Freeing Okinawa

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 theguidelines originally adopted in late 1997, the changes are largely cosmetic. Japanneither intends to do anything on its own nor use its military even in conjunctionwith that of the United States.

Moreover, the latest Pentagon strategy report on East Asia, releasedlate last year, makes clear that Washington intends to maintain its dominantrole, apparently forever. And that presumably means keeping its forces andfacilities in Japan, also apparently forever.

Yet the Japanese consensus in favor of a protracted Americanprotectorate may finally be cracking. The election of novelist Shintaro Ishihara asgovernor of Tokyo, running on a platform for the return of Yokota Air Base, brings theissue 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 tothe 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 lastOctober 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 in1952, 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, Washingtonand 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 itsland area, Japan was largely unconcerned about Okinawa's plight. Tokyo enjoyedthe benefit of defense by America, while Okinawans bore the burden.

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

Over the last quarter century the United States returned just 15 percentof the land it occupied in Okinawa, compared to 60 percent of the property itused on the mainland. American facilities currently occupy one-fifth of theisland, 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 UnitedStates 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 199689 percent of Okinawans voted in favor of reducing the American presence. TheU.S. and Japanese governments created the Special Action Committee onFacilities 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 stalledbecause of the difficulty in finding alternate facilities. For instance, Tokyoplanned to replace Futenma Air Station with a floating heliport off the city ofNago, but in December 1997 municipal voters rejected the proposal.

In any case, SACO does not reach the more fundamental issue: why shouldthe United States continue to station a Marine Expeditionary Force and otherunits on Okinawa? Although Washington doesn't seem to have noticed, with the endof the Cold War the world has changed, and so, too, has East Asia. Thethreats have diminished ? the Soviet Union is no more, North Korea is crumbling, Chinahas discarded Maoism.

Moreover, the region no longer needs America's protection. Japan is the second-ranking economic power on earth, South Korea far outstrips itsnorthern antagonist, and most of the ASEAN states have made dramatic economicprogress. Indeed, so complacent are Tokyo and Seoul that both are cutting theirdefense budgets.

What reasons do U.S. officials give for a policy that could besummarized as what has ever been must always be? China looms large on the horizon, butif Washington and Beijing eventually come to blows, the air force and navywould do the heavy lifting. Another favorite is the maintenance of regionalstability, 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 onewanted to catalog conflicts in which the United States should not intervene, itwould 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? Stayout of the fight. What if Japan and South Korea rattle sabers over theTokto/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 developsthat allied states are incapable of containing. America could then sharplyreduce 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 bytheir 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 todefend itself. And America to give Okinawa back to the Okinawans.