Okinawa’s Inconvenient Truths

The controversy over US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa is widely regarded as a local issue, but the author cites historical evidence to suggest that the situation has important and disturbing implications for postwar Japan as a whole.

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Yoshitoshi Tairai speaking at a Tokyo Foundation symposium on the situation in Okinawa today, 70 years after the end of World War II.
Yoshitoshi Tairai speaking at a Tokyo Foundation symposium on the situation in Okinawa today, 70 years after the end of World War II.

In this report I examine the meaning of the situation in Okinawa today for Japanese politics and security. Specifically, I probe the implications of the current situation in Okinawa, where 70 years after Japan’s defeat in World War II, the US military maintains an undiminished presence on the sprawling bases it built in the years between the Battle of Okinawa in 1945 and the islands’ reversion to Japanese control in 1972.

Removing the Residue of the Occupation

At the time of the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty, which brought an end to the Allied Occupation and restored sovereignty to postwar Japan, US military installations (exclusive use facilities) covered 135,200 hectares of mainland Japan—more than eight times the area of bases in Okinawa. During the 1950s, a series of incidents and accidents involving American forces stationed in Japan plagued communities around the country, spawning protests and fueling a surge in anti-American feeling as the US military sought to build new installations and expand existing ones. US Ambassador to Japan John Allison recommended a timely and orderly withdrawal, particularly of US ground forces, noting that the Japanese public regarded their presence as a symbol of the Occupation.

In 1957, newly elected Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi called on the United States to withdraw its ground forces from Japan. The two governments reached an agreement to that effect at a bilateral summit in June that year, and the United States began drawing down, redeploying troops and closing down army installations. Over the next two to three years, the area of mainland Japan occupied by US military installations shrank to 33,000 ha. However, in Okinawa, which remained under US military control until 1972, vast tracts of land were expropriated for the use of the Marines redeployed from mainland Japan. US bases in Okinawa eventually occupied 33,500 ha, well over 21% of the prefecture’s total land area.

In the rest of Japan, meanwhile, the US Army forces dwindled, but the Air Force and Navy retained a conspicuous presence, including several sprawling bases in and around Tokyo. With economic growth soaring and the nation’s once-battered pride slowly returning, the presence of US military forces in the greater capital area was an unpleasant reminder of Japan’s humiliating defeat and occupation. In 1970, Prime Minister Eisaku Sato acknowledged before the Diet that it was “not a desirable situation to have so many foreign troops right nearby the nation’s capital.”

Under such initiatives as the Kanto Plain Consolidation plan, the cutbacks continued apace. By 1972, US military bases occupied just 19,700 hectares of the Japanese mainland, and by 1980 the figure was down to 8,500 hectares. (It currently stands at 8,000 hectares.)

What compelled conservative, anti-communist leaders like Kishi and Sato to push so hard for the withdrawal of US military bases? In the words of Kishi, who fought successfully for the conclusion of a revised Japan-US Security Treaty, it was all about clearing away the “residue” of the Occupation.

To one degree or another, this impulse to eradicate the traces of subjugation and place Japan on a fundamentally equal footing with the United States motivated the behavior and policies of all of Japan’s political leaders during that era. It drove the negotiations leading to the revision of the Japan-US Security Treaty in 1960, the reversion of Okinawa in 1972, and the withdrawal of US forces from mainland Japan from the 1950s through the 1970s. These were the top priorities for Japan’s postwar leaders as they sought to restore Japan’s sovereignty and establish equality with the United States in the wake of the Occupation. Having thus swept away the detritus of a humiliating chapter in the history of Japan-US relations, Japan proceeded to build an ever deeper and more extensive bilateral security relationship under the name of the “Japan-US alliance.”

Reality Check

But now let us stop and consider: Did Japan really eliminate the last traces of the US Occupation? Okinawa eventually reverted to Japanese control, but the bases built during the years under American military control still occupy 22,800 hectares of Okinawa Island, almost 18% of the total land area. Under the circumstances, one must ask whether the residue of the Occupation was eliminated or simply pushed out of sight.

Kumao Nishimura, who helped negotiate the original bilateral security as head of the Foreign Ministry’s Treaties Bureau, called the essence of the treaty “cooperation between material and human resources.” This was his way of saying that Japan had committed itself to providing bases (material resources) in return for the American promise of military protection. In substantive terms, the most important and tangible result of the treaty was the US military bases on Japanese soil. Yet by concentrating those bases in Okinawa, the government was able to render them invisible to most of the Japanese populace, even while the Japan-US alliance continued to develop and grow.

Having set the stage in this manner, we are now ready to ask the uncomfortable questions Okinawa raises about the character and achievements of postwar Japan. Broadly speaking, these boil down to two basic issues.

The first is, how should we assess the outcome of Japan’s efforts to sweep away the “residue” that embodied its status as a defeated nation? To put it more bluntly, how do the Japanese as a people reconcile themselves to the fact that Okinawa today preserves the very image of Japan as a defeated nation? Can they continue to tolerate the situation in Okinawa even though it vividly preserves the same emblems of defeat that they so zealously swept from the main islands? These questions go to the very core of Japan’s character as a sovereign state since the conclusion of the San Francisco Peace Treaty.

The second question is, how does Japan, as a democratic state, explain the fact that Okinawa, which accounts for a mere 0.6% of Japan’s total land area, houses 73.8% of the US military installations (exclusive use facilities) in Japan—in other words, that the burden of the bilateral alliance (the provision of bases) falls overwhelmingly on the people of this one tiny prefecture? Since sovereignty lies with the people in a democracy, the people must have the collective will to defend their own country and share the burden of defense equally. In this sense, the second question also goes to the very core of Japan’s development as a democratic state over the past 70 years of postwar history.

What all of this means is that the implications of the current base controversy go far beyond the immediate question of whether to build a replacement facility for Marine Corps Air Station Futenma elsewhere in Okinawa. It also means that the issue has relevance not merely for Okinawans but for Japan as a whole. The Henoko relocation plan raises in distilled form the uncomfortable question of the nature of postwar Japan as reflected in the image of Okinawa today.

(Abridged and adapted from a paper delivered to a Tokyo Foundation symposium, May 26, 2015)

Yoshitoshi Taira

  • PROJECT MEMBER, Political and Diplomatic Review

    Research Associate, Regional Comprehensive Research Institute, Dokkyo University

    Lecturer, Hosei University