People protest the planned relocation of the U.S. military base to Okinawa's Henoko coast, in Tokyo, April 2015.
Issei Kato / Reuters

Once upon a time in the Kingdom of Ryukyu, there lived a beautiful lady called Kuyama of Asadoya. She caught the eye of a local government official, who desired her as his mistress. Although the official’s authority was absolute, Kuyama wittily rejected his advances. The story is the subject of one of Okinawa’s most beloved traditional songs, “Asadoya Yunta,” and is well known throughout Japan—yet the version of the song known on the main islands differs markedly from the old tale. In the popularized version, recorded in 1934, the Okinawan lyrics were rewritten in standard Japanese as a generic and non-subversive love song. There is no mention of the eponymous lady or of the spurned official.

This sort of cultural appropriation may serve as an allegory for Okinawa’s position in Japan: an island forced to endure a distant central government’s imposition of language, culture, and power, with little regard for the region’s unique history or future trajectory. For decades, Okinawa has been embroiled in a bitter dispute with Tokyo over the U.S. bases that have been located on the island since the end of World War II, but its entreaties that Tokyo relocate the bases have fallen on deaf ears.

Growing discontent in Okinawa has the potential to reverberate beyond Japan’s borders. With a wary eye to the increasing Chinese military activity in the South and East China Seas, the United States and its allies are not keen to reduce the forward operating capabilities of U.S. forces in the region. Due to Okinawa’s proximity to potential flashpoints, U.S. forces stationed there form the cornerstone of the U.S.-Japanese alliance and are considered essential to U.S. policy in the Western Pacific. A strong U.S. presence acts as both sword and shield, not just for Japan but also for the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, and all the other countries that rely on it for security. 

The United States, however, finds itself an unwelcome guest. The governor of Okinawa has gone so far as to argue, in September 2015, that Washington and Tokyo have ignored Okinawans’ human rights and right to self-determination. If Washington and Tokyo wish to maintain the bases, they must be prepared to address the historical and political issues that have led Okinawans to reject them. A viable agreement means that it cannot just be on Tokyo and Washington’s terms; grievances must be met with empathy rather than apathy.

BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE

Uchina, as Okinawa is called in its native tongue, was the largest island of the archipelagic Kingdom of Ryukyu in the East China Sea. An independent country from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century, it played an important role in the maritime trade of East and Southeast Asia. Although it became a tributary state, first to China and then to Japan, it remained largely autonomous and prospered, providing a crucial channel between two kingdoms that otherwise had no formal relationship. Ryukyuans were not considered Japanese; in fact, Japan forbade them from adopting Japanese customs, clothing, or names.

This changed in 1879, when Japan’s Meiji government abolished the Ryukyu Kingdom and incorporated it as Okinawa Prefecture. Thus followed a period of subjugation and forced assimilation under imperial Japan, particularly during World War II. About a quarter of Okinawa’s civilian population lost their lives during the Battle of Okinawa, a series of skirmishes from April to June 1945 that resulted in Allied victory. Not all the deaths were a result of Allied action. The Japanese military ordered many Okinawans to kill family members and commit suicide rather than risk the shame of capture; Okinawans, indoctrinated to be loyal to the Japanese emperor and to “be more Japanese,” complied.

After the war, Okinawa effectively became a U.S. military colony, and the United States updated and expanded military installations around the island. Although the United States purchased much of the land from locals, it also reportedly resorted to coercion and deception in order to buy it, evicting unwilling residents by bulldozer and bayonet. The Okinawans under U.S. occupation had neither political authority nor legal redress for the seizure of property or for crimes committed by service members.

The rifts between the Japanese public and the government, between Tokyo and Okinawa, and between Japan and other U.S. allies could upset the delicate power balance in the region.

If Okinawans hoped that the reversion to Japanese governance in 1972 would decrease the U.S. presence on their lands, hopes were dashed by geopolitical considerations. With fleet anchorage, troop staging, and airfields at a close distance to Seoul, Shanghai, and Taipei, the island is key to the United States’ security strategy in the Asia-Pacific. Although Okinawa constitutes less than one percent of Japan’s total land area, it bears the burden of 74 percent of the U.S. military’s overall footprint in the country, including facilities, equipment, and roughly half of the 53,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan.  

