A chat with Shino Hateruma on the issue of the U.S. military bases in Okinawa

A chat with Shino Hateruma on the issue of the U.S. military bases in Okinawa

Chiara Galvani

Shino HATERUMA is a PhD student at Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies, Waseda University. Her current research focuses on conditions of the closure of US military bases overseas. She previously served as a researcher of the Regional Security Policy Division, in the Executive Office of the Governor, for the Okinawa Prefectural Government from July 2013 to March 2015. During the period, she has mainly researched US policy regarding its overseas bases as well as security issues in the Asia-Pacific region. Before serving in Okinawa, she worked as a researcher for the Research Institute for Peace and Security, a Tokyo-based think tank. She obtained a master’s degree in international relations (2011) and a bachelor’s in international liberal studies (2009) from Waseda University.


  1. Do Okinawans identify themselves as Japanese first, or as Okinawan?

It really depends on each individual about Okinawan identity. Let me introduce some opinion polls to show one side of the dimension. Ryukyu Shimpo, the oldest local newspaper, has conducted an attitude survey every five years since 2001. In the recent poll in 2011, about 90 percent of the people in Okinawa said they were proud of being Okinawan (Uchinanchu in Okinawan). Only 3 percent answered negatively. To a question whether they felt something different with the people from mainland Japan, about 60 percent said they did not. However, 35.9 percent answered positively, which showed an increasing tendency from the previous survey.

You recognize your identity when you find something different from others. Okinawan history differs from that of Japanese. Okinawa was not a part of Japan about 400 years ago. The Ryukyu Kingdom, stretched over the Ryukyu island chain, was an independent nation from 1429 for 450 years and flourished with trade throughout East Asia. Distinctive language, lifestyle, religion, rituals, and folk entertainment are originally rooted in the Ryukyu era.

After the Ryukyu Kingdom was converged with Japan, the Japanese system was introduced. Especially in the pre-war, Japanization and teaching of Japanese were pursued in the Okinawan society. The battle of Okinawa was fought between the Japanese Imperial Army and the US military and involved the civilians. It is believed that Okinawa was treated as a sacrifice because the Japanese army tried to maintain the fight to delay decisive battles in mainland Japan. In fact, a quarter of the Okinawa’s population was lost in the battle.

After the Pacific War, the US military put Okinawa under its control. Okinawa had to wait for 27 years until the administration of Okinawa was returned to Okinawa. In the beginning of the US period, the US military even encouraged the local people to identify themselves as Okinawan not Japanese. Moreover, most of the previous interaction with the mainland Japan was cut off. There was even original currency. The period was severe to the people. Their land turned into military bases. The US military caused accidents and incidents, which took people’s lives and dignity away in a cruel manner.

Additionally, in view of Okinawa’s base issues, the people in Okinawa have been aware that they might be treated differently by mainland Japan. Considering the Futenma relocation process, some have a doubt that Okinawan voices are not heard well. A Futenma relocation facility should not necessarily be built within Okinawa. The Japanese government reiterated the explanation that it had considered a variety of options but relocating it to mainland Japan was politically difficult. Hearing that, the people in Okinawa naturally question why the denial of mainland Japanese is accepted and why it is Okinawa who has to compromise. The long deadlock over Futenma makes them think that the central government and mainland Japanese do not treat them equally as Japanese. Some people in Okinawa describe this situation as discrimination.

  1. 30.000 of the 47.000 American troops allocated in Japan are in Okinawa. This has always fueled an argument and a debate. Can we simply talk about an anti-American feeling or there is something else? 

The concentration of the US forces brings issues related to people’s lives and property on Okinawa. Many point out military-related accidents and crimes by American servicemen. Indeed, according to the Okinawa Prefectural Government, in the past 5 years (2010-2014) 2 airplane crashes, 115 emergency landing, 27 water pollution of petroleum and such, 60 forest fires happened during military training and exercise. Off-duty crimes also give a sense of fear among the citizens. The Okinawa Prefectural Police Department counted 228 cases by US servicemen, their dependents and civilian employees of the military during the same period. They were 87 thieves, 28 violent offences and 9 serious crimes. Among the total number of crimes, the ratio of crimes committed by them has been below 2 percent. Such accidents and crimes related to the US military have been declined compared to the period of US occupation. Application of Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) has been improved regarding treatment of US suspects/offenders. However, the citizens still feel fears of any chance of happenings. It is not easy to get rid of wounds, shocks and traumas made by Americans’ misconducts in the past.

It is not only about the number of personnel but also the area of bases used by the US exclusively. Okinawa bears about 74 percent of exclusive use of the United States Forces in Japan (USFJ), while about 22 percent of the facilities and areas shared by USFJ and the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) is located there, following Hokkaido with 33 percent. Some criticize Okinawa’s insisting on 74 percent is exaggeration but it is not. What makes a difference? It is an issue of sovereignty. JSDF is Japan’s own organization so shared bases belong to the country. On the other hand, bases of US exclusive use are under the control of foreign forces. That means that the US military is privileged to run the facilities and areas based on their rules.

