US Military Presence in Japan: a Paradox between Local and National Security

For many governments, finding a balance between different groups of interest is a difficult task. This is especially the case for Japanese government, which has to deal with American military presence in Okinawa. On the one hand, local residents want the Americans to go, as Americans are perceived to threaten local safety. On the other hand, Japan depends on American military presence for its national security. Finding a compromise is almost impossible: US presence in Okinawa creates a paradox between local and national security. Meanwhile, mass protests from local Okinawans continue to take place on a daily basis; just as tensions with neighboring countries such as China are increasing. Yet, in a rapidly changing world, solving the paradox of security is very important for Japan.

Okinawa is a sub-tropical region covering more than a 100 islands in the southern part of Japan. Wedged between mainland Japan and Taiwan, its history has been tumultuous. The islands formed the independent as Ryukyu Kingdom until 1872, when it was annexed by the Japanese Empire – starting the “Okinawan Diaspora” from local perspective. In the Second World War, Okinawa became a frontline during Battle of Okinawa, which cost 120,000 Okinawan lives, mostly civilians. Despite the hard fought battle, Japan did not restore its sovereignty over the islands from the US until 1972. By then, Americans had already forcibly seized farmland from its owners, building vast military installations on the island. As of today, these installations cover about 20% of the entire island group, housing 30,000 U.S military personnel. 74% of American forces in Japan are located on the small Okinawa Islands, making it the heaviest concentration of US military in Japan.

From noise pollution to risk of military accidents – burdens from the US bases for the Okinawans are significant. Yet, the main concern of Okinawans are the crimes committed by US personnel against civilians. In 1995, a 12-year-old schoolgirl was kidnapped and raped by three US servicemen, sparking huge protests. Ever since this, the base has been very unpopular, with most protests following American misbehavior. More recently, in May of this year, an American working on the base was arrested on the charge of rape and murder of a  20-year-old woman. Many locals were angry, and protested against American presence. Local politicians joined, and governor Onaga rightly stated that “this is not the first time”. He mentioned that more than 5,800 crimes were committed by American soldiers or contract workers – including several serious crimes such as rape and murder. National security might be safeguarded by the Americans; local security is not.

In 1996, following large protests from the 1995 case, the US and Japan agreed to close Okinawa’s Futenma base, known as the “Most Dangerous Air Station in the World”. The base is surrounded by residential areas with schools, hospitals and city offices in immediate. 3,000 people live in the “clear zone” around the base, being in constant danger of failed takeoffs and landings of military aircrafts and helicopters. This danger came to the fore by tragic helicopter crash near Futenma base in 2004, creating dozens of injuries. Moreover, since 1972, the U.S aircraft have been involved in 44 crashes on Okinawa, and many occurred near Futenma base.

Yet, in the plan, the Americans would not leave Okinawa. Instead, they would move the facilities elsewhere on the island. The official plan was to relocate Futenma base to Henoko bay, eliminating the dangers for those living nearby. However, the protests from Okinawans continued: the Americans, and with them the crime, would remain.

After two decades, the base is still in the same place. Okinawans have not only protested against reallocation; they have also used several lawsuits – delaying any reallocation process. Moreover, local governor Onaga has actively worked against reallocation, demanding that the US military leave the islands altogether. Sensing the anger, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe suspended the work on reallocation to Henoko, and opened talks for alternatives. However, there have not been any meaningful solutions yet. For the Okinawans, there is only one solution: Americans have to leave. For Abe, this is not an option.

Since the signing of the US-Japan Security Treaty in 1952, Japan relies on American military presence for its national security. In the treaty, American forces are allowed to remain on Japanese soil, specifically on the Okinawa Islands. This American presence is essential, keeping in mind Japan’s pacifist constitution. Through Article 9 of this constitution, Japan is forbidden to hold an army and use military force to settle international disputes. The U.S on the other hand, sees Japan as a strategic partner in the Asia-Pacific region, especially now that China is rising as a military power in the region.

With a changing global division of power, the US-Japan Security Treaty has never been so important. China is increasingly assertive in the East- and South-China Sea. Disputes between Japan and China over the uninhabited Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are especially worrying. Tensions over the islands damaged the bilateral relations between Japan and China significantly, creating fear of a military clash between the two economic superpowers. Even more, as the US military base on Okinawa is geographically close to the disputed territories, it plays an important role as the frontline to sustain Japan’s sovereignty over the disputed islands. More than ever, military bases on Okinawa are essential for Japan’ s national security: leaving the islands would be a kamikaze act.

The Japanese government is facing an impossible task: solving the paradox between national security and local security on the Okinawa Islands. Reallocation within Okinawa is the ideal solution for the government. Yet, this hinders local security and is unacceptable for Okinawan citizens. Satisfying both sides seems impossible, but this might not the case from different perspective. The American crime rates is decreasing, and are actually lower than Japanese crime rates. Okinawans might feel threatened by Americans, but they should more fear themselves. Therefore, the key to solving the paradox is changing feelings: now that the Okinawans are safe, they have to feel that way too.

Naohiko Nakayama

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