The Battle for Okinawa

Tensions rise over the massive U.S. military presence in Japan

The Battle for Okinawa

Photograph by Shizuo Kambayashi/ Associated Press

It’s tradition to celebrate 50 years of marriage with gold. But in January, the golden anniversary of the U.S.-Japan military nuptials—the landmark 1960 Treaty of Mutual Co-operation and Security that united the two nations in holy (armed) matrimony—was celebrated not with precious metals or affectionate toasts, but with mounting tension and a growing unease about the future of the U.S.-Japan security alliance.

It’s all come to a head in Okinawa, a southern Japanese prefecture made up of dozens of tiny islands. Ever since the area fell to the Allies in the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, the U.S. military has used the islands as a stronghold in the Pacific. Today, about half of the almost 50,000 U.S. troops in Japan are concentrated here, in an area that represents just one per cent of Japan’s land mass. It is also here that the pugnacious new Japanese PM is making his first stand: threatening, with broad Japanese support behind him, to boot the Americans off the island.

Calls for the U.S. to reduce its military footprint in Japan have been building. In 2006, the U.S. answered those calls head-on: signing a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) deal with Tokyo that would relocate some 8,000 troops to Guam by 2014 and move the bustling Futenma air base to a less populated part of Okinawa. For a while, the situation calmed. But last September, Japan held a general election—and the Liberal Democratic Party, which ruled the country for 54 of the last 55 years, lost. Now, Yukio Hatoyama, leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, who ran in part on a platform of distancing Japan from the U.S., is at the helm. And while his wife steals headlines with bizarre claims that her “soul rode on a triangular-shaped UFO and went to Venus,” Hatoyama has been working more quietly to erode Japan’s relationship with the U.S.

In the new year, he dropped his bombshell: announcing that he might renege on the 2006 deal, but that he would need until May to decide. Then, just last week, another blow: Japanese media reported that Hatoyama will not uphold the SOFA accord. According to those reports, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano met informally with U.S. Ambassador John Roos last Thursday, telling him that sticking to the 2006 timeline had “become too difficult politically.” Some accounts made mention of potential alternative deals. One would see the entire base moved to sparsely populated Uruma, and Tsuken Island, off of Okinawa’s main island. This despite ominous insistence from U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that the terms of the 2006 pact are “non-negotiable.”

It’s not as though the old cross-Pacific knot was tied in bliss. The 1945 Battle of Okinawa, the Americans’ 82-day-long assault on Japan, claimed over 200,000 lives, U.S. and Japanese. The U.S. lost so many men that some in Congress demanded an investigation. And Okinawa lost as much as a quarter of its civilian population (estimates vary)—both in battle and through mass suicides, propelled by rumours about the brutality of approaching American soldiers. After the Allies occupied Japan, things remained tense.

Japanese anger flared into the open in 1995, with the notorious rape and kidnapping of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl by three U.S. military men, which led to widespread protests. Since then, criticism of the U.S. presence has broadened: media reports lambaste the U.S. military golf courses that cover scarce Japanese land; officials complain about the $2 billion that Japan pays annually to maintain U.S. troops (more than any other U.S. ally); and residents stage pedestrian protests against the noise and pollution coming off the base. Increasingly, antipathy is seen on signs held by young protesters, which, borrowing a page from Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, call to “Change! Japan-U.S. Relations.” It’s also at the forefront of political pledges, like those of Japan’s Social Democratic Party, which is theatening to pull out of the governing coalition if the base is not scrapped entirely. (A statement provided to Maclean’s by the Japanese Embassy in Ottawa is more tempered: “Japan will maintain the Japan-U.S. Alliance as the cornerstone of its diplomacy,” while trying “to alleviate so far as possible the extremely heavy burden that has been borne by the residents of Okinawa.”)

