Okinawa Air Bases: What are the Japanese thinking?

The Japan Times today that Foreign Minister Okada proposes that America consolidate the U.S. Marine air base at Futenma over to Kadena, which currently hosts other armed forces activity.

The prime minister himself is on record for wanting the U.S. military to leave all the air bases it currently has in Okinawa. This was an issue pitched by the DPJ (Minshuto) in the last election, and it’s apparently a big one with the junior coalition partner, SPJ (Shaminto).

Obama’s Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the Japanese the other day that the U.S. isn’t interested in renegotiating any realignment of forces with the new government here. The deal the U.S. struck was back in 2006, and that was to move some of the marines off Okinawa to Guam, and to relocate Futenma air fields to a man-made island near Camp Schwab. Camp Schwab is in the north of Okinawa near Nago.

By the way, I’m surprised that some Americans don’t know this, but Okinawa was an administered occupied territory of the U.S. from the war (1945) until the end of 1972. About 12,000 Americans of our grandparents’ generation died in the Battle of Okinawa, with another 38,000 wounded.

The casualties on the other side of the conflict were indeed far greater, and a significant number of civilians. The battle went on for at least two months.

So military air bases in any context–whether a foreign power or Japan’s own–would tend to attract controversy in Okinawa. It has been the location of this kind of military activity since shortly after the Battle of Okinawa, when the allies began plans for a land invasion of the Main Islands of Japan.

So part of the political tension in Okinawa has to do with the presence of the U.S. military there. But clearly the other part has to do with Japan’s own unpleasant history, and that people who are the farthest removed from what Tokyo does seem to bear an oversized burden of the country’s collective defense.

In plain terms, Okinawans are saying, “Look, you people in Tokyo screwed up 70 years ago, and ever since then, our islands are stuck with both a legacy and an oversized share of carrying the load to protect Kanto region from another war!”

The only way the folks in Nagatacho have been able to deflect that reality, is to make the issue one about the “controversial Americans”.

There’s probably a money element in play, too. Reminding the Japanese government about the presence of the bases might be a negotiation tactic to get more resources for Okinawa, besides the money and jobs that already come with having a military installation around.

Just like back in America–and why Congress had to set up the Military Base Closing Commission. Congress couldn’t agree which districts would lose bases in the 1990’s, so the pushed the decision off to an independent commission.

So in some quarters, the opposition to the bases may simply be that Okinawa wants more for their presence than what Tokyo is providing now (if anything).

What’s clear is that the Japanese among themselves are operating on a whole different plane than the Pacific Elite and defense establishment back home. Those guys are getting ready to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the current U.S.-Japan mutual defense treaty, like it’s the same big deal here in Japan.

But like I said, in fact, the U.S. presence here is made a hot potato because of history and as part of the “get”. No one even takes it to the next level, which would be where Japan would put the air bases to replace those if the U.S. left? And the U.S. never pushes the issue that far.