rebroadcast scenes have aroused in the Japanese public some suspicions that the US military still retains an occupation force mentality and that Okinawa remains under American occupation, drawing protests from residents of the prefecture. Citizens, sponsored by the Ginowan city government, plan to hold a protest rally against the US forces in Okinawa this Sunday, September 12. So far they have collected more than 100,000 signatures from Okinawa and elsewhere, according to local newspapers.

The business and economic picture in Okinawa, vis-a-vis the US bases, is complicated. Some residents are heavily dependent on the US bases and Okinawa's conservatives, including those in the construction industry who support the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, are in favor of the bases. For example, a plan to relocate Futenma Air Station to Nago, a northern, less populated city in Okinawa, chosen for its relatively low impact on the environment, was abandoned, largely because of business pressure.

To be fair, the US military just may have invoked a provision of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which has governed the management and operations of the US military in Japan. The SOFA was signed by both governments in 1960 when the two countries revised the Japan-US Security Treaty. But unlike this recent Okinawa case, in the previous aircraft crashes, as the ones in Yokohama City in 1977 and in Ehime Prefecture in 1988, US forces allowed the local police to carry out joint Japan-US inspections.

The incident intensified public calls in Okinawa to revise the SOFA to prevent any US discretion concerning applications of SOFA rules, but the Japanese government has said it will study the handling of the incident in light of the accord and will ask for improved enforcement of the accord, rather than revising it - to the dismay of Okinawans. The Tokyo government appears to have concluded there is little possibility that the US will agree to revise SOFA, since the US has similar treaties with other nations, such as South Korea and Germany. The Japanese government, therefore, focuses on the application of SOFA rules, which tend to give the US military sole discretion, and on procedures and standards for deciding which roles local police and US military authorities play, which are not spelled out under the SOFA.

Okinawa a special place in Japan
To understand Okinawa's decades of agony and humiliation, one has to know the history of modern Okinawa. Japanese, especially older generations, feel compassion and experience a keen sense of sympathy on thinking about Okinawa. It once flourished as an independent trading nation, the Kingdom of Ryukyu, over several centuries, until the early 16th century. Japan conquered the kingdom in 1609. At the end of World War II, Okinawa became the biggest and most crucial battlefield between the US and Japan. American scholar Herbert Bix says in his Pulitzer-prize-winning book Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan that the Okinawa battle "cost an estimated 94,000 to 120,000 Japanese combatants and 150,000 to 170,000 noncombatants, including more than seven hundred Okinawans whom the Japanese army forced to commit collective suicide. American combat losses were approximately 12,500 killed and more than 33,000 wounded; among these casualties were more than 7,000 sailors, reflecting the toll taken by kamikaze attacks."

Soon after the war, Tokyo deserted Okinawa, and the US claimed the Okinawa islands clearly due to its huge casualties and loss of population in the battles. Many experts such as Bix have pointed out that after the war, in September 1947, the last Showa Emperor Hirohito sent an official on a secret mission to US General Douglas MacArthur, then the post-surrender potentate in Tokyo and protector of the Japanese monarchy, to request the American occupation of Okinawa and other islands in the Ryukyu chain continue for 99 years. Around that time, MacArthur said there was no Japanese opposition to the US retaining Okinawa, for "the Okinawans are not Japanese". Hirohito's Okinawa message and MacArthur's willingness to retain Okinawa show that Okinawa was sacrificed for the convenience of the new monarchy and postwar Japan. As a result, the last emperor, who died in 1989, could not have visited Okinawa at all during his lifetime.

Not until 1972 did the US return Okinawa to Japan. Since then, Okinawa has accepted massive US troop presence. Though the area of Okinawa Prefecture is only 0.6% of the total national land, 75% of all the US bases in Japan are concentrated in Okinawa. Indeed, 18.8% of the total area of Okinawa's mainland is used as US bases. This number may not ring a bell for non-Okinawans, but it is indeed huge. Take Central Park in Manhattan, New York City. The total area of Central Park is 3.4 square kilometers, while Manhattan Island is 58 square kilometers. Although Central Park seems very large to New Yorkers, it only accounts 5.9% of the total area of Manhattan. Compare 18.8% and 5.9%. You need more than two more Central Parks in New York City, if you take into consideration the huge presence of US bases in Okinawa. Still, two more Central Parks are not harmful, because unlike US military bases in Okinawa, they do not bring earsplitting roars of planes and helicopters every day and night, and sometimes crime.

