Don’t Forget Okinawa

Events in the Middle East have overshadowed news coming from Okinawa, where the future of the U.S. military base known as Futenma remains unclear.  I have written extensively about this issue here, here, and here.  Okinawans continue to protest the U.S. military presence on their island, but officials in Tokyo and Washington have gone great lengths to silence these protests through a series of diplomatic distractions.  What these distractions are, and why we should ignore them, is the focus of this piece. 

In January, members of the Democratic Party of Japan—the party that rose to power in 2009 for the first time in half-a-century, the party that disrupted what had been essentially one-party rule in Japan, the party that championed Yukio Hatoyama for prime minister, and the party that suffered from Hatoyama’s political demise at the hands of the Obama administration—suggested that current Prime Minister Naoto Kan resign if he did not pass key budget plans for 2011.  Kan is Japan’s fifth prime minister in four years; he has served in office for roughly eight months.  If he resigns, the status of the Futenma base will collapse into uncertainty—if it hasn’t already.    

Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara has been Japan’s “go-to” guy for media management regarding the Futenma issue.  Young, articulate, suave, and telegenic, Maehara has a way with reporters.  On January 7, during his first trip to Washington in 2011—indeed, his first trip overseas in 2011—Maehara met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  He had seen Clinton four times since becoming foreign minister, but this visit was, presumably, different because it came amid international criticism of Futenma.

Maehara downplayed Futenma and highlighted the joint U.S.-Japanese commitment to dealing with North Korea.  (Remember North Korea?  Since opening the media playground in the Middle East, American news outlets have all but forgotten North Korea, which supposedly was an eminent threat.)  During their meeting, Maehara and Clinton expressed their apparently shared desire not only to affirm but also to deepen the U.S.-Japanese military alliance.  On this score, Maehara and Clinton merely restated what was already known: that Japan and America would “work together” while relocating Futenma, and that both countries were committed to reducing base-made burdens on Okinawans.  I have written about those burdens here and here.

On January 20, as a gesture toward Okinawans—who provide roughly 75% of the land occupied by U.S. military bases in Japan—the U.S. and Japan announced that American F-15 fighter jet training exercises would move from Okinawa to Guam.  The gesture turned out to be not so promising because only 20 of 50 jets were to be transferred, and each exercise was to last merely three weeks.  A day after this announcement, during a meeting with Okinawan Governor Hirokazu Nakaima, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano pledged his full support in easing the base burdens on Okinawans, but actions, the old adage goes, speak louder than words, and Okinawans are used to hearing nothing but words from officials in Tokyo and Washington. 

Edano visited Futenma on January 22, but his speech there simply recycled tired remarks about Japan’s need to ease noise pollution and minimize danger in and around Futenma.  In short, Japanese officials are having a hard time convincing Okinawans of Tokyo’s sincere intentions.  It is not surprising, then, that Okinawans once again staged demonstrations on February 2 as roughly 160 U.S. marines began live-fire drills.  These drills have taken place in and around Okinawa since 1997, but the fact that they continue to take place, despite Okinawans’ best efforts to publicize their plight to Tokyo, America, and the rest of the world, suggests that bureaucrats in Tokyo, Washington, and the U.S. military do not have Okinawans’ best interests in mind.  That, of course, is an understatement.

The Futenma accord calls for the gradual withdrawal of some U.S. troops from Okinawa to Guam; it also calls for the relocation of Futenma from one area of Okinawa to a less crowded area.  It does not call for the full removal of Futenma outside of Okinawa entirely, but that is what Okinawans want to see happen.  When Guamian leaders and Okinawan delegates met in January to discuss the U.S. marine relocation to Guam, Yoshikazu Tamaki, speaking on behalf of the Okinawa Assembly, lambasted the U.S. federal government for silencing the voices of both Guamians and Okinawans.  Guamians actually want to host the U.S. military facility, but for reasons unknown, the Obama administration refuses to entertain the idea of removing a U.S. military base from a foreign country to a nearby U.S. territory.  It seems apparent that officials in Washington and Tokyo are doing their best to give the appearance that they entertain Okinawans’ interests, but the fact of the matter is that Okinawans have no say about what happens on their island.  Worse, they must endure paternalistic visits by officials such as Toshimi Kitazawa, who met with Okinawan Governor Hirokazu Nakaima in January to “help” Okinawans understand the importance of maintaining the provisions of the Futenma accord. 

By late January, Japan and the U.S. discussed plans to allow troops from both countries to use the U.S. military facilities on Okinawa.  This gesture is about as ironic as the U.S. military’s invitation to Okinawans to partake in its Fourth of July celebrations on the base—as if an occupied people would want to celebrate their occupier’s independence day. 

Presumably realizing the precariousness of the situation in Okinawa, American officials have urged the Japan-South Korea alliance, which would overshadow U.S. control in the region and allow the U.S. military to go about its business with less media scrutiny.  Although this writer does not know what goes on behind the closed doors of American and Japanese diplomats, he wonders whether American officials had anything to do with Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa’s meeting with South Korea’s Minister of Defense Kim Kwan-jin in early January.  On the surface, this meeting accomplished nothing.  The two officials simply declared that their countries would bolster military ties.  Nevertheless, the images and sound bites from this meeting were probably meant to symbolize military independence from America.  It was as if Japan and South Korea were announcing that they, not America, were in charge, but given the American military presence and influence in the region—which might well have facilitated the meeting at the outset—the announcement rang hollow.    

