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US Military Bases in Okinawa: Alliance or longest Punishment for Defiance of USA?


By Imtiaz Gul

Weekly Pulse, October 28, 2011

Some say it is a strategic partnership, others call it a partnership of expedience, and many dub it enslavement in the name of such an alliance, something a young Japanese artist has illustrated at the Sakima Art Museum; the American and Japanese flags inter-twined in a big portrait and the portrait itself surrounded by barbed-wire to symbolize Japan’s bondage to the USA – as the artist views it. Since occupation in June 1945 till 1972, Okinawa was under complete American control, with Dollar as the currency, and the American Passport as the only travel document. Okinawans leaving for mainland Japan or elsewhere needed permission to do so. Until 1968 , the US military appointed the governor,too. But following growing unrest and protests in the late 1960s, locals were finally allowed to choose their governor. But the American influence continues to date. Locals believe that the American diplomats actively pursue Okinawan and other Japanese law-makers and opinion-multipliers for staying quiet and blunting opposition to US forces and bases in the island. 

Okinawa, the southwestern most prefecture, accounts for only 0.6 percent of Japan’s total landmass. It consists of 160 islands, with about 50 islands inhabited by roughly 1.4 million people i.e. less than one percent of the Japan’s 127 million population. 

During the world war 11, the Japanese Royal army positioned itself in Okinawa and used it as a buffer to protect the mainland Japan. But before the US forces pounded strategic locations here to clear the way for landing here, Japanese forces had already begun using this Island as the first line of defense for the mainland. By doing so, the Japanese army not only exposed the region to a massive war that eventually killed over 100,000 in Okinawa. Okinawa experienced fierce battles, destruction and US records says more than 150,000 were killed during the war. Japanese army also indulged in human rights violations, such as barring locals from speaking their dialect, or pursuing their culture. Unquestioned obedience of Japanese forces was the demand, and violation would be strictly penalized. 

Strategically located in the Pacific Ocear, Okinawa is much closer to China than to mainland Japan, and thus once comes across a lot of Japanese influence in the culture, eatery and the architecture. That is why Okinawans , instinctively, or probably unconsciously keep underlining their identity – as if they don’t consider themselves as part of Japan. 

And most of Okinawa is about this sentiment – old and young, women and children. In fact, residents of this city and its surrounding districts, particularly the generation that suffered war and lost near and dear ones, are a living outcry against the presence of the US forces here – nearly 47,000 Marines, Army , Air-force and Intelligence, backed up by the roaring jets and rumbling helicopters – moving over densely populated areas.

“I have nothing to do with the Americans at large, but I hate the American army’s presence in Okinawa,” replied the taxi driver as we drove from Naha city, the capital of Okinawa, to the airport. He sounded though pretty rational in his approach; I guess we have to accept them because the US forces here are important for the local economy as well, many jobs depend on them. 

Economy probably is one reality that no body – whether in Japan, Okinawa itself, or elsewhere can escape. Almost everything revolves around economics – even the US-Japan Alliance because the need and desire to control crucial international air and waterways essentially opens ways to means of control. 

Many members of Diet – the Japanese parliament - and people at large also fear that once the Americans leave the Okinawan economy would go bankrupt. They point to the fact that until 1962, as much as 52 percent of Okinawa revenue came from US military which had hired 52,000 locals. At that time, the US military was a sort of Industry as well as the ruling power. 

In 1972 – many were laid off from job with Army so the numbers went down to 20,000 , and the percentage of revenue generated by the US army presence dropped to 15 percent. In 2011, according to former governor Ota Masahide, the present US military contribution to the Okinawan economy accounts for only 5 percent, with only 9,000 jobs dependent on the military facilities. 

Can Prefecture refuse to implement a Central government decision? Yes, but how to handle the issue of majority in a state governed by democratic principles. In the 722 member parliament – the Diet - Okinawa has only eight representatives. In the name of democracy, we will always be discriminated against. We don’t have any other choice, Ota says, pointing out that during his tenure, the central government took away some of the governor’s powers to minimize Okinawan opposition to the bases.

“The majority – almost 80 percent of Diet members supported the central government move. Even the Supreme Court also ruled against us when I petitioned it, what can u do then?” 

Until 1953, Okinawan’s were friendly towards the American forces here. They were appreciative of the US military which saved lives of people here after the war, unlike the Japanese imperial military which, driven by a jingoistic nationalism and misplaced pride, ended up antagonizing almost everybody here. It was the US that brought food and currency to the poor and shattered island.

As part of a delegation of intellectuals from seven countries, invited by the International House of Japan and the Japan Foundation, we were lucky to visit Okinawa, and meet with a range of intellectuals, academia, and people at large. Most of them remember how the US army, after the war ended with the Japanese Emperor’s surrender order on Aug 15, 1945, set up hospitals, flew in medicine and food and went about helping the locals in reconstruction.

So they were all thankful until the Korean war prompted the US to appropriate more lands in Okinawa. At that time over 80 percent of people farmers, and that is why when the US tried to forcibly grab lands for military facilities, the resentment began. Some 3000farmers refused to give away their lands – considered it precious, and also opposed use of land as military facility, followed by large-scale demonstrations by farmers and others who were against military bases during 1953-58.

Many farmers began having tough time after losing land to the military. So both governments sent these people to Bolivia and some other countries for work but the Okinawan farmers found no land there to resume their profession.

At the moment the biggest concentration of US troops is in south where the Kadena base is surrounded by schools, hospitals and private residential areas. The population density is also very high in this region, and that is why both the Japanese and the American governments continuously engage with local politicians and prominent figures to fend off eruption of emotions or opposition to the US bases. (continued). (Imtiaz Gul is currently visiting Japan as a fellow of the Asia Leadership Fellows Programme of the International House of Japan and the Japan Foundation, Tokyo).

The writer heads the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk