I do not follow this issue as closely as some, and I fully admit that there are a great many aspects to it of which I am unaware, or which I do not fully understand. (Frankly, I think that if more activists would admit to that, we might live in a much less divided society, with less controversy and more cooperation to solve problems, but that’s another story.)
Right: Okinawa Island, with US military bases in red. Bases in Okinawa take up roughly 18% of the island, and constitute 75% of the US military presence in Japan. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
I am sure that no one article truly relates the whole story; how could it? But, nevertheless, I find this article by Yonamine Michiyo (trans. by Sakamoto Rumi and Matthew Allen) published in the Asia-Pacific Journal a few weeks ago extremely interesting. I had never really heard about the content of debates within the US government on the matter of the bases in Okinawa, didn’t know which prominent politicians and other figures stood where on the issue, and, I have to be honest, naive though it may have been, believed the US government to be pretty much monolithic on this point, not caring enough about some tiny island halfway across the world to really consider the issue. I gather that many Okinawans, especially here in Hawaii, have that same impression or opinion of the government.
And so, I find this article very useful and enlightening. And, it’s full of truly excellent quotes.
The issue, of course, goes beyond Okinawa, extending into the question of our military presence throughout the world, and of our military spending at a time when we are in such an economic and federal budget crisis.
I am not one who follows politics, and I really must admit I don’t have a good sense of which politicians or other figures I like or dislike, what they have supported or opposed in the past in other arenas, but, I do have the vague sense that Admiral Mike Mullen and Congressman Barney Frank are among those who – especially after reading this article – I want to applaud and support.
Admiral Mullen is quoted as saying “the biggest threat we have to our national security is our debt,” while Mr. Frank has pointed out that
The view that the US is the policemen of the world is outdated; it is a leftover from the Cold War. 15,000 Marines aren’t going to land on the Chinese mainland and confront millions of Chinese soldiers. We don’t need Marines in Okinawa. They’re a hangover from a war that ended 65 years ago.
And if Ron Paul, a Republican from Texas, can agree with Barney Frank, advocating the withdrawal of troops from around the world, and “dismiss[ing] the view of U.S. forces in Japan serving as a deterrent, calling it an excuse to maintain U.S. military forces in the region,”1 then that makes this view bi-partisan. Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its opponents. But, still, this definitely shines a light for me on the idea that there is debate and controversy about this within the US government, and that neither the military, nor the government, nor either major political party, is monolithic on the issue.
The article goes on to discuss the opposition (that is, against the removal of the bases) coming from local interests, specifically politicians catering to their constituencies in areas where the arms industry is a major source of employment. Typical.
Speaking of “typical,” an excellent quote from Morton Halperin, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, who was involved in the 1972 negotiations to revert Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty1, helps illustrate the typical attitude of the stereotypical average soldier or sailor on the ground. He says:
I asked a high ranking Navy officer, “Why do we have bases in Okinawa?” He answered, looking very serious, “You misunderstand. The military doesn’t have bases in Okinawa. The island itself is the base.” It was no exaggeration; the military really did think of the whole island as a base.
The US put bases on the mainland, too; but they were aware that it was Japanese territory. If they had an awareness that Okinawa was not a base but Japanese territory …
Richard Samuels, a scholar from MIT, writes:
The Democratic Party of Japan wants an “equal Japan-US alliance”. If Japan can become more responsible towards the US and can say no, that would be an ideal alliance relationship. Germany sometimes says no, and France always does; this does not end the alliance. … Okinawa is disproportionately bearing the burden of security. It is possible to ask to lighten such a burden.
The article also points out some other very salient points, which I’d like to just pull out and mention here. First of all, the fact that helicopter training has already (or will soon) be moved to Guam, thus negating the key need for the proposed Henoko base altogether, though it would seem that the US gov’t & military has yet to fully acknowledge this. Second, that the US often chooses to regard this as a Japanese domestic matter, choosing to simply skirt the issue by saying that Okinawa needs to talk to Tokyo, or that Washington only talks to Tokyo and is simply awaiting word from Tokyo on Japan’s decision. This may on some level be the most standard avenue for such negotiations, given the international diplomatic nature of the interaction, but even so, it sort of allows standard procedure to serve as an excuse for not properly engaging with the issue.
Of course, now that I have read articles on the US military presence in Guam, where bases take up something like 50+% of the island (“only” about 20% of Okinawa Island is taken up by military bases), I cannot in good conscience support the expansion of US military presence there – helping relieve Okinawa’s burden at the expense of the Guamanian / Chomorro people. Fortunately, it would seem that there are voices advocating the reduction, and not simply the shuffling around, of the US military. Perhaps, with some luck, and some real pushing by folks like Admiral Mullen and Congressmen Frank, and Paul, not to mention seeing the leaders in Tokyo get off their asses and take a stand, we might get to see not only the closing of Futenma, but to see Camp Schwab (Henoko) and the bases on Guam *not* expanded.
I have said before that my personal view on the matter, as a historian and a lover of Okinawan culture, is that the bases represent a serious source of harm to Okinawan culture and to the Okinawan identity that might have existed had we left in 1952, when we ended the Occupation in the rest of Japan. I apologize to say so, but I personally don’t put much stock in the physical danger argument – that a handful of rapes and murders, your fair share of traffic accidents, and a single instance of a helicopter crashing into a school building over the course of literally 65 years of military presence really constitute such a horrible terrible physical danger to the people living there. But, in terms of negative cultural influence, damage to a sense of independence and freedom, and everyday quality of life, I am totally on board with the anti-base movement. And now we can see that at least some prominent figures in the US government and military agree, on the basis of very real economic and strategic reasoning.
I apologize for quoting so much without that much of my own commentary or analysis; as I said at the beginning, this is a very complicated issue, and I am no expert whatsoever on contemporary Japanese or US politics, economics, or military matters. I do not presume to understand it fully, and so I offer the comments of actual experts and of prominent figures involved in the debates, which ultimately should prove more valuable and worthwhile, I am sure, than any commentary I might offer. After all, who am I? No political expert. Just a student, just an interested party.
(1) An attitude confirmed by former Prime Minister Hatoyama himself, who has explictly stated that “he had just given “deterrence” as the factor necessitating retention of the US Marine Corps on Okinawa (and hence the building of a new Okinawa base for them) because he needed a pretext.”
(2) The vast majority of Okinawans, or at least those speaking loudest at the time, were protesting for reversion to Japan, not for independence; so, we gave them what they wanted. Sort of.