American officials have looked to U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates to represent “the” American position on the Okinawa issue.  After a trip to Beijing, Gates visited Tokyo on January 12.  During his meeting with Japanese leaders, Gates acknowledged that the U.S. military facility in Okinawa was a sensitive political issue and claimed that the U.S. would allow Tokyo to lead relocation efforts for that facility.  Gates emphasized the longstanding partnership between the U.S. and Japan, and for the first time he suggested that the U.S. would be flexible about her plans for Okinawa.  Speaking at Keio University, he claimed that the Japan-America alliance was necessary to maintain stability in Asia.  Predictably, he insisted that U.S. forces in Japan deterred North Korea and China from provoking military conflict. 

Gates may have chosen to speak to a young audience at a prominent university because Japan’s youth are growing increasingly disenchanted with U.S. military forces in their country.  Gates’s seemingly soft rhetoric was undercut, however, by then-breaking news that the U.S. had been pushing an antimissile system—designed to intercept missile attacks—that  Japan could sell to other nations.  But Japan retains a provision in its constitution—Article 9—that restricts weapons exports.  The U.S. designed Article 9 after WWII, but today she appears to want the provision to disappear.  At any rate, the U.S. military’s financial stake in the antimissile system seems incongruent with Gates’s conciliatory words—it even suggests ulterior motives for the continued American military presence in Okinawa. 

Japan, America, and South Korea are concerned about China and her rapid military buildup.  Japan in particular faces threats from China, North Korea, and Russia.  In a January 13 interview with the Washington Post, Japan’s Defense Minster Toshimi Kitazawa talked about the military buildup in China, including an expansion of naval, air, and nuclear capabilities.  China has even reportedly engineered a new stealth aircraft.  She is threatening the Senkaku Islands in southern Japan, a region that the U.S. has vowed to protect on Japan’s behalf. 

A Chinese patrol boat lurking in Japanese territorial waters near the Senkaku Islands on January 27 prompted the Japanese coast guard to issue a warning.  The Chinese patrol boat, in return, announced that the Senkaku Islands belonged to China and that therefore its crew was conducting legitimate operations.  Japan has reason to worry about China, but she is unable to do anything about China because America has not granted her permission to do anything and because the American military is, in effect, the Japanese military.  The Japan-America-China triangle represents a conflict-of-interest on a massive scale.  America owes China a tremendous amount of money; China claims a territorial right to Japanese islands; America has vowed to defend Japan against Chinese invasion; and Japan is stuck with whatever military decisions America makes.  Meanwhile, impoverished Okinawans have become victims of the policies of enormous central governments run by elite bureaucrats.  Okinawans have no representation; they protest, and occasionally foreign media pick up on the protests, but nothing seems to change.   

Prime Minister Kan’s rhetoric about China is growing bolder, and he has criticized China’s military buildup.  He says he’s open to considering a revamping of Article 9.  

By the same token, Gates, during his recent visit to Tokyo, pushed the Japanese to step up her military role on the world stage.  As if responding to Gates, Kan announced on January 20 that the U.S.-Japanese alliance remained strong and that U.S. forces in Japan were necessary.  This announcement came after Kan apologized for “hurting Okinawans’ feelings.”  There will be more hurt feelings as other nation states continue down the road to war in Asia. 

We must think critically about the diplomatic acrobatics performed by those in Washington and Tokyo, if not for Okinawans’ sake, then for our own.  How tragic would it be if we discovered, once our nation’s leaders led us into an unwinnable war in a faraway region, that we weren’t so different from Okinawans after all—that we, too, lacked a say in our government’s activities?   

Allen Mendenhall is an editor of The Mendenhall.  He has written about Okinawa for Liberty,, Chronicles, Taki’s Magazine, and Counterpunch.

Editorial Note: Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara resigned abruptly on Sunday, March 6, 2011, after it was discovered that he had accepted illegal donations from a South Korean resident living in Japan.


2 thoughts on “Don’t Forget Okinawa

  1. I was just wondering, in light of the recent earthquake and subsequent, what role you think the American military should play and what role the Japanese people want the American military to play in relief operations.

    Japan is wealthy nation by nearly everyone’s standards, so reconstruction and rescue operations should be fairly simple from an economic standpoint.

    Admittedly, our interests in assisting the island nation after a natural disaster fall into a different category than our military interests, but I just wanted to get your take.

  2. Brian,

    Good questions. I don’t feel that I can speak on behalf of either the Japanese people or the American military, but I do feel that it’s important that we Americans provide help and support for Japan, arguably our closest ally these days. In the wake of a natural disaster, I would advocate for support of Japan regardless of whether she were an ally. The Japanese are at least as strong an ally as the Israelis or the British, and the American investment in Japanese politics and affairs is definitely less controversial on a planetary scale than the American investment in, say, Israeli politics and affairs. Support through private enterprise and donation would go much further than any military support America could give, and from a public relations perspective, it would give a better impression. I think, too, that it’s important to point out a distinction between the Okinawan people and the Japanese people. The Japanese are less concerned about the American military presence than the Okinawans, who actually live among the American troops. Culturally, politically, and ethnically, Okinawa is almost completely separate from Japan proper. The bureaucracies in Washington and Tokyo seem to dictate policy to the Okinawans, perhaps because it’s in the best interest of America and Japan to dictate as such, even if it’s not in the best interest of Okinawans, the poorest community in Japan–and thus a community without much political clout. Okinawans’ voices are easily suppressed or ignored by the Washington-Tokyo crowd, so I see this problem as one of centralization of power and mass government cartelization. As Lord Acton said in what has now become cliche to repeat, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

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