Thirty-eight US facilities are located in Okinawa Prefecture. Among them is the famous Kadena Air Base, the largest and strongest US military base in the Far East. The base occupies 83% of Kadena Town. Although the base itself belongs to the US Air Force, basically most of about 25,000 US military personnel in Okinawa are Marines. This is because one of the US's three Marine Expeditionary Forces in the world, or the III Marine Expeditionary Force, is stationed in Okinawa. Marines in Okinawa are generally young, as they are almost everywhere. About 60% of the Marines in Okinawa are said to be 19-25 years old.

The contentious Futenma Air Station
In September 1995, a serious political and social problem arose not only in Okinawa, but also in the whole of Japan. Three Marines raped a 12-year-old schoolgirl. Faced with the subsequent surge of the anti-base campaign, the US and Japanese governments for the first time took US base matters into their own hands. The two governments organized the Special Action Committee on Okinawa (SACO). In April 1996, Japan and the US agreed to relocate the disputed Futenma Air Station, located in the midst of residential and school areas. Prime minister Ryutaro Hashimoto demanded the return of the space to Japan because the danger caused by the base was evident, as was also shown this time around. After more than eight years, however, the future of the base remains unclear.

In November 2003, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited Okinawa and looked over Futenma from the air. At that time, he said he could not believe there were not more accidents in such a place.

But there has been little prospect of an early relocation of the facility and return of the site to Japan until the recent helicopter incident. For one thing, although a civilian-military airport off the coast of Nago, a northern, less populated city in Okinawa, was proposed as a new site for the facility, some local residents and environmental groups have strongly opposed the alternative. Okinawa governor Keiichi Inamine promised to impose a 15-year limit on the military use of the new facility, but the US military flatly rejected the plan.

Political observers and Japanese media are criticizing Koizumi's leadership. On the date when the US helicopter crashed, he continued to see the film Deep Blue during his summer vacation. Critics said he was just thinking about the beautiful sea on the cinema screen, not about Okinawa surrounded by beautiful sea, and soaked in Okinawans' growing ire. It was indeed 12 days after the accident before Koizumi finally met Okinawa's governor Inamine, but did not make any commitment to satisfy Inamine's requests, including a review of SOFA and an early reversion of the Futenma airfield to Japan. Meantime, Koizumi was busy calling Japanese gold medalists in the Athens Olympics. He appears to have concluded that Okinawa affairs are not among his vote-getting policies, and now looks very busy thinking about his cabinet shuffle expected later this month, and his No 1 priority, reform of the postal system.

Time to return Okinawa US Air Station
The accident in Okinawa occurred at a time when the US is transforming its forces overseas. According to President George W Bush's speech last month, the redeployment would bring up to 70,000 troops, and 100,000 family members and civilian workers back to the US within a decade. Among them, it is estimated US troops in Europe will be reduced by more than 40,000, mostly in Germany, from the current 117,000. In Asia, the US and South Korea already have agreed to reduce 12,500 out of about 40,000 troops now on the Korean Peninsula. But the transformation in Japan is still unclear. It remains to be seen how many US troops in Japan, totaling some 40,000, excluding the Navy's Seventh Fleet's 12,000 personnel, will be reduced.

The Japanese media have reported that Japan's role in the US reorganization would be enhanced as a forward deployment strategy. Among them are the transfer of US Army I Corps in Washington State to Camp Zama in Kanagawa and consolidation of the 13th Air Force in Guam with the 5th Air Force Yokota in Tokyo. Experts view this US move as the intention to make Japan the forward command headquarters to cover the Middle East and the Indian Ocean on a global scale to fight terrorism. This is apparently beyond the purpose of the US troops' presence as defined in the current Japan-US security treaty. The treaty limits the scope of their operations just to the Far East. Some experts express concern that if Japan accepts these reported plans, the nation could well be another terrorist target.

In Japan, excluding the Communist Party, almost nobody denies that the US is Japan's most important ally. The two countries' ties have been consolidated more than ever before, especially after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the US. Yet, combined with the recent Okinawa helicopter crash, as well as the whopping 244.1 billion yen (US$2.2 billion) - this fiscal year's Japanese budgets that support US troops in Japan - well beyond the essential minimum, there is a strong possibility that anti-American sentiment will run high in Okinawa and elsewhere in Japan in the near term. To avoid that, the return of the Futenma Air Base to Okinawa, or the consolidation of Futenma and Kadena bases, would be a politically feasible solution, even though the US Marines and US Air Force are sometimes at odds.

Kosuke Takahashi is a former staff writer at the Asahi Shimbun and is currently a freelance correspondent based in Tokyo. He can be contacted at

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Sep 9, 2004

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