What is undeniable is that Japan’s new demands are set against a backdrop of cooling U.S.-Japan relations. That is, in part, precipitated by a burgeoning Japanese nationalism. Take Japan’s sensitivity about anti-Japanese sentiments in China. Or the backlash last year against a group of Tokyo teachers who fought against a city law mandating that they stand and sing the national anthem at school ceremonies. But the new mood has been made more obvious by last September’s elections. After 55 years of a regime that deferred major foreign policy decisions to the U.S., says Linus Hagström, a senior research fellow at Sweden’s Institute of International Affairs, the U.S. “will now have to deal with a Japan that isn’t an obedient little brother.” As Hatoyama confirmed after his election, “This will be a very important year for our relationship.”

Perhaps that’s why, in January, the international media was focused on the mayoral race in the small Okinawan city of Nago—and why headlines worldwide sold the campaign of Susuma Inamine, a municipal school-board chairman, as nothing short of a litmus test for the future of the U.S.-Japanese pact. Why Nago? Because that 2006 deal with the U.S. proposed relocating the Futenma air station to Nago. And Inamine, the candidate who eventually won the race with 64 per cent of the vote, was campaigning “with a pledge not to have a new base built.” Hatoyama says he will listen to Okinawans, 85 per cent of whom are opposed to the base, when making his decision, something he now plans to do by the end of March. Others aren’t waiting to lend a hand; on Jan. 30, thousands gathered in Tokyo to protest in sympathy.

The Battle for Okinawa

Photographs by: Itsuo Inouye/AP (left) and Koji Sasahara/AP (right)

Some American activists have flocked to the side of Okinawans. Robert Naiman, policy director at the Just Foreign Policy NGO, launched a petition last month urging the U.S. to pull out of Japan. “Voters in Japan have spoken,” read a description on Just Foreign Policy’s website. “But instead of respecting the will of the majority of Japanese voters, U.S. officials have tried to bully the newly elected reformist Japanese government.” A number of environmental warriors have also been stepping in: not exactly on behalf of Okinawa, but on behalf of its coral reef, which they claim would be damaged by the construction of a new airstrip.

But others see the standoff in a different light. They point out that much of the U.S.’s geopolitical strength in the region is rooted in Japan. Indeed, base supporters insist that the U.S. troops in Japan have deterred threats from China and North Korea. That might explain why Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, when meeting in January with Japan’s foreign minister to discuss the base relocation plans, stressed that the U.S. was not interested in compromise.

There is also no overlooking the U.S. military’s importance to Japan itself. It isn’t just that the Okinawan economy is dependent on the base. Japan’s postwar constitution forbids the country from building up its own military. That’s why, today, Japan trains troops only for defence and peacekeeping. Added to that is the 1960 security pact, whereby in exchange for military access the U.S. agreed to defend Japan and include it under its nuclear umbrella. Today, says Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies), “the Japanese spend less than one per cent of their GDP on the military. They can do that precisely because the Americans are there to provide the bulk of the defence.”

In fact, this very strategic importance is why Glosserman ultimately believes that Hatoyama’s hesitation about the 2006 accord boils down to domestic posturing: a strategy to maintain the support of the left in the lead-up to upper house elections this summer. Will they “get rid of the Americans,” he asks? “The answer is: no way in hell.”

And yet, as Kent Calder, former special adviser to the U.S. ambassador to Japan, has said: “I have never seen this in 30 years. I haven’t heard Japanese talking back to American diplomats that often, especially not publicly. The Americans usually say, ‘We have a deal,’ and the Japanese respond, ‘Ah soo desu ka’—we have a deal—and it’s over.” Already, Hatoyama has taken a baby step away from the U.S.: ending a program that allowed Japanese navy ships to refuel American warships in the Indian Ocean. U.S. officials are paying heed. Clinton’s first trip of the year was to Hawaii, for that meeting with Japanese diplomats. U.S. Sen. Jim Webb travelled to Japan last month to smooth over tensions. And further talks are in the works.

All this underscores the fact that Okinawa remains critical to U.S. security, as tensions between the U.S. and China grow, and as nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea become more troubling. Webb hopes the issue can “be resolved through harmony between the two governments rather than bringing a big stick.” But others are flexing a bit more muscle. If Japan reneges on its pact and the security relationship falters, Defense Secretary Gates warned late last year, things will get “immensely complicated.”

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