Freeing Okinawa

May 18, 1999 • Commentary
This article appeared in the Korea Herald on May 18, 1999.

Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi has visited Washington, offering the usual promises of economic reform and international cooperation. But neither Tokyo nor Washington seem interested in upgrading their relationship to reflect the post‐​Cold War world.

Although the Diet recently passed legislation to implement the guidelines originally adopted in late 1997, the changes are largely cosmetic. Japan neither intends to do anything on its own nor use its military even in conjunction with that of the United States.

Moreover, the latest Pentagon strategy report on East Asia, released late last year, makes clear that Washington intends to maintain its dominant role, apparently forever. And that presumably means keeping its forces and facilities in Japan, also apparently forever.

Yet the Japanese consensus in favor of a protracted American protectorate may finally be cracking. The election of novelist Shintaro Ishihara as governor of Tokyo, running on a platform for the return of Yokota Air Base, brings the issue of Washington’s presence to Japan’s national stage.

Which is where it should be. Only Tokyo can address the worst injustice stemming from the American‐​American alliance: Okinawa. Although Gov. Masahide Ota’s defeat last year by Keiichi Inamine may have reduced attention to the island’s plight, the issue remains no less pressing.

It is hard to go anywhere on Okinawa without running into a U.S. base. Or being run into. Yuki Uema, an Okinawan high school student, died last October after being hit by a U.S. Marine in a hit‐​and‐​run accident.

On April 1, 1945 the United States invaded the Ryukyu Islands, the last stepping‐​stone toward mainland Japan. Okinawa remained under U.S. occupation after the war; although Tokyo and Washington signed a peace treaty in 1952, the United States retained control of the island, leaving Japan with only “residual sovereignty.”

During the Korean War the United States began expanding its military operations, seizing land at bayonet point from farmers to make airfields. Many displaced residents were encouraged to emigrate. Washington acted like a colonial overlord.

Only in 1972 did Okinawa revert to Japanese control. However, Washington and Tokyo continued to collude against the island. With three‐​quarters of U.S. facilities concentrated in the most distant and poorest 0.6 percent of its land area, Japan was largely unconcerned about Okinawa’s plight. Tokyo enjoyed the benefit of defense by America, while Okinawans bore the burden.

Okinawans have grown tired of the cost. Even Gov. Inamine, though a member of the ruling party, favors reducing America’s presence.

Over the last quarter century the United States returned just 15 percent of the land it occupied in Okinawa, compared to 60 percent of the property it used on the mainland. American facilities currently occupy one‐​fifth of the island, and are home to some 30,000 servicemen and nearly as many family members. Fences topped with barbed wire line major roads and cut through towns.

U.S. facilities occupy more than half the land area of four communities. Roads, homes, schools, and businesses abut American bases. The United States controls 29 sea zones and 15 air zones and runs two of the island’s three airports. It is not just the extraordinary incidents ? the 1995 rape of a 12‐​year‐​old school girl, for instance ? but the daily noise, congestion, crowding, and accidents that irritate Okinawans.

However, the rape galvanized Japanese public opinion; in September 1996 89 percent of Okinawans voted in favor of reducing the American presence. The U.S. and Japanese governments created the Special Action Committee on Facilities and Areas in Okinawa (SACO) to ease the burden of America’s military presence. But SACO proposed only modest land reversions, most of which remain stalled because of the difficulty in finding alternate facilities. For instance, Tokyo planned to replace Futenma Air Station with a floating heliport off the city of Nago, but in December 1997 municipal voters rejected the proposal.

In any case, SACO does not reach the more fundamental issue: why should the United States continue to station a Marine Expeditionary Force and other units on Okinawa? Although Washington doesn’t seem to have noticed, with the end of the Cold War the world has changed, and so, too, has East Asia. The threats have diminished ? the Soviet Union is no more, North Korea is crumbling, China has discarded Maoism.

Moreover, the region no longer needs America’s protection. Japan is the second‐​ranking economic power on earth, South Korea far outstrips its northern antagonist, and most of the ASEAN states have made dramatic economic progress. Indeed, so complacent are Tokyo and Seoul that both are cutting their defense budgets.

What reasons do U.S. officials give for a policy that could be summarized as what has ever been must always be? China looms large on the horizon, but if Washington and Beijing eventually come to blows, the air force and navy would do the heavy lifting. Another favorite is the maintenance of regional stability, given widespread economic problems, political uncertainty in Indonesia, and so on.

Yet it is time for East Asia to look after its own stability. If one wanted to catalog conflicts in which the United States should not intervene, it would be these. What if the Habibie regime in Indonesia totters? Let it fall. What if Filipino and Chinese ships exchange shots over the Spratly Islands? Stay out of the fight. What if Japan and South Korea rattle sabers over the Tokto/​Takeshima Islands? Tell both countries to work together. These are East Asia’s, not America’s, problems.

That doesn’t mean Washington should be unconcerned about the region. But instead of being meddler of first resort, the United States should act as balancer of last resort, intervening only if a hegemonic threat develops that allied states are incapable of containing. America could then sharply reduce existing force levels and redeploy advanced units ? like the Third Marine division, currently stationed on Okinawa ? back to Guam and Hawaii. Japan, South Korea, and other countries could take on the military role dictated by their economic success.

For a half century Okinawans have borne the brunt of U.S. military deployments in Japan. But the Cold War is over. It is time for Japan to defend itself. And America to give Okinawa back to the Okinawans.

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