Okinawa is an archipelago about 500 miles south of mainland Japan. It is home to tropical beaches, the bluest oceans, Okinawa soba, shisha, ancient castles, Ryukyu culture, and some of the “genkiest” people in the world. The island prefecture is rich with history and tradition. However, like many places throughout the world, it has been completely overtaken by the United States military.
The Okinawa prefecture makes up only 0.6 percent of Japan’s total land mass, but hosts nearly half of the 54,000 U.S. troops stationed in the country, including many Marines and the largest U.S. Air Force base in the region. Their presence is undeniable, with several of the bases being located in the middle of cities and residential areas.
A presence in Okinawa has major benefits for the United States. The island’s strategic location could not be more perfect. The position is a vital means of keeping the peace in East Asia, from Taiwan to China, to the Korean Peninsula and the Philippines. Keeping the precarious balance of power in this part of the world has long been a goal of U.S. foreign policy, and one that surely won’t be abandoned soon.
Unsurprisingly, most Okinawans strongly oppose the American military bases. They complain about the constant noise of low-flying aircraft, the danger and reality of serious accidents, and the behavior of some military personnel. The noise may seem like a petty concern, but the sound is so constant and overwhelming that for many it is difficult to communicate or focus during military operational hours. On base, Marines operate Ospreys, combat aircraft with the vertical performance of a helicopter and the speed and range of a fixed-wing aircraft. They are extremely dangerous to operate and require extensive training. In the last several years, there have been multiple reported crashes on and off shore. Once, the window of an Osprey came off and flew into a nearby elementary school, injuring several children . Additionally, there have been countless instances of rape by United States military members . These crimes are magnified by the fact that, without the presence of the United States military, such issues would not exist. Japanese crime rates are among the lowest in the world, leaving many residents of Okinawa feeling like the accidents occurring and the crimes committed are even more deplorable and severe .
All of these legitimate concerns have led to a tangible feeling of hostility and bitterness by many Okinawans towards the United States military and foreigners in general. Armed with posters, megaphones, hymns, scriptures, chants, and understandable anger, many Okinawans protest daily outside of the major military bases. Many of these protestors aren’t asking for a mere change in behavior—they want the bases gone altogether.
Capitalizing on these feelings, Denny Tamaki began a campaign for governor of Okinawa. Tamaki, the son of a Japanese mother and a United States Marine whom he has never met, became the first mixed-race governor in Japan, running on a platform of opposition to the existence of American military bases.
Though his support was widespread, Tamaki may have won his election on an impossible promise. While the problems that Okinawa faces due to the presence of the United States military are substantial and often devastating, the benefits that Japan receives as a result of a strong U.S. military presence are too much to sacrifice. A heavy military presence in Okinawa allows the United States to essentially bear the cost of Japan’s national defense, leaving Japan able to use its own resources for domestic development and social programs that enhance and enrich the lives of all Japanese citizens.
Additionally, the economy in Okinawa has become completely dependent upon the military bases. Many Okinawans work on-base. Military personnel contribute to the tourism and retail industries that make up the majority of the economy. These businesses depend on military members and families going off base to shop, eat, play, and explore. Okinawa is already among the poorest of Japan’s prefectures . Removing the bases would leave many jobless, with no way to support themselves or their families.
The issues at play in Okinawa are multi-faceted and complex. While the United States and Japan undoubtedly benefit from a strong U.S. military presence, the costs paid by the citizens of Okinawa are substantial. What may have started as a goal by the United States to “keep the peace” has ultimately resulted in many Okinawans resenting the U.S. and our near constant interference in their economy, culture, and way of life.
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