Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan and the governor of Okinawa Takeshi Onaga agreed in early March to take a dispute over the future of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma out of the courts and back offline to the negotiating table.
Abe “accepted” a freeze on construction work at a contentious new location planned for the base as part of the agreement, though work had already been put on hold while Tokyo and Okinawa fought a legal battle over the site.
The deal is only the latest step in a more than two decade long tussle by Japanese and American officials to move the base. National officials want to move the base to a less crowded part of the island, but Onaga and a majority of Okinawans oppose the plan because they want the Marines moved off Okinawa altogether, to Guam. Currently, about half of all American military personnel assigned to Japan are on Okinawa.
Also, a group of 70 prominent Americans, including filmmaker Oliver Stone, have signed a petition criticizing U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy for her backing of the plan to relocate the Marine Corps base.
Adding to the complexity, the proposed relocation site on Okinawa, Henoko, would see a pair of runways built on landfill in what is now a pristine coral-filled bay.
Okinawa, Tokyo and the Americans
Memories on Okinawa are long, and anger over the relationship among the islanders, the central Japanese government and the Americans runs deep.
For centuries the Okinawan people have seen themselves as separate from mainland Japanese. The islanders have their own native language, a long, unique, cultural tradition and, many believe, even a completely different genetic makeup than “the Japanese.” Natives refer to the archipelago as the Ryukyu Islands, not Okinawa. Feelings that the island is ruled by mainland Japan, but is not a part of it, are widely held.
Tangled in all that is a belief that Okinawa was the scene of some of the WWII’s bloodiest land fighting, with massive civilian casualties, because Tokyo was prepared to sacrifice the island to slow down the overall American advance towards the home islands. It was Imperial Japanese Army soldiers who spread rumors among the local people that the Americans would slaughter them, forcing mothers to watch their children die. Whole grades from a girls’ school leapt off a cliff together into the sea.
In 1951, America formally annexed the island of Okinawa, running it under the control of an American governor until the place was “returned” to the Tokyo government in 1972. During this period of time, massive American bases were established, ultimately to consuming a significant percentage of the useable land area of Okinawa. In the 1950s when they were established, a fair number of the facilities were on the outskirts of urban areas, but growth over the years has seen the cities envelope the bases such that transport planes land at rooftop level over homes, and fighter jets crack the skies at night. Add to that the steady beat of crimes American military personnel commit on Okinawa, including several high-profile rape cases. It is not a pretty picture.
Art of the (Non-) Deal
There is no end in sight to the conflict among Tokyo, the US, and Okinawa.
Abe and Onaga have not budged from their fundamental positions. “Relocating to Henoko is still the only option,” Abe said. Onaga insists he will not “allow a new base to be built at Henoko.”
This month’s deal only requires Tokyo and Okinawa to drop their competing lawsuits and return to negotiations; there is no timetable for the talks. Japanese and American officials had hoped to move Futenma to its new location on Henoko Bay by 2023. Admiral Harry Harris, head of the United States Pacific Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month that the move would be delayed to 2025 or later.
Some media outlets have played this story as a victory for one side or another. That is a false narrative; instead, following a long-used Japanese negotiating strategy, both sides chose to withdraw, waiting for an opening to allow them to re-engage the attack under more favorable circumstances.
With that in mind, 2025 is probably a very optimistic estimate.
Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. His latest book is Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent. Reprinted from the his blog with permission.