On the other hand, about an anti-American feeling, there is much smaller antagonism than it seems. The people of Okinawa cherish American culture. A former-US base became a shopping area named the American Village which attract the local citizens as well as domestic and foreign tourists. A survey conducted by the Okinawa Prefectural Government (OPG) in 2014 shows an interesting result regarding Okinawan’s affinity to the US. About 60 percent of the respondents have a positive feeling toward the US. In addition, over 70 percent have been to a US base including an occasion to open-base events. Contemporary Okinawan culture—food, music, and life style—is strongly influenced by American culture. There are other kinds of activities in which the American servicemen and the local citizens socialize with each other. Most importantly, the people of Okinawa know the importance of American values such as freedom and democracy.

In short, I would say it is anti-US base not anti-American. However, you should be careful about a point that it does not necessarily mean that Okinawa as a whole opposes all of the US bases there.

  1. Is it correct to talk about the clash between Okinawa and the US-military bases or it is better to talk about the clash between the Okinawa government and the Central government?

Protesters in Okinawa have pointed their anger both at the US military bases and the Japanese government. It seems, however, their antagonism has been toward the latter in recent years. In front of the gate of US Marine Corps Camp Schwab and on the sea which is planed to be reclaimed, protesters have been fighting against the riot police and Japanese Coast Guard. The authorized bodies try to prevent the protesters from intervening the reclamation preparation by the Okinawa Defense Bureau—a regional branch of Ministry of Defense—and contracted firms.

The Okinawa and the central governments now stand on the opposite sides to each other. In November, the central government sued the Okinawan Governor Onaga to demand he retract his decision to cancel the landfill approval for land reclamation of Oura Bay adjacent to the Camp Schwab. The court battle will start next month.

At the same time, Governor Onaga also pointed at the US government. The US has consistently insisted that the relocation issue should be handled domestically. When Onaga visited Washington in June, he told his American counterparts that the relocation was not only Japan’s responsibility but also the US should be committed. Because after a Futenma relocation facility is completed in Henoko, it will be the US who uses it.

  1. If the revision of the article 9 of the Constitution moves forward, do you think that there will be consequences for Okinawa? 

I assume that the revision of the article 9 means that Japan can use its right of collective self-defense. Now Japan’s new security laws passed, so Japan can respond to attacks on its allies when conditions are met. Logically it would not really change the situation of Okinawa. As mentioned above, about 15 percent of the Okinawa main island is covered by the US military bases, which brings a risk of being attacked when the US is involved in a war. A situation where Japan assists and defends the US for collective self-defense is a situation where the US is already in a military conflict and therefore its bases in Okinawa are jeopardized.

  1. Do you think that a return of the lands occupied by US bases to Okinawa would bring to advantages, especially economic ones, for the entire prefecture? Does the USA own the lands or do they borrow them?

First and foremost, the US does not own the land but is provided by GOJ. The Article 6 of the Japan-US Security Treaty grants the US the use of facilities and areas in Japan. Most of the US bases in mainland Japan is national land. On the other hand, the ownership of land ownership of US bases in Okinawa is more complex. a third is national, another third is prefectural and municipal and the other third is private land. Although the US does not have to pay rent for its use, it is the Japanese government that needs to pay rent to local governments and citizens. This complexity results from how the US bases were established in Okinawa. Most of the US bases in mainland Japan were previously of Japanese military’s, while the US military took land during and after the battle of Okinawa without the owners’ consensus. This diverged land ownership of the bases in Okinawa leads to economic dependency on government’s payment to some extent. I will explain this problem later (in Q6).

Economic advantages of US bases returned have been remarkable. Former bases turned into big shopping malls and houses, which boosted the local economy. Chatan and Naha are well-known successful cases. Additionally, Rycom (former base for the Ryukyu Command) in the central area of the island is a new one. According to statistics by OPG, the return of a base has several positive aspects. Let’s take an example of Omoromachi, Naha, which is a former US military residential area. The amount of production expanded by 28 times. The amount of income also grew by 24 times. The number of employees jumped up. The facility produced about 170 employments, while the returned area created jobs for over 15,000 people[1]. Ordinary citizens felt the economic and social benefits. Therefore, it is believed that a return of military bases will lead to the improvement of Okinawan economy and living standard.

However, the other side of the coin needs to be explored. The usage of most of the returned area is conventional. It seems a competition to attract customers among big shopping mall firms. Businesses on the retuned land tend to offer part-time jobs, so it does not really help increase life-long income. They do not contribute to bottom up Okinawan economic strength. Moreover, there are some difficulties in the process of land return.

  1. For years it has been discussed the closure of Futenma base. This topic has been central in the last political campaign. What are the real political reasons that do not permit the closure or the transfer of the base? 

