When can Japan choose its citizen over the US?

The voice of Okinawa, a victim of post-war Japan’s servile relations with the US, has never reached the mainland as much as it does now. In the past nine months, the issue of relocating the American Futenma military base has appeared on the front page of newspapers every day. It has been debated in magazines of the political right and left alike, and has tortured the prime minister to the point of resignation.

The turbulence in Japan, however, remains invisible to the majority of Americans. US-Japanese relations are at a turning point, and Okinawa needs support from people of both countries to urge both governments to free Okinawa of military occupation, equalize the relationship between the two countries, and stop providing material support for US wars around the world.

Futenma issue

The US Marine Corps Futenma Air Station is located in the middle of Ginowan city, Okinawa, with a population of 92,000. It is said to be the most dangerous base in the worldi, with 18 public facilities including schools and hospitals within the “clear zone” around the base’s runways, where construction is normally prohibited.ii This arrangement would never be considered acceptable at other US bases, whether in Hawaii, the continental US, or Europe. There are more than 45,000 take offs and landings annually at Futenma, which take place a few thousand meters from people’s houses.iii

In 1996, three US marines raped a 12 year old Okinawan girl. In the public outcry that followed, the governments of the US and Japan agreed to close the Futenma base. Soon after, however, the discourse twisted from “return” of the land to the Okinawan people to “relocation”. Talks began on construction of a new base in Henoko, a tiny fishing port on the east coast of northern Okinawa. Since then, grassroots resistance has been ceaseless, with protesters holding a sit-in and obstructing pre-construction surveys. Off-shore Henoko is an environmentally sensitive area with endangered blue coral and dugong, a manatee-like marine mammal.iv

US-Japan relations

Most of mainland Japan was unaware of these developments on Okinawa until the historic regime change of September 2009. After more than 50 years in power, the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was voted out in a general election and replaced by the more liberal Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Having declared that Japan should rethink and rebuild its relationship with the US,v the new prime minister Hatoyama vowed to move the Futenma base out of the Okinawa prefecture, and perhaps out of the country altogether.vi Over the past nine months, the Hatoyama Cabinet has urged Washington reconsider its position on relocation, but numerous proposals for alternative sites have been dismissed by the Americans.

However, his efforts were not entirely in vain. The Futenma issue has opened up a debate on the US-Japan relationship in the nation, which in turn comes down to revising “Anpo”, the US-Japan Cooperation Security Pact. Despite massive public anti-American demonstrations, the pact was adopted in 1960. Under the agreement, Japan was offered protection from external threats by the Americans, allowing its government to concentrate on restoring the war-torn national economy while the US was granted land and funding for its military deployments in Japan.vii Together, the two countries would strive for peace and security of East Asia. The agreement was essentially a military one, based on a winner-loser relationship, with which Japan restored itself as a constitutionally demilitarized state. The product is a 60 year-old, what Gavan McCormack calls “Client State” who “embraces occupation, and is determined at all costs to avoid offence to the occupiers and ready to pay a huge price to be sure that it remains.”viii As US demand for support in the global ‘War on Terror’ has increased, there have been attempts by both the current government and its predecessor, the LDP, to rebel, none of which have borne fruit. The Hatoyama Cabinet intended well, but was defeated by the “client state” psychology that has such a profound effect on national policy.

Much as he is ridiculed by Washington and Japanese media, Hatoyama did lay some groundwork for future dialogue. His successor, Kan, has a background in Japanese social movements, but it is unclear how much headway can be made in the face of American intransigence.

Costs of unequal US-Japan relation

The patron-client relationship comes with enormous costs paid directly and indirectly by various groups. Okinawa was under US occupation after the war until 1972 when it was finally returned, or more precisely, purchased by Japan. In addition to the purchase price, Japan “asked” the US to remove all nuclear weapons stationed on the island under its Non-Nuclear Policies, but to keep its military base for the country’s defense. For the first request, Japan paid the US $70 million. For the second, Japan has continued to pay subsidies to the Americans annually up until the present day. Some estimates have the total cost of these subsidies at $35 billion over the past three decades.ix No other host country offers its land with a huge subsidy to the US military.x These subsidies are raised through taxation, and are used not only to build and maintain military facilities, but also to pay for housing and entertainment for personnel and families in Okinawa and elsewhere in Japan.xi

In Afghanistan, Iraq, or Pakistan where the US sends its troops from Okinawa, civilians pay the cost of this occupation with their lives.xii Most Japanese citizens are ignorant of their involvement in these crimes. As with the “secret pact”, which saw American nuclear weapons stationed in Japan without the knowledge of the public, the Japanese government violates its own constitution and deceives its citizens.xiii

The US bases take up one fifth of main island of Okinawa. For Okinawans, the base brings with it many problems: numerous crimes and accidents as well as noise and air pollution.xiv In addition, the Okinawan economy has become dependent on the base against people’s will. After the devastation from the war, extensive military bases were constructed in farming areas, while mass-produced American products were brought in, leaving little space for the local industry to develop. Decades of forced economic dependence on the US base have turned Okinawa into an island of “3K industry” –kichi, kanko, kokyo jigyo (base, tourism, government-subsidized enterprise). While base-related employment provides ‘good jobs’ (paid for by the Japanese government), development more connected to local needs and assets has been suppressed. Okinawa is the poorest of all 48 prefectures with high unemployment and suicide rates.xv

