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Post A Profile of Okinawa; from Edward Mears
Created by John Eipper on 01/20/22 8:29 AM

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A Profile of Okinawa; from Edward Mears (John Eipper, USA, 01/20/22 8:29 am)

Edward Mears writes:

I have visited Okinawa twice: most recently in April of last year when I visited Ishigaki and Yonaguni islands with my fiancée, and once to Naha on Okinawa Honto (main island) while I was studying abroad at Waseda University in 2006.

It is a beautiful but complicated place, having been caught in the middle of nearly every geopolitical struggle in the Pacific since the Meiji Era. The chain of 150 islands stretches nearly 1,000 kilometers from the southernmost islands of Kagoshima Prefecture in Kyushu all the way to Yonaguni island, which sits only 100km from Taiwan (on a clear day you can just barely see the crests of Taiwan's Central Mountain Range from the island). Accordingly, the geopolitical significance of the island chain is enormous: Japanese control of (along with US military presence on) these islands constrains Chinese force projection in the area (especially in and around Taiwan) while keeping open well-worn international shipping routes. The Okinawan economy is primarily driven by the US military presence, however many of the smaller islands are also extremely popular tourist spots: after a 2.5 hour flight from Tokyo, one can relax on sandy beaches that rival those of Hawaii--all without needing a passport.

The culture, language and people of Okinawa are very unique and distinct from mainland Japan, with traditional Chinese and Ryukyu influences still prominent. Unfortunately this means that the Okinawans have also been marginalized (and sometimes worse) by the "Yamato" (mainland) Japanese over the centuries, much like other racial minorities or social groups such as the Ainu in Hokkaido, the Zainichi Korean and the Burakumin/Eta. This is exemplified today by the disproportionate burden shouldered by Okinawa to host US military forces under the US-Japan Status of Forces Agreement ("SOFA"). This agreement was signed in 1961 and grants the US the right to use facilities and areas in Japan for the hosting of US military forces and was ancillary to the more comprehensive US-Japan Security Treaty which was signed in 1960 as the bedrock of the US-Japan military alliance. Many Okinawans believe that the concentration of US forces in Okinawa is unfair and are just as angry at the government in Tokyo for influencing the concentration on Okinawa in order to limit US military presence on the main islands of Japan, though opinions on the US presence are nuanced, even among Okinawans.

The US military presence is concentrated on Okinawa Honto, which hosts 28 US military facilities that occupy nearly 25% of the available land on of that island. Of the nearly 50,000 total US forces that are stationed in Japan, approximately 30,000 of them are stationed on Okinawa Honto, 20,000 of which are US Marines. Following the end of World War II, the entirety of Okinawa Prefecture was subject to "trusteeship rule" by the United States Military Government of the Ryukyu Islands, which lasted until a reversion agreement was signed that officially returned the prefecture to Japanese sovereignty in 1972. Okinawa (along with Guam) was one of the most strategically important US forward operating bases for the Korean War and the Vietnam War, with Kadena Air Base sourcing many of the bombing missions for those wars. Today, these facilities remain critical in the burgeoning geopolitical struggle between the United States and China. PLA naval warships and PLA-organized "fisherman flotillas" regularly trespass on Japanese territorial waters in Okinawa. China has also made dubious claims to the Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands, which fall within the Okinawa archipelago.

As mentioned above, Japanese control and US presence act as a brake on Chinese expansionism (for now) and are critical to maintaining Taiwanese independence. For these reasons, there is no doubt that China has a sharp eye on Okinawa and would like nothing more than for the US to leave. There have even been rumors that some of the local groups and protestors pushing for removal of US bases in Okinawa are part of influence operations bankrolled by the CCP.

Local Okinawan grievances focus on noise and pollution complaints, as many of the bases on the crowded island are built right up against (or in the case of the poorly located Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, right in the middle of) densely populated residential areas: aircraft noise can be heard at all hours of the day and several high-profile crashes and other accidents have resulted in deaths. In addition, the off-base behavior of US forces is a major point of contention, with cases of rape, sexual assault and drunk driving causing numerous international incidents. The most well-known of these incidents was the 1995 rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl by two US Marines, which ignited anti-American sentiment across the island and back in the Japanese mainland. This incident resulted in modifications to SOFA which permitted the transfer of US military suspects to Japanese authorities prior to an indictment if warranted by the severity of the case. There have been recent efforts to move some of these bases to reclaimed land further away from population centers on the island, but even these moves have met resistance from local political leaders and residents, who argue (or find it politically expedient to argue) that the bases should be moved out of Okinawa altogether.

Recently, Okinawans and the broader Japanese population have been incensed at what they view as lax rules regarding the movement of US forces in and throughout Japan as the country struggles with COVID-19 and specifically the Omicron variant. US forces coming into Japan (often on commercial airliners though Japan's major ports at Narita and Haneda) are given special immigration and customs treatment under SOFA. Unlike "regular" travelers, they are not required to submit proof of a negative PCR test (regardless of vaccination status) before boarding their flights to Japan (though this rule has recently changed). Many in the Japanese media pointed to this loophole as the reason for the recent outbreaks of Omicron, which appear to have hit Okinawa the hardest. While its possible part of the blame for the Omicron surge in Okinawa could be placed on this loophole, I personally think Japan's rather lax quarantine procedures for recent arrivals and the flouting of quarantine requirements (currently a mandatory--but largely unsupervised--10 day home quarantine for all international arrivals with some exceptions) by many civilian returnees is also a major culprit, especially on the Japanese mainland.

Nevertheless, arguments and opinions over the US presence in Okinawa are nuanced: NHK polling from 2017 found that a majority of Okinawans support the US-Japan alliance but would prefer that there was a more equitable distribution of US military bases across Japan. There is no question that the US military presence has brought significant economic development to the island, as the US bases provide jobs to thousands of Okinawans/Japanese living there and stimulate the local economy. Japan is also more than happy to have the US guarantee its security amid the rise of an aggressive China that looks to assert itself as hegemon in the region. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party--which holds broad popular support and has ruled Japan with only a few small exceptions since the end of World War II--is acutely aware of the rivalry with China and is staunchly committed to the US-Japan Security Treaty.

Revision to Japan's pacifist constitution to allow for Japan to take a more active role in its own security remains so unpopular that it remained a bridge too far for even Shinzo Abe, who was one of Japan's most transformative and influential prime ministers of the past half century. Without revision of the constitution, it is hard to imagine the LDP ever seriously rethinking its military alliance with the US. Even if the US military were to suddenly leave, it is all but certain that the economy of Okinawa would suffer long-term economic damage.

JE comments:  Eddie, your profile is extremely informative.  I never put two and two together--namely, that Japan has urged the US to focus its military presence on Okinawa as a way to keep the Americans off the main islands.  I always assumed this "special arrangement" was due to the US conquest of the island during the war.

Okinawa was undeveloped and dirt-poor prior to and during WWII, and its present economy largely derives from its strategic location.  As China increasingly flexes its muscles in the region, Okinawa's importance will certainly only increase.

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