Japan: A new battle over Okinawa
By Kosuke Takahashi
TOKYO - United States President Barack Obama lands in Tokyo on Friday on the
first stop of his maiden trip to Asia, but a less than 24 hours visit may not
be enough to change public opinion in the country.
In Japan, it's often said you can gauge social undercurrents by looking at
advertising billboards on trains, as they mirror society. "Don't cave in to the
threat of the US!" says one such advert for a
popular Japanese weekly magazine, currently hung in crowded commuter trains in
The name of the magazine is Shukan Asahi, it has denounced as high-handed the
US government's approach to the long-standing, thorny issue of the relocation
of the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa prefecture.
The magazine cites a "warning" made by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates during
a visit to Tokyo last month: that unless the heliport functions of the Futenma
facility were moved by 2014 to a coastal area in the marines' Camp Schwab
located in the less densely populated city of Nago, northern Okinawa - as
agreed in the 2006 bilateral pact on the realignment of US forces - the
transfer of around 8,000 US Marines from Okinawa to the US Pacific territory of
Guam would not occur.
Recently, US heavyweights such as Richard Lawless, former deputy under
secretary of defense, have also appeared frequently in Japanese media to
reiterate Gates' warning .
Tensions over the US troops stationed on the island, which have simmered since
three US servicemen were convicted for the rape of a 12-year-old girl in
Okinawa in 1995, are again on the rise .
Despite the sweltering heat, about 21,000 Japanese gathered on Sunday on the
island to demand that the base in Futenma be moved off the island. The
demonstration was triggered by a deadly hit-and-run incident involving a US
serviceman. Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has backed demands that the
serviceman detained over the alleged crime, which killed a 66-year-old Okinawan
man, be handed over to Japanese justice.
A joint poll conducted by the Ryukyu Shimpo and the Mainichi Shimbun on October
30 and November 1 found that 69.7% of Okinawans said the Hatoyama
administration should renegotiate with the US about plans to move the Futenma
base out of the prefecture, or even the country. The poll also showed that 67%
of respondents opposed relocation to Camp Schwab.
The long-running relocation dispute over Futenma is rocking the foundations of
the Japan-US relationship, just ahead of next year's 50th anniversary of the
1960 Mutual Security Treaty between the countries.
"Much of the punditry in the media would have us believe that Japan and the US
were on the verge of a breakup over where to relocate 60 marine helicopters,"
Patrick Cronin, a senior adviser and director of the Asia-Pacific Security
Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, told Asia
Times Online in an e-mail interview. "Yet durable alliances are based on common
interests, not simply disagreements over means."
"As difficult an issue as the relocation of Futenma Marine Air Station has
been, the salient question is whether next year's half-centenary celebration of
the 1960 Mutual Security Treaty will mark the end of the alliance as we know it
or the beginning of the alliance we both need for the 21st century," Cronin
During the Japan-US summit, the relocation of the base in Okinawa will not be a
major item on the agenda. Obama is widely expected to stress relations with
Japan as a "cornerstone" of US foreign policy, seeking re-engagement with
Tokyo's new administration.
Obama and Hatoyama are expected to re-affirm cooperation to reduce greenhouse
gas emissions by 80% by 2050 - without mentioning any specific base year for
calculation, or Japan's consideration for the US, one of the two largest
emitters of greenhouse gases, along with China. They will also renew their
determination to create a world without nuclear weapons.
Japan's new dawn
As Hatoyama's new administration undertakes a thorough review of Japan's
alliance with the US, one which is likely to raise concern in Washington,
Japan-American relations face a fundamental political change.
Hatoyama and his center-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) unseated the
pro-US Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in a House of Representatives election on
August 30, ending the LDP's near-perpetual one party rule of the past half
Nonetheless, the LDP appears to have finally completed its historical mission
in the post-Cold War era - supporting Japan's military role as an
anti-communist bastion of the US against China and Russia.
The US "nuclear umbrella" has protected Japan against potential adversaries
such as China, North Korea and Russia, while assuring other states in the
region that suffered under Japan's colonial rule that Tokyo would not return to
its militaristic past.
Due to the US nuclear deterrent, Japan has enjoyed a generally stable strategic
outlook, with its population wary of major change and militarization since the
end of World War II, a legacy of the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and
Nagasaki in 1945. Previous LDP governments have mainly focused on national
interests and on economic growth.
The era of Japan's strong pacifism, as enshrined in the US-imposed "peace
constitution", determined the posture and structure of Japan's military forces
to defend the nation and made the security alliance with the US the centerpiece
of Japanese security policy in the post-war period.
