Asia Rights

Journal of Human Rights, Media and Society in Asia and the Pacific

IMAGINE: An Okinawa without Military Bases

Okinawa dugong photo

It is spring in Tokyo, and the crowd outside the Japanese parliament building has a festival air – their hand-painted banners are multicoloured, and large yellow balloons shaped like the endangered dugong float beneath the cherry trees. (see video) But the messages on the banners are profoundly serious. This is a demonstration about an issue which will determine the future of the southern Japanese archipelago of Okinawa and profoundly influence the future of East Asia.

The government of Prime Minister Hatoyama Ichiro is about to announce a decision on the future of the Futenma Airbase on the main Okinawan island, home to some 2000 US Marines. Futenma has a long and troubled history. Located in the very heart of a densely populated area of the main Okinawan island, its giant aircraft pass fly day and night over residential areas, causing noise pollution severe enough to disrupt school classes (see video), and creating fears of major accidents affecting civilians (see video of helicopter crash on university campus). Futenma is just one of series of bases that dot Okinawa, occupying over 18% of land on the main island, where some 55,000 residents suffer from base-related noise pollution.

Ever since the US occupied Okinawa following the Pacific War and separated the archipelago from the rest of Japan, to which it was only returned in 1972, bases have been a focus of conflict and protest. Issues came to a head in 1995, when a twelve-year-old Okinawan schoolgirl was raped by three off-duty US servicemen. The ensuing wave of mass protests eventually led to a 2006 agreement between the US and Japan’s then Liberal Democratic Party government to move some 8,000 Marines to Guam.

But the deal also involved a plan to relocate the Futenma base to a new spot further from the main population centers: an spot off shore from Camp Schwab on Okinawa’s east coast. The new base, according to this plan, would be constructed on top the coral reef of one of the main islands few remaining pristine stretches of coast, in the middle of the most northerly habitat visited by the endangered dugong (see video). A case brought in US courts by the NGO EarthJustice resulted in a 2008 finding that the US Department of Defense (DoD) was in violation of the law, and requiring the DoD to consider the impact of the base on the local dugong population. Despite this, the off-shore base remains the US preferred option.

Meanwhile a new government has come to power in Japan, promising to look afresh at the Okinawan base issue. So far however, the Hatoyama government has failed to present a clear plan on the future of the bases, and the US continues to insist that the 2006 deal must be honoured. The Japanese government has promised a decision by the end of May, but no resolution of the issue is yet in sight.

Behind the Futenma issue lies the larger question of the ongoing presence of US bases in East Asia. Okinawa is home to 74% of US bases in Japan, and the island’s entire economy and society has become distorted by its reliance on the US military presence: unlike the rest of Japan, Okinawa has virtually no local industrial production, relying instead on tourism, bases and construction. Proclaimed by supporters as essential to the defense of Japan, and substantially funded by the Japanese taxpayer, the Okinawan bases for decades have in fact primarily been a launching pad for US military action in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Japan contributed $5.2 billion to the cost of US bases on its soil in 2009, and has also agreed to pay $6 billion to transfer US troops from Okinawa to Guam.More than two decades after the end of the Cold War, growing numbers of Okinawans and other Japanese are saying “enough”.

More demonstrations are planned nation-wide, and the Japanese government’s May decision could decide not only the fate of Okinawa but also the fate of the Hatoyama government itself.

Tessa Morris-Suzuki

See Also


– Henoko Dugong, by Suehiro Nitta (for video footage, click HERE)

– To learn more about Diego Garcia, click HERE

– Okinawan residents and supporters demonstrate outside Japanese parliament – for video, click HERE. For photos click HERE. See article: “Imagine: An Okinawa without Military Bases”

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