Opinions on US bases change in Okinawa, Japan

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Ginowan (Japan) (AFP) – For decades, Okinawans in Japan have strongly opposed the US military bases that dot the region, but a subtle change is afoot, driven by Chinese saber blows and economic challenges.

Bases are often seen as a disproportionate burden on Japan’s southernmost subtropical region.

Okinawa comprises 0.6% of the territory of the Japanese archipelago but contains 70% of the land used for American bases and more than half of the 50,000 soldiers present.

Base-related crime, accidents and pollution are potent irritants to Okinawa’s 1.5 million residents.

But with Okinawa now on the front line in the budding confrontation between China and regional US allies, the bases are increasingly important to US and Japanese defense strategies.

“Okinawa has been given an excessive burden,” said Ryo Matayoshi, 39, a city councilor from Ginowan City in Okinawa.

But “if you think about the security of Japan and East Asia, the presence of bases in Okinawa is sort of inevitable,” he told AFP.

“A lot of people of our generation recognize this reality.”

Japan has long been wary of China’s growing military, but the stakes have risen as Beijing toughens its rhetoric on Taiwan and annoys Tokyo with incursions around disputed islands.

In August, Chinese drills in response to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan highlighted the problem, with several missiles landing in waters near Okinawa.

“China’s reaction to Pelosi’s visit and the Russian invasion of Ukraine … has heightened threat perception,” said Yoichiro Sato, a professor and foreign affairs expert at the University. Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific.

Crime, noise, pollution

Anti-base opposition runs deep in Okinawa, which was an independent kingdom before Japanese annexation in the 19th century.

Tokyo used it as a buffer to slow American forces during World War II, and more than a quarter of the population died in the Battle of Okinawa in 1945.

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The American occupation did not end until 1972, under a mutual treaty that left American bases in place.

And the persistent noise of thefts, pollution and crime has kept anti-base sentiment strong, according to 82-year-old politician and peace activist Suzuyo Takazato.

Between 1972 and 2020, the Okinawa government recorded 582 violent crimes involving base residents, and the abduction and rape of a 12-year-old girl by three American soldiers in 1995 drew more than 80,000 protesters.

The treaty governing US forces limits Japanese legal oversight — a persistent sore point, Takazato said.

“When a helicopter crashed at Okinawa International University, American soldiers surrounded it and did not allow any inspections,” she said.

In recent years, opposition has crystallized around plans to relocate Futenma Air Base to Ginowan, sometimes referred to as the most dangerous base in the world due to its proximity to human settlements.

The government wants it moved north to less populated Henoko, but grassroots opponents want it removed altogether.

This is the position of Governor Denny Tamaki, a prominent anti-base politician who was recently re-elected.

But locally, candidates backed by the pro-grassroots Liberal Democratic Party, Japan’s ruling party, are gaining ground, including in areas where Futenma and Henoko are located.

“Economic Realities”

The change reflects security concerns, but also financial challenges, Councilor Matayoshi said.

“More than focusing on the basics…people are focusing on the economic realities.”

Okinawa is Japan’s poorest prefecture and its tourism-dependent economy has been hit hard by the pandemic.

Polls before Tamaki’s re-election found the economy was the top concern for most voters, and the share calling the basics their top priority fell from 45% in 2014 to 32% this year.

The bases only contributed 6% to Okinawa’s GDP in 2017, but they provide lucrative government subsidies.

Conservatives are courting Okinawa voters, telling them that the LDP “brings those benefits from the mainland,” Sato said.

Politician Takazato points out that “three generations have grown up” with the American presence, which is now so established that some think “they have no choice but to accept it”.

But Matayoshi sees real ties forming, thanks to American military outreach and friendships between Okinawans and the troops.

“We are becoming good neighbours,” he said.

Traditional anti-base sentiment makes it “difficult in Okinawa to say publicly that you accept their presence.”

But “I think the opposition is gradually fading”.

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