Japan’s relationship with the US is complicated. From enemies in war to professed partners in peace, the two countries have been intrinsically linked for more than three generations. The people of Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture, have been caught in the crossfire of this tempestuous relationship.
Geographically distant and retaining its own language and culture, Okinawa remains distinct from mainland Japan.
It currently hosts 75 per cent of US military facilities in Japan, despite accounting for just 0.6 per cent of the country’s territory. In all, approximately 25,000 US troops are stationed there, and the presence of US bases is a reminder of Okinawa’s continued marginalization by the Japanese government in Tokyo.
The US first arrived in Okinawa in 1945, when 180,000 troops landed and began a battle that killed a quarter of the island’s population. They then constructed bases on the island to prepare for attack on the rest of Japan. In 1951, when the San Francisco Peace Treaty ended the occupation of mainland Japan, Okinawa was placed under US military rule and remained a US colony until reverting to Japanese control in 1972. Yet under the terms of a separate Japan-US Security Treaty signed in December 1951, the US continues to own and operate the bases it established in Okinawa during the occupation.
From the outset, local community movements have opposed this military presence. Areas around US bases suffer environmental damage, noise pollution and increased instances of crime.
Suzuyo Takazato, an anti-base campaigner from the Okinawan women’s movement, argues that women are the main victims of violent crimes perpetrated by US soldiers. Although reported incidents of rape are low, she says, date rape is common. Other women’s rights campaigners claim the location of the bases in relatively poor communities has lured many women into the sex industry.
In response to local concerns, in 2006 the US and Japanese governments agreed to move one of the most notorious bases, the Futenma Marine Corps Air Station, to a site of reclaimed land in scenic Henoko Bay. The relocation divided local opinion. Some supported the proposed move, while others raised concerns about damage to coral reefs and the habitat of the highly endangered Okinawan dugong.
In August 2009, a new government took power in Tokyo and promised to try to move the base out of Okinawa altogether. But in May 2010, it capitulated to US pressure. Tens of thousands of Okinawans poured on to the streets to protest, all wearing yellow to ‘show the government a yellow card’. An estimated 17,000 formed a ‘human chain’ around Futenma.
Activists from the Okinawa Citizen’s Peace Coalition have not given up hope. As a leading member explains: ‘Even as the Futenma relocation pushes ahead, Okinawans are sending a message to the world: military bases do not improve our security. Rather, bases like Futenma threaten people’s social, economic and environmental security.’