U.S. Military Bases and Environmental Problems

In cases where there is pollution, the Japanese government is burdened with the fees for its removal, and it already knows that removing pollution and restoring the land is no easy task from its experience with environmental pollution. If it does not admit the damage or underestimates it, it can save on the measures. The state’s post facto relief measures are not suited for such kind of problems in the first place. We in Okinawa, including myself, have not really thought about the fact that the application of Article 4 of the Status Agreement is unsuitable for cases where negative factors, such as pollution, are involved and it only results in bringing about disadvantages for Japan. The truth is that the environmental problem was not included at all in the “Ten Demands” (see box 1) hastily put together by Okinawa prefecture after the 1995 rape,  and – with the exception of the Communist Party – hardly anyone had pointed out the absurdities of Article 4. The Communist Party took a leading part in conducting empirical research on the problems of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty Status Agreement which was published in A Point by Point Critique of the Japan-U.S. Status Agreement (Shin Nihon Shuppansha, 1997), but even there, there is little mention of pollution in the analysis of Article 4.


When the Okinawa prefectural government began the task of establishing the Basic Environmental Regulations in 1999, the  NGO to which I am affiliated - the Okinawa Environment Network - brought up the problem of U.S. military bases as a major factor determining the environment in Okinawa. We spelled out the responsibilities to be shouldered by the U.S. military bases and submitted our proposal to the prefectural Council for the Environment. The members of the Council, however, caved in to the demand of the Personnel Bureau to delete the proposal because dealing with the U.S. armed forces was really beyond all capacity. Hence, they rejected our proposal and implemented harmless, unobtrusive regulations similar to those of other prefectures. However – as I learned only recently – the governments of Japan and the United States had in fact already published a joint statement regarding “Environmental Principles” by that time (see box 2). That is to say, the regulation of the U.S. military bases could have been integrated into such legislation, but the prefectural Bureau for the Environment, the Council for the Environment and our NGO were unaware of this.


Actually, something else had been hidden from us from much earlier on. I regret that it would have served our case in Okinawa very well if it had come to light. I refer to the document (see box 3) said to have been agreed upon by a Japan-U.S. joint committee. Based on this agreement, at least it would have been possible to request for inspections and publication of the results, and we could have also obtained samples. When I think of this, I wonder why this document was not published for thirty years. Many things could have been achieved during that time. Concerning the question of why the document was not published sooner, Minister of Foreign Affairs Kawaguchi responded that at least it did not seem to be the case that it was hidden because its content was disadvantageous. However, this kind of lack of sense of responsibility definitely brings about disadvantageous results in Okinawa’s current situation. Especially in the case of environmental problems, seemingly small things build up little by little before a large clue is obtained, so this gap of thirty years was indeed a waste.


It was in response to this kind of situation that the Okinawa Environment Network has decided to begin by holding small workshops at Okinawa University from 18 March to discuss the existence of military bases and environmental problems. The aim of the workshop is to find out the content of the U.S. military bases which are in a black box situation by inviting representatives from countries where U.S. military bases have existed in the past or still exist, such as the Philippines, Vietnam and South Korea, and comparing the experiences of the American NGOs which have been involved in the restoration of bases to their original state. It also aims to try to improve matters at least a little by collaborating with South Korea, which is also already suffering under the unequal status agreement. We have not received any positive response to our invitation from the Okinawan government and the Japanese national government, but the United States Marines has offered to report on the fact that they are making some efforts. Some members at our planning committee opposed the idea of devoting time to the United States Marines. Others, however, think it appropriate for such a workshop and we are curious about what we will get to hear. It is regrettable that the Okinawan government is not represented at such meetings as usual and it reflects upon the attitude of the prefectural government, but we intend to report the content of the discussions and so on to the prefectural government as much as possible.


Holding such workshops causes one to truly admire the pioneering foreign policy work of Utsunomiya Tokuma. Even though renegotiation of the unequal and unilateral status agreement was strongly demanded within Japan, among the Foreign Ministers and bureaucrats of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs only former Foreign Minister Tanaka Makiko responded that she would look into the matter. All other responses suggested improvements in the running of the system, which were in fact about the maintenance of the status quo. Prime Minister Hashimoto had suggested that since it would be too much for someone to go from Okinawa and do the rounds at government offices each time some incident occurred, the situation might improve if an ambassador-level bureaucrat from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were posted at Okinawa to negotiate with the U.S. armed forces. Thus an office for the Okinawa Ambassador was established, but it seemed that the situation did not change very much. In particular, the former Ambassador Hashimoto - who used to argue loudly against explanations of the local municipal assembly members, claiming that the crime rate of members of the United States armed forces was lower than the average crime rate of Okinawa – tended to be criticized by the people wondering which side he was on. He had a reputation of being a relative of Prime Minister Hashimoto and someone who carried his head high. The local people consider that the way in which such people who know nothing about Okinawa are sent here reveals the attitude of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarding how to tackle the Okinawan problem.


