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Why Japan and the U.S. Can’t Live Without Okinawa

5 minute read
Mark Thompson / Washington

The continued U.S. military presence in Japan has been a growing concern for the Japanese public, and last week it became a lever to pry Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama from office. The first Democratic Party Prime Minister in half a century may have brought that fate upon himself by promising during last fall’s election campaign to move a key U.S. air base off Okinawa, and perhaps out of Japan entirely. That promise broke with his predecessors’ tradition of treating the U.S. presence in Japan as an American birthright, but what proved to be Hatoyama’s undoing was his failure to deliver.

Despite the Hatoyama government’s intentions, Washington refused to back down from a 2006 pact between the two nations permitting its continued base rights on Okinawa, nearly 1,000 miles south of Tokyo. A legacy of World War II, 47,000 U.S. troops are based in Japan within two or three days’ sail of potential hot spots on the Korean peninsula and the Taiwan Strait. Hatoyama’s fall suggests that despite the Japanese people’s desire for a reduced U.S. military presence, they aren’t ready to give up the protection it offers. “Hatoyama got into difficulty with the Japanese people because it was perceived that he was weakening the security of Japan,” says Tom Schieffer, U.S. ambassador to Japan from 2005 to 2009. “The security of Japan is tied to the U.S.-Japanese alliance, and it has been that way since the end of the war.”

(See TIME’s photo-essay “Japan Then and Now.”)

Japan’s new Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, confirmed his nation’s inherent conservatism on Sunday. In a 15-min. phone call with President Obama, the new Japanese leader pledged that he would work to fulfill the 2006 deal under which the U.S. Marines’ Futenma air base on Okinawa would be relocated from its current cramped quarters to a more remote part of the island. Kan honored the agreement by confirming on Tuesday that he would move the base to a less-crowded part of Okinawa, as well as try to reduce the burden on the island for hosting the many U.S. military bases that are part of the joint security pact.

With the region increasingly jittery following North Korea’s alleged sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in March — and amid increased Chinese muscle-flexing — Hatoyama ultimately acceded to Washington’s demands. “[Removing the U.S. base from Okinawa] has proved impossible in my time,” Hatoyama said when he announced his decision to step down. Not since 1960 — when Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi resigned after pushing through an unpopular U.S.-Japanese security treaty — has a Japanese leader been forced from power over the country’s military ties with the U.S. “Someday,” Hatoyama said, “the time will come when Japan’s peace will have to be ensured by the Japanese people themselves.”

(See five reasons to visit Okinawa.)

That’s not going to happen anytime soon, in part because both sides benefit from the current agreement. The U.S. gets to station a potent punch amid one of the world’s most dynamic but unsettled regions, while Japan is relieved of an additional defense-spending burden that would do little to help revive its flagging economy.

(See TIME’s photo-essay on the political life of Yukio Hatoyama.)

The U.S. made clear shortly after Hatoyama’s election that it had no intention of retreating from East Asia. Last October, Defense Secretary Robert Gates called the Marines’ continued presence on Okinawa the “linchpin” of Washington’s East Asian strategy. “This may not be the perfect alternative for anyone,” he said in Japan, “but it is the best alternative for everyone.” In February, Lieut. General Keith Stalder, who commands Marines in the Pacific, put it more bluntly. “All of my Marines on Okinawa are willing to die if it is necessary for the security of Japan,” he told a Tokyo audience. “Japan does not have a reciprocal obligation to defend the United States, but it absolutely must provide the bases and training that U.S. forces need.” That U.S. security umbrella, he pointedly added, “has brought Japan and the entire region unprecedented wealth and social advancement.”

Indeed, under the world’s only pacifist constitution, Japan spends about 1% of its gross domestic product on defense. But the Japanese — and especially the Okinawans, whose island was under U.S. control until 1972 and which currently hosts 75% of the U.S. military presence in Japan — have expressed growing irritation at what they perceive as their junior status in the relationship. Japan, they noted, has paid some $30 billion to the U.S. to support the U.S. military presence in Japan since 1978.

The reason for the 2006 agreement to move Futenma to a new facility in a less-populated part of Okinawa is that the city of Ginowan now encroaches on the the current facility from all sides. The $26 billion deal, to be largely funded by Japan, also calls for shifting 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam by 2014.

For many in Okinawa, Futenma and its 2,000 American personnel have been a perpetually noisy and polluting symbol of continuing U.S. dominance. But U.S. military leaders insist that as long as the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force is based on Okinawa, they need the air base, which allows them to rapidly deploy Marines throughout the region. Stalder uses the analogy of a baseball team to explain why the force can’t do without its aircraft: “It does not do you any good to have the outfielders practicing in one town, the catcher in another and the third baseman somewhere else.”

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