The cost is also paid by forests and seas in Okinawa that are rich in biodiversity. In Takae for example, about an hour north of Henoko, there is a subtropical rainforest that is home to several bird species unique to the area. The forest also hosts a 7,800ha air force training pad for jungle warfare since 1957. Defoliant was sprayed over this forest during the Vietnam War, and aircraft fly so close to it that trees fall. On top of this, and there are new plans to build six more helipads near local villages.xvi

In Takae and Henoko, people have dedicated their lives to resisting the base that is “sucking out Okinawa’s vitality”.xvii As of June 15th, 2010, the Henoko sit-in protest reached its 2,249th day. The Takae sit-in continues as well, where even elderly people have taken to living in trailers on the sit-in site, to support the protests.

Min-i’, the will of the people, is “No to Henoko Plan”

Many groups have come together to organize the movement against the base. On April 25 a mass protest organized across Okinawa prefecture brought together 90,000 people from all over the prefecture and Japan. More than 80% of Okinawans are against the Henoko plan.xviii Despite this, and the lip service paid to democracy by both the American and Japanese governments, efforts continue to push through the base relocation against the objections of the Okinawan people.

In America, before everything, the issue must be known and discussed. If “No to Henoko Plan” grew into the will of people in both countries as it did in Okinawa, it could shake Washington on behalf of the incapable Japanese government.


i Iha Yoichi, mayor of Ginowan City. In a speech at Ginowan shimin taikai (citizen’s conference). September 12, 2004.

Detailed information on Futenma base including series of events, and letters from the mayor to the US Overseas Basing Commission are found in the city website:

ii Ryukyu Shinpo editorial. “America ni tou: minshushugi no oudou wo, Futenma kengai isetsu ni kaji wo kire (Request to America: Carry through democracy and return Futenma to Okinawa)”. May 23, 2010.

iii “A closer look at U.S. Futenma base’s ‘relocation’ issue”. Japan Press Weekly. November 1, 2009.

iv On behalf of dugongs, Japanese and American environmental NGOs and local Okinawans filed a suit against US Department of Defense (DoD) in San Francisco. In January 2008, federal judge issued a ruling that the DoD had violated the National Historic Preservation Act, and required it to consider the impacts of the new airbase in Henoko.

v Democratic Party of Japan. Manifesto. July 27, 2009.

vi Ryukyu Shinpo. “Futenma hikojo isetsu mondai (Futenma airbase relocation issue)”. September 25, 2009.


Gavan McCormack,"Ampo’s Troubled 50th: Hatoyama’s Abortive Rebellion, Okinawa’s Mounting Resistance and the US-Japan Relationship (Part 1)," The Asia-Pacific Journal, 22-3-10, May 31, 2010.


viii Ibid.

ix Ibid.

x Terashima Jitsuro. “Zuno no ressun, tokubetsu hen”. Sekai. Sebruary 2010. pp.118-125.

xi Documentary film “Dousuru Anpo: Nichibei doumei to watashitachi no mirai (What to do with Anpo? US-Japan alliance and our future)”. Directed by Kobayashi Atsushi. Nihon heiwa iinkai, Nihon denpa news. January, 2010.


Gavan McCormack,"Ampo’s Troubled 50th: Hatoyama’s Abortive Rebellion, Okinawa’s Mounting Resistance and the US-Japan Relationship (Part 3)," The Asia-Pacific Journal, 22-5-10, May 31, 2010.


xiii Despite of its nuclear policy, “Three Principles” (Non-possession, Non-Production, Non-Introduction), Japan secretly had agreed that US military vessels with nuclear weapons were allowed to enter Japanese ports. For 50 years until 2009, the government continued to deny the existence of documents of the secret agreement. Finally in 2009 the DPJ government carried out a research and published its findings, admitting that the government has violated the Three Principles and deceived its citizen.

McCormack, ibid (part 1).

xiv “Danger Posed by Futenma Air Operations”. The city of Ginowan: http://www.city.ginowan.okinawa.jp/DAT/LIB/WEB/1/Dec2009_ginowancity.pdf

(English version)

xv From a report of the symposium on the base and Okinawan economy. “Henoko no shinkichi kensetsu ha genzai no ryukyu shobun ka? (Is the construction of new base in Henoko a form of neo-colonialism?)” January 7, 2010. http://henoko.exblog.jp/i15/

xvi “Takae new helipad issue” http://henoko.exblog.jp/i15/

xvii G. McCormack quoting Ryukyu shinpo’s deputy chief editor Maedomari Hiromori.


"Ampo’s Troubled 50th: Hatoyama’s Abortive Rebellion, Okinawa’s Mounting Resistance and the US-Japan Relationship (Part 3)," The Asia-Pacific Journal, 22-5-10, May 31, 2010.


xviii Ryukyu Shinpo Editorial. “Chiji ni nozomu: Nichibei goui no tekkai youkyu wo (Wish to the governor: withdraw from the US-Japan alliance)”. June 27, 2010.

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