Bring Home American Forces from Okinawa

Could the U.S.-Japan alliance founder as a result of alcohol? Apparently. At least, that’s the implication of the U.S. Navy’s ban on drinking by personnel stationed on the Japanese island of Okinawa.

It would be far better to phase out America’s military presence on Okinawa, turning U.S. bases back to the Japanese government. More than seven decades after the end of World War II, Tokyo should take over responsibility for Japan’s defense.

Washington currently bases and personnel on the island of Okinawa, with just .6 percent of Japan’s land mass. Local anger exploded in 1995 after three American service members raped a 12-year-old girl. The Japanese government sought to placate islanders with financial transfers and plans to move Futenma airbase and relocate Marines to Guam. These schemes failed to satisfy, however.

Base opponents, bolstered by the 2014 gubernatorial victory of Takeshi Onaga, continued to resist. Fueling popular anger has been a seeming spate of high-profile offenses committed by U.S. military personnel (who, in fact, have a lower crime rate than locals). Last month a sailor pled guilty to rape. Also last month a contractor and former Marine was detained in a murder case.

Then an apparently intoxicated sailor crashed, injuring two Okinawans. The navy confined all personnel to base except for essential travel and banned drinking on or off U.S. facilities.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe largely ignored the Okinawa question as he sought to bolster Tokyo’s military capabilities. But he has made little progress against strong public opposition.

Japan’s “peace constitution” forbidding a military remains unchanged, so Abe simply interprets the law as he wishes it had been written. Military outlays have risen only modestly since Abe took power, up just two percent in 2015. Japan then devoted about $41 billion to defense, compared to roughly $180 billion by China, Tokyo’s main potential nemesis.

Although last year his government adjusted the military’s defense guidelines, Tokyo’s international activities will remain non-combat and do little to reduce America’s military duties.

Moreover, the revised standards merely allow Japan to better defend Japan, not assist the U.S. Now a Japanese ship on patrol with an American vessel can assist if the latter is attacked—so long the Japanese vessel too is threatened. And Japanese analysts warn against expecting Tokyo to allow such situations to occur.

Worse, the new guidelines appear to envision an even stronger U.S. guarantee for Japan and deployment of additional weapons. Under the “bilateral” treaty Washington’s obligations apparently only increase.

The U.S. has an obvious interest in Japan’s continued independence, but Japan’s commitment to its own security should be even greater. Tokyo should do more to defend itself.

In fact, no one expects a Chinese armada to show up in Tokyo Bay. If conflict erupts, it likely will be over disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Of course, Beijing is not justified in using force there or elsewhere, but nothing at stake there is worth war, at least for America.

A serious Japanese military build-up is opposed by some of Tokyo’s neighbors, but no one seriously suggests that Japan is about to embark upon a new round of imperial conquests. More than seven decades after World War II Japan should finally act like a normal country—defending itself, guarding its region, and ending its dependence on America.

The U.S. should turn its security guarantee to Japan into a framework for future cooperation. That should include potential assistance if a genuine hegemonic threat arises in Asia. But Tokyo should take the lead in confronting day-to-day security challenges.

As I wrote in Forbes: “Japan should decide its own defense and foreign policies. As American forces returned home Okinawa’s bases would empty. What came next would be up to the Japanese. And American military personnel could continue to enjoy a drink … back home in their own country.”