Yet Okinawans have not benefited. Despite substantial subsidies from Tokyo to compensate for the loss of land and other impositions, anti-base sentiment runs strong, as people complain that the bases cause noise pollution and an influx in crime. According to the Okinawan government, from 1972 to 2011 there were 5,747 criminal cases involving U.S. military personnel. In 1995, the rape of a 12-year old girl by three U.S. servicemen incited outrage and dredged up years of resentment, sparking a nationwide debate about the terms of the U.S. occupation. Since the 1980s, the percentage of base-related revenue has hovered around the 5 percent mark for gross prefectural income; revenue from tourism is twice that amount. According to an expert panel assembled by then Governor Hirokazu Nakaima in 2010, the productivity of an average land lot in Okinawa was 1.6 billion yen per square kilometer, compared to only 900 million yen per square kilometer on a military base.

Protesters raise placards during a rally to oppose the transfer of a key U.S. military base within Okinawa, May 2015.
Protesters raise placards during a rally to oppose the transfer of a key U.S. military base within Okinawa, May 2015.
Kyodo / Reuters

Recognizing the rising tensions in Okinawa, Washington and Tokyo convened the Special Action Committee on Okinawa in 1995 to reduce the impact of the U.S. military on the island. The committee’s final report, in which the United States agreed to return 21 percent of the land from 11 U.S. military installations on the island, was meant to pave a new path for Okinawa and the U.S.-Japanese alliance.

Yet Okinawan opposition has persisted. The newest issue is Washington’s relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station from urban Ginowan to the less populous but environmentally sensitive Henoko Bay, home to the critically endangered Okinawa dugongs, distant relatives of the manatee. Tokyo and Washington agreed to the relocation in 2006; Okinawans still feel strongly against it a decade later. Okinawans were particularly incensed in 2012, when Washington deployed the MV-22 Osprey aircraft to Futenma, despite the aircraft’s numerous safety issues. (In May 2015, the Osprey was involved in a deadly landing accident in Hawaii.)

In March 2015, Okinawan Governor Takeshi Onaga ordered a halt to new construction at Henoko, a move supported by 83 percent of Okinawans and 51.3 percent of Japanese nationwide. In a speech at the United Nations last September, he framed the issue as a matter of human rights. “Our right to self-determination and human rights have been neglected,” he said. “Can a country serve values such as freedom, equality, human rights, and democracy with other nations when that country cannot guarantee those values for its own people?”

'A WILD ROSE AMONG THE THORNS'

The first line of the 1934 version of the Asadoya love song—“Are you a wild rose among the thorns?”—could also describe Okinawa’s position in the region, surrounded by several areas of potential conflict, including the Senkaku Islands (known in China as the Diaoyu Islands), the Taiwan Strait, the Korean Peninsula, and the East and South China Seas. Tensions have only increased since Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe passed his new security legislation last September. Ostensibly, the new laws seek to amend Japan’s pacifist constitution (imposed by American victors 70 years ago) so that Japan’s defense and security policy can meet the challenges of this century. Most significantly, the law allows Japan to engage militarily “when an armed attack against a foreign country that is in a close relationship with Japan occurs and as a result threatens Japan’s survival and poses a clear danger to fundamentally overturn people’s right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.” 

Reaction has been mixed, both domestically and internationally. The United States welcomed the move, since it has long sought Japan to “play a more active role in regional and international security activities,” in the words of the U.S. State Department. Japan’s closest neighbors, victims with long memories of Japan’s past militarism, were much less enthusiastic. Although South Korea is a fellow U.S. ally, it felt it necessary to stress that Japanese armed forces would not be allowed into the country without explicit consent from Seoul, and emphasized that Japanese military action should be “based on the absolute respect for the third country’s sovereignty.” China condemned the bills in a statement from its foreign ministry, urging Japan “to draw hard lessons from history… and refrain from jeopardizing China’s sovereignty and security interests or crippling regional peace and stability.” Xinhua, the official Chinese press agency, published an op-ed titled “Japan’s New Security Bills Betrayal to Its Own People.”

If Washington and Tokyo wish to maintain the bases, they must be prepared to address the historical and political issues that have led Okinawans to reject them.

