The next conflict over control of a Pacific island might transpire where it is least expected and between two unlikely adversaries. Instead of the traditional flashpoints (like Taiwan, the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, or China's artificial South China Sea islands) and rivals (like China/Japan, China/Taiwan, or North Korea/South Korea), the next controversy over territory in the Pacific could well arise between the closest of friends. Ever since it survived one of the bloodiest and most horrific battles of World War II, civil unrest and discontent have been brewing over the sovereignty of a Japanese island in the East China Sea: Okinawa.
The Okinawa prefecture, with an area of 877 square miles and a population of about 1.39 million, is situated south of the Japanese mainland in the middle of the Asia-Pacific. Among the most strategically significant areas in the world, particularly for the US, Okinawa is a short flight away from strategically vital countries like China, Taiwan, and North Korea, as well as the South China Sea. In fact, American bases on Okinawa were even recently used as staging grounds for deployment and transportation during the Iraq War. These advantages are all made possible by the US-Japan security alliance, one of the strongest international cooperative projects in the world today, which permits the US military to conduct operations originating from Japanese territory.
Toward the end of World War II, the United States invaded the island of Okinawa, then controlled by the Japanese empire, in one of the costliest battles of the Pacific Theater. Immediately following the war, Okinawa was removed from Japanese control and placed under administrative control of the United States Military Government for twenty-seven years, after which time Okinawa was returned to Japan. During this period, however, Okinawa became pivotal to American interests in the Asia-Pacific, which led to the construction of several military bases on Okinawa and throughout the surrounding Ryukyu Islands. Today, the United States maintains strong diplomatic and military ties to Japan, but Okinawa bears a proportionally unjust burden of that alliance: the island constitutes about 0.6 percent of Japan’s landmass but harbors approximately three-fourths of US military troops and installations throughout the nation.
The United States maintains a military presence on the Japanese mainland and in Okinawa under the current status of forces agreement (SOFA), which elaborates on the rights and privileges of US personnel posted in Japan. Okinawa, however, is culturally and geographically separated from mainland Japan, despite having been annexed by the Japanese empire in 1868. Okinawan citizens are thus much less supportive of the stationing of American troops than mainland Japanese people. Since the Battle of Okinawa—in which nearly one-fourth of civilians died at the hands of both Japanese and US forces—Okinawa has been forced to accommodate the Japanese government’s commitments to American interests by providing the United States with a platform to pursue its own interests in the Asia-Pacific.
The military buildup on Okinawa has increasingly strained relations between the US military, the Japanese government, and the Okinawan people. Okinawan citizens feel understandably marginalized and disregarded by mainland Japan’s perceived prioritization of US missions in the Security Alliance over the interests of Okinawans. Okinawa’s concerns range from the simplest of regular disturbances, like the incessant noises of military operations throughout the day, to the most heinous of crimes, such as the 1995 rape of a twelve-year-old girl by three American servicemen. Although the crimes committed by US military members on Okinawa are generally committed by a small minority of individuals, Okinawans are the victims of thousands of past and present travesties as a direct result of the American military’s overbearing presence. Okinawans’ understandable anger at the American military underscores the necessity of de-escalating the United States’ armed forces on the island.
But the US military and the Japanese government have, unfortunately, shown no intention of doing so. In fact, plans have been in progress for several years to relocate Futenma Air Base (situated in the middle of Ginowan City, an urban area) to Henoko Bay, a different part of the island. The relocation of the base, as argued from the US perspective, would enhance American military capabilities in the Asia-Pacific by consolidating and strengthening its ongoing presence in Okinawa. However, the base relocation plan has been met with strong resistance by native Okinawans over the past years, who continue to protest what they see as an overextended US military influence on their own soil, along with environmental concerns. The Japanese government has had to tiptoe a fine line between satisfying the expansionary goals of its strongest ally and appeasing an Okinawan populace that has grown increasingly hostile with every injustice perpetrated against them. Although Prime Minister Shinzo Abe suspended construction of the American air base at Henoko Bay, he remained resolute that the base must be built at some point.
During May 2016, I had the opportunity to visit Okinawa on a school trip. While there, I conversed both with US servicemen, upstanding Americans who are just trying to do their job, and with protesting Okinawans, who are tired of getting the short end of the stick from Japan and the United States. While the American presence in Okinawa is not wholly awful (the vast majority of servicemen there make an effort to understand Okinawan culture and contribute economically to the community), even while I was there, tensions were boiling over the recent rape and murder of an Okinawan woman by a former US marine. Incident after incident and consistent political turbulence reveal that the current situation is not optimal for any of the three parties involved. Sooner or later, this tension will inevitably boil over, raising the grievances from the local to the global level and threatening American and Japanese security in the region.
Clearly, the US-Japan security alliance ought to continue. Without cooperation between the two powers, Japan will find itself alone in the geopolitical chess match playing out across the Asia-Pacific as powers like China and North Korea continue to establish their military presences and, in the latter’s case, pursue nuclear ambitions. But the trajectory of Okinawan history after the conclusion of World War II shows that the US and Japan have singled out Okinawa, a prefecture removed from and dissimilar to the rest of Japan, to carry the weight of their alliance on its shoulders for the sake of expediency. The time has come for both the United States and Japan to acknowledge that stationing an overwhelming majority of American military assets on a comparatively miniscule island with a uniquely vibrant culture of its own makes it a breeding ground for civil unrest.
Indeed, if the controversy over American bases in Okinawa continues with no resolution, it will threaten a painful and unacceptable breakdown in US-Japan relations. The US-Japan security alliance is critical to maintaining stability in the Asia-Pacific, but a mutual failure to listen to and respect the Okinawan people’s hardships could limit the US military’s future capacity to deploy throughout the region from Okinawa. Such a deteriorating situation might allow other rising powers, such as China or North Korea, to capitalize on wavering US-Japan military relations and command greater authority in the Asia-Pacific. To prevent a slow degradation of the US military presence, Tokyo and Washington must develop a plan to alleviate Okinawa’s suffering.
The two most promising routes toward accomplishing this transition are relocating military strongholds to the Japanese mainland and reducing overall military personnel in the region. US forces could minimize their presence on Okinawa by migrating to pre-existing bases near Tokyo or constructing new bases from which to operate on Kyushu and Shikoku, which together constitute the southern end of mainland Japan’s territory. The United States could simultaneously reduce its overall presence in Japan by shifting some troops to nearby bases in the Philippines or South Korea. Another improbable but daring option, articulated by former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton, could be to move US troops to Taiwan instead. By moving troops to Taiwan, the United States would signal to China that the reduction in troop levels on Japanese territory would not be an invitation for heightened Chinese aggression. Overall, the United States and Japan need to walk a fine line between using Okinawa as a military asset and granting the Okinawan people their deserved liberty.
Gone should be the days of Okinawa and its people being relegated to the title of “America’s unsinkable aircraft carrier.” Okinawa has a community of its own, with a distinct culture and history; the Okinawan people should be respected as such by the United States and Japan. Sooner or later, Okinawa will double down on its demands for real freedom and justice—and if a solution is not implemented before that breaking point, neither Tokyo nor Washington will want to deal with the regional consequences posed by a full-blown Okinawan crisis in the Asia-Pacific.
The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.
Aman Tiku is a second year majoring in history and political science. Last summer, Aman interned at the FDA working on social science research projects. He writes a column on political developments in the Asia-Pacific at the Gate, having lived abroad for much of his life as an American citizen. On campus, he also serves as a Staff Editor on The University of Chicago Journal of Human Rights.