"The [Harry S] Truman and [Dwight D] Eisenhower administrations saw a resurgent
Japanese economy as the engine of growth in the Asia-Pacific region," Cronin
said. "Providing an unsinkable aircraft carrier in exchange for Japan's
economic revival was a deliberate political choice made by Washington and Tokyo
based on their vital interests at the time of the original 1951 treaty."
During the 2001 to 2006 Junichiro Koizumi administration, a symbol of Japan's
reformist policy, Japan aimed to strengthen bilateral military and security
ties with the US - a drive reinforced by China's military buildup, North
Korea's nuclear crisis and the global threat of terrorism.
The US-Japan security alliance under former US president George W Bush and
Koizumi is often referred to as a "golden era" between the two countries.
Koizumi deployed Japan Ground Self-Defense Forces (JGSDF) units to Iraq to
contribute to America's war against terrorism.
The new leaders in Tokyo still regard US strike capabilities and the nuclear
deterrence provided by the US as essential for Japan's overall security - as
well as for peace and security in the region - but they do not necessarily see
it as essential for the nation's economic development. Enormous economic growth
in East Asia - especially in China, which is a 1.3 billion consumer market - is
changing the structure of worldwide and regional business and industry.
Hatoyama has called for an East Asian "community" to develop to the extent that
it resembles an Asian version of the European Union. He also advocates a common
Asian currency as a natural extension of the rapid economic growth in the
region. Hatoyama aims to conduct a swift shift in Tokyo's axis of cooperation
towards other Asian nations.
The DPJ, the dominant party in the ruling coalition led by Hatoyama, has
advocated policies of multilateral cooperation while calling for a more equal
partnership with the US. The DPJ has often refused to support US policies, most
notably the war in Iraq, and has criticized post-war Japanese diplomatic policy
as "toeing the US line".
Japan's newly elected government was voted into office on a platform of
curtailing the US military presence on Okinawa, where 75% of all US forces in
Japan are located. In an Upper House question-and-answer session on October 29,
Hatoyama said the review of Japan's alliance with the US would be
"comprehensive". He later told reporters that it would cover Japanese funding
of US bases, the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and the relocation of the
Hatoyama said his government was exploring the possibility of reducing Japan's
host-nation spending on US military bases. This so-called "sympathy budget"
began in 1978 and covers utilities and other expenses.
The allocation for fiscal year 2009 comes to 189.7 billion yen (US$2.1
billion). With government debt expected to reach 187% of gross domestic product
this year, foremost among major economies, Tokyo no longer wants to outlay the
large sums of money it currently pays to support US military forces in Japan.
This fiscal restraint also places a limit how much it can spend to modernize
its Self Defense Forces (SDF) domestically.
The SOFA, which governs US military operations in Japan and legal arrangements
for its personnel, has not been revised for nearly half a century. A group of
governors representing prefectures that host military facilities, such as the
Okinawa and Kanagawa prefectures, have called for a clause covering
environmental pollution and destruction at US military bases in Japan.
In terms of the relocation of Futenma, the prime minister said "various
options" would be considered. The government inherited the 2006 Japan-US
agreement that calls for relocating the base within Okinawa, but Hatoyama has
indicated that he will seek to relocate the air station outside of Okinawa,
possibly even outside Japan.
Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada has floated the idea of merging
Futenma's heliport functions with the nearby Kadena Air Base - the largest US
military base in the Far East.
"It is possible, I believe, to merge operations at Kadena - for normal
day-to-day circumstances," Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow in Foreign Policy
at the Brookings Institution in Washington, where he specializes in US national
security policy, told Asia Times Online. "But in that event, we need much
better preparation for crisis operations, including greater access to SDF and
even civilian airfields on Okinawa [and preparations in advance at those
Under US pressure, Japan has also announced it will spend as much as $5 billion
over the next five years to help with the reconstruction of war-torn
"The majority of the Japanese won't accept that Afghan aid," Japanese military
analyst Toshiyuki Shikata told Asia Times Online. "Historically, Alexander the
Great, the British Empire and the Soviet Union all failed to conquer
Afghanistan. The US, as an oceanic state, will have further difficulties to
control Afghan, which is just surrounded by mountainous areas and lands. It's
not cost-effective for the US."
Kosuke Takahashi is a Tokyo-based journalist. Besides Asia Times Online,
he also writes for Jane's Defence Weekly as Tokyo correspondent. He can be
contacted at [email protected]