Surprisingly, many Japanese agree. Although in other countries it is understood that one must fight alongside one’s allies in times of war, all but the oldest generation of Japanese have grown up with Article 9 of the Japanese constitution: “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” The debate surrounding the bills in Japan has been furious, sparking some of the biggest demonstrations in recent memory. Critics fear that Japan will be dragged into far-away U.S.-led conflicts or that Japan will incur the wrath of the United States’ enemies. Some 90 percent of Japanese constitutional scholars say the new bills are unconstitutional. Abe’s previously high approval ratings have taken a hit; the bills themselves are supported by only roughly 30 percent of the Japanese public. Okinawans, for their part, fear that if the United States engages in any potential Asia-Pacific conflict, they will once again find themselves on the frontlines; Abe’s policies make Okinawa even more of a strategic target.

The rifts between the Japanese public and the government, between Tokyo and Okinawa, and between Japan and other U.S. allies could upset the delicate power balance in the region. China, the United States’ (and Japan’s) chief rival in the arena, is poised to take advantage of any weakness—and Okinawa is the weak link in the “first island chain” that cuts China off from the Pacific. Various Chinese semi-official forums have expressed support for Okinawa’s right to self-determination, and the Communist Party newspaper, the People’s Daily, has published articles questioning Japan’s sovereignty over Okinawa. The tiny but burgeoning Okinawan independence movement could be the sole secessionist group in the world toward which China is sympathetic. It is not impossible that should the status quo persist in Okinawa, discontent could lead to serious confrontation between pro-independence factions and an unyielding central government. This would leave Washington and Tokyo with an uncomfortable choice: let Okinawa go (with China’s blessing, if not backing), or forcefully quash self-determination in the name of peace, stability, and freedom in the region.

REDUCING OKINAWA'S BURDEN

If the United States and Japan wish to maintain the moral high ground in Okinawa, they will have to make some sacrifices. Tokyo should acknowledge Okinawa’s suffering to ease local discontent. Washington should similarly recognize that, in the case of Okinawa, Americans were aggressors as well as oppressive occupiers. U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy’s recent decision to return some land to Okinawa by March 2018 is a gesture of goodwill, but it does not go far enough. She has continued to support Futenma’s relocation to Henoko, defending the move as “the best of any other plan that was considered.” Such rhetoric will not result in reconciliation, and although the statement may have been true at the time the agreement was originally signed, there have been some notable developments since. In fact, although the Japanese government may not have had Okinawa in mind, the new security bills, coupled with the growing Chinese presence in the East and South China Seas, has opened up other avenues for both Tokyo and Washington to explore. They can protect places including the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan by redistributing U.S. military assets throughout the region, away from Okinawa.

After a joint Japan-U.S. media briefing about the process of U.S. forces consolidation in Okinawa
Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga (R) shakes hands with U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy (C) after a joint Japan-U.S. media briefing about the process of U.S. forces consolidation in Okinawa, in Tokyo December 2015.
Thomas Peter / Reuters

Japan’s new defense policy and the revised U.S.-Japanese defense cooperation guidelines seek to make the alliance better at responding to potential crises in the region. Although it remains to be seen how Japan will implement this more robust, outward-looking strategy, it may consider building more joint-use bases on the main islands. In the south, Kyushu Island is closer than Okinawa to the Korean peninsula (and the Chinese mainland). In the north, Japan and the United States could explore placing bases in the Tohoku region, where pro-U.S. sentiment is high after Washington’s post-tsunami assistance. 

To reduce the burden on Okinawa, the United States should also look beyond Japan. The Philippines, for example, has recently welcomed the return of U.S. forces to Subic Bay amid fears over Chinese land reclamation in the South China Sea. Subic Bay is also close to Taiwan, making it arguably a more strategic location than Okinawa. Although it may not be a simple case of reshuffling troops from one base to another, U.S. policymakers would be remiss not to reexamine all alternatives to Okinawa.

Even if the United States moves some of its bases elsewhere, Okinawa must realize that getting rid of all U.S. bases is a pipe dream. This should not be the ultimate goal. Most of all, Okinawa wants to feel that it is not alone in shouldering the bulk of the weight of the U.S.-Japanese Alliance. Instead of sacrificing Okinawa on the altar of geopolitics and disregarding the wishes of its citizens, letting the proud island be an equal partner instead of an oppressed one is an important step toward fostering true peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific.

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  • Mio Yamada was a Producer for NHK Japan Broadcasting Corporation in Washington, DC.
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