As can be seen from the fact that the 10 demands lack a perspective on environmental problems and therefore make no allusion to the inequality in Article 4, almost no one anticipated, even on the Okinawan side, that pollution within bases was likely to become a serious problem until the specific dates were set for the return of Futenma. Within everyday prefectural administration, too, policies toward environmental problems had low priority and there was a tendency to prioritize development and industrialization. This was true of the admininstrations under Governors Nishime and Ôta, and it has become even more so under the Inamine prefectural government, which is controlled by the conservatives. Thus, within the Bureau for the Environment, which tends to be made light of in the first place, the politics of self-protection and safety-first principles of cautiously proceeding in order to be as unobtrusive as possible prevails. The Bureau has lost all power to dig up problems on its own. This is what I strongly felt, having jostled with the prefectural government about many problems beginning with the issue of Shin-ishigaki airport. Given the environmental regulations and the procedures for assessment of environmental problems described above, negotiations on an equal footing with the United States through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has no experience with such problems and lacks the will to take them up, will certainly be difficult unless someone with unusually strong leadership confronts the situation over a considerably long term by accumulating research on past precedents.


Okinawa’s only weapon in such negotiation is the fact that the environmental reality has deteriorated. The damage caused by hiding the 1973 agreement is enormous and the Okinawan people must follow up on the huge responsibility of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which caused it. It makes one wonder whether the Ministry of Foreign Affairs exists for the United States armed forces or for the Okinawan people.


Thus when we understand the way the problems of military bases and the environment have developed, we can see that the efforts – including my own – to deal with them have come late. My strategy of investing energy in specialization or division of labor seems to have been a mistake. Realizing this at the end of my stay in Okinawa is too late, but fortunately I have high hopes for the Okinawa Environment Network and its central figure, young Ms. Sunagawa Kaori, who has already taken up several tasks starting with the workshop.


Even the central government seems to have noticed the existence of the problem. On 12 March, in the Council for the Reform of the United States Armed Forces Status in Japan within the Kômeitô Party, it was pointed out that various problems had arisen due to the lack of environmental regulations (Ryûkyû Shinpô, 13 March 2003). In addition to the Onna Communication Base incident of 1995 noted above, the article reported on the 1999 hexavalent chromium pollution on the grounds of the Kadena Ammunition Storage area when it was partially returned, the 2002 discovery of waste oil drums on the grounds of the returned Camp Zukeran, and the poisonous lead pollution caused by clay shooting exercises on Camp Courtney. However, we should also be aware of the problem in Okinawa that such kinds of reports often disappear from the news. For instance, when there was an expected increase in tourism to Kume Island by the introduction of direct flights from Tokyo, news regarding the depleted uranium ammunitions in the islands disappeared.


When we think about it, the defoliant Agent Orange containing dioxin that had caused huge problems during the Vietnam War had been transported from Okinawa and had caused serious injuries to both the Vietnamese people who were sprayed with it and the American soldiers who had carried out the spraying. Depending on where and how the defoliant was stored in Okinawa, there is a possibility of strong dioxin pollution existing today. Unless the way in which the defoliant was handled within the American military bases is made clear, it will be difficult to determine the extent of the damage because that kind of pollution usually affects very small areas. Furthermore, what we are talking about now is the transportation of substances over thirty years ago. How far would it be possible to trace them?


But if we do not carry out such investigations now – as we have seen in the case of the Onna Communication Base – there will be arguments between and within governments regarding responsibility for the polluted areas and the people of Okinawa will bear the brunt of the damage in the end. First, we need to begin by reopening the negotiations on the unilateral status agreement, which allows the United States armed forces to evade responsibility. No matter what the bureaucrats in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs may think, unless they take up this issue, the suffering of Okinawa will not end.


I would like to express my gratitude to Ambassador Numata in the Okinawa Office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for instructing and providing me with materials.




Translation by Sabine Frühstück and Yumiko Tokita-Tanabe


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