American Military Bases in Okinawa

By Akesh Mallia

Recently during Tamago class, we focused on Okinawa for the cultural aspect of the lesson. This meant we did a Rajio-Taiso exercise that was filmed in Okinawa, learned about Okinawan food, and also learned about the US military bases on the island. There is a long history of American military interaction with Okinawa, starting off in World War II with the battle of Okinawa resulting in many casualties, a lot of whom were civilians. After the Japanese surrender in 1945, the US occupied Japan up to 1952 and this meant Okinawa was in the control of the US. During the US occupation, military bases were constructed and used in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. The southern islands began to be returned to Japan in 1953 and all Ryukyu Islands were returned in 1971. After this, many military bases remained on Okinawa, playing roles in the War in Afghanistan, and Iraq War. Nowadays, there’s still a whopping 18% of Okinawa’s landmass that’s being used for the 32 American military bases on the island. And while Okinawa only constitutes 0.6% of Japan’s total landmass, 70% of all US military bases in Japan are on Okinawa. 

The continued American military presence on Okinawa brings quite a bit of controversy among locals and authorities. This stems from the incidents that have happened at the main base in Okinawa, Kadena Air Base, and just the general intrusion. For example, there have been incidents of sexual violence committed by US servicemen. And there have been accidents involving civilians, like in 1959 when a fighter jet crashed into a local elementary school killing 17 people and injuring 210. Other accidents include a nuclear rocket being fired into a local harbor, nerve agents being leaked, and a lost hydrogen bomb in the nearby seas. Then in 2013, an accidental firing of the sprinkler systems spewed tens of thousands of chemical contaminants into the water system. This chemical, PFAS, has contaminated the drinking water of 450,000 people! Quite obviously, a military base comes with lots of risks for the residents.

One major controversy going on now is around the plans for the relocation of Futenma Marine Corps Base. Since the 1960s the US has had plans to relocate Futenma to the area of Henoko. The US military is now starting construction despite the opposition from locals where 72% of residents voted to reject the relocation. The reason there is so much opposition is that bases around Okinawa cause lots of trouble for the residents as evidenced above. In the case of Futenma, construction would require the destruction of coral reefs, which are prized in Okinawan culture. And the roars of Ospreys and other military aircraft have been connected to hearing loss among some of the elders. Protests and sit-ins are carried out to delay the construction of Futenma and yet the Japanese government continues to side with the US military, leaving protesters feeling unheard, adding to the frustration.  

Map of Okinawa and the military bases

This is not to say that the majority of Okinawan residents want the US completely ejected. The opinions of residents are far more complex with surveys (Source) finding that half of the residents couldn’t decide whether US military presence was a good or bad thing. The majority of people think the US-Japan security treaty is a good thing with benefits for the island such as the tourism that comes with the bases and the strategic balance in Asia that the bases might bring. But the root of the problem is that there are too many bases in too small an area. Personally, I agree, and based on what I’ve read, it seems that the bases are a huge intrusion on residents. It feels like an extension of American imperialism, where the bases aren’t actual territories, but they allow the US to have so much influence around the world. The residents often have to pay the price for this through the horrible incidents that have happened. Then when people protest, they are not heard by the governments and by the wider world. If you’d like to read more about the US military bases in Okinawa, some articles are listed below, along with sources.

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