Almost all the parties concerned agree on one point: the Futenma base is dangerous and therefore should be closed as soon as possible. Yet means to achieve the goal and the vision of Okinawa’s future diverge among them. Each party has their own solution as well as problems.

The Japanese and US governments think the best and only solution is to relocate the Futenma base to Henoko. If this is accomplished, the US Marine Corps will be able to conduct their training and exercise in the northern Okinawa and reduce the impact on the populated area in the middle and south of the island. They seem to believe most of the people in Okinawa hope for that.

On the other hand, from the Okinawa’s viewpoint, the new runway construction in Henoko is becoming a symbol of possibly indefinite presence of the US military. It is out of Okinawan hope to allow the US bases further in the future. The precedent and current Okinawa government think that the burdens brought from US presence should be divided evenly throughout Japan since all the Japanese benefit from it and the Japan-US security treaty.

A possible reason why the Japanese government hesitates to accept Okinawa’s claim is Tokyo’s bureaucratic attitude toward this issue. Tokyo continued negotiations closely with Washington over the relocation for quite a long time. The central government tends to follow a precedent. Thus, it must not be so easy to go back to the drawing board. Trough the negotiation process, Tokyo probably recognizes that the US might get disappointed if Japan retracts the agreement or makes no progress on the agreed plan.

Meanwhile, Okinawa fails to maximize its political power to revoke the bilateral agreement on the relocation to Henoko. There are diverse stakeholders in regard to US bases in Okinawa. For example, private owners of land where US bases are located receive direct rental payments from the Japanese government. Their unearned income is tremendous. According to a scholar’s calculation, annual income per person is expected from 1.9 million yen to 9.5 million yen[2]. Another local benefiter is construction companies. They gained majority of base-related contracts valued more than 14 billion yen[3]. On-base workers and retailers also depend on the US presence for their living. It must be hard for them to raise a voice of anti-base (although they could oppose to the relocation to Henoko).

It is very challenging to prove that how stakeholders on the US side have reacted to the return of Futenma base. In fact, American scholars and experts have suggested a variety of alternative options over 20 years; however, none of them were examined realistically, at least in the eye of Japanese public. For example, there was an option of integrating the function and capability of Futenma base into the Kadena air force base. It did not come true partly because it would increase burdens on the citizens in Kadena but also because there seemed to be a strong disagreement between the Air Force and Marine Corps. Such conflict might narrow the scope of choices for the Futenma replacement.

  1. Did recent tensions with China regarding Senkaku islands give sense again to the presence of the US bases in Okinawa?

There is a shocking (or reasonable) survey about how the people of Okinawa perceive China. Over 90 percent of them have had a negative impression of China since the Okinawa government started the survey in 2012. The rise of tension between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands may have affected the islanders’ mind. However, most of them do not jump into the conclusion that they should keep the US military there. There are the following reasons. First, a survey conducted by NHK, a Japanese national public broadcasting organization, in 2012 shows that the people of Okinawa do not think the US presence is a solution of the rising tension in their neighborhood. More than the half of the respondents answered that the amount of US military bases should be the same level as those in mainland Japan. More than 20 percent said that all bases should be removed. Less than 20 percent was in favor of the status quo. This result came after the deterioration of Japan-Sino relations over the Senkaku islands. The US military is still considered overweighed in spite of the worsening international situation. Second, there is a sense of doubts about US deterrence. When the Marines in Okinawa are sent to overseas, ships of US Navy come from Sasebo, 1,100 km north of the island. Would it not lessen the effect of rapid deployment that the governments of US and Japan have emphasized? In what timing would the US decide to dispatch its troops based in Okinawa to an area of conflict? It is reported that higher missile technology of North Korea and China may put Okinawa under its target range. Would it not increase the vulnerability of US bases and troops in Okinawa? It is not clear to the people of Okinawa how the US forces would protect them and thus, they are not willing to make much of US presence. Third, they tend to see the US presence as a protection of their lives but rather as a risk of civilian involvement in an armed conflict. According to the recent prefectural opinion survey, the people in Okinawa are more aware of the possibility of military conflict between Japan and China than mainland Japanese. It is simply because of Okinawa is by far closer to the potential flashpoint and it is the islanders who would get significant impacts on the daily life. This fear is easily associated with a trauma of the Battle of Okinawa. The bottom line is that the people of Okinawa always long for their islands not to become a battlefield again.

  [1] http://www.pref.okinawa.jp/site/kikaku/chosei/atochi/houkokusho/documents/150130atochikeizaikoukaphoto.pdf [2] 来間泰男『沖縄の米軍基地と軍用地料』 [3] Alexander Cooley and Kimberly Marten, “Base Motives: The Political Economy of Okinawa’s Antimilitarism,” Armed Forces & Society, Vol. 32, No. 4, 2006, pp. 566-583. (Featured image source: Wikimedia commons)