Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on April 2010

Photos courtesy of US for Okinawa

Since the ousting of the Liberal Democratic Party in last summer’s elections, the US military presence in Okinawa has dominated the news. In particular, the fate of the Futenma Air Base in Ginowan City is seen as a gauge of the Democratic Party of Japan’s desire to reappraise its relationship with the US. Although the LDP negotiated an agreement in 2006 to move Futenma to a less populated area on the Henoko Peninsula, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s government halted the construction. This delay has given opponents another chance to voice their disapproval of any plan that keeps US Marines in Okinawa.

One such organization is US for Okinawa, a Tokyo-based peace action network opposed to increased military presence on the islands. “More military construction in Okinawa is absolutely unnecessary, but what is necessary is the vital marine and terrestrial biodiversity that would be destroyed,” representative Rose Welsch tells Metropolis. Environmentalists say that the planned construction in Henoko will further endanger the dugong, a marine mammal related to the manatee, by destroying one of its two feeding grounds in Japan.

Welsch also cites the concerns of residents in Henoko, who must already contend with the Camp Schwab military facility in their backyard. Locals have circulated petitions, organized sit-ins, and covered the fences surrounding the installation with ribbons reading “no base” or “no killing.”

“Okinawans have long been objecting to the environmental destruction and contamination, noise pollution, suppression of local development, and safety risks these bases entail,” Welsch says. “People in Okinawa feel [hosting the bases] reduces Japan’s security, because it puts the country at risk of retaliatory attacks for allowing its territory to be used by the US for aggressive purposes.”

US for Okinawa is opposed not only to the planned relocation, but to any relocation within Okinawa. In fact, the group questions the very necessity of the base, as well as the economic burden of a potential move.

“The US already has more than 1,000 military bases in more than 140 countries around the world, navy fleets patrolling the oceans, and an arsenal of close to 15,000 nuclear weapons,” Welsch says. “Do you really think having one less air station in Okinawa would make the US unable to face North Korea? And guess who’s expected to pay for the new military base construction in Okinawa and the transfer of 8,000 US Marines and their families from Okinawa to Guam, plus new facilities for them there? Taxpayers in Japan. Keep in mind that it’s not just Japanese citizens who are taxpayers—foreign residents in Japan… are also paying taxes.”

For its part, the US, while recognizing the burden of hosting such a large number of troops, says that Okinawa is too strategically important to consider leaving. As Lieutenant General Keith J. Stalder, Commanding General of the US Marine Corps Forces Pacific, explained in a speech at the Tokyo American Center: “Since we are proven to be so bad [in the past] at predicting future threats, we must strive to be adaptive and ready for a wide variety of scenarios… Our capabilities and readiness must be absolutely unmistakable.”

Keeping a large number of troops in Okinawa, Stalder contends, deters an erratic North Korea, guards against the possibility of a destabilized China, and gives the US an adaptable base of operations in the Pacific—not only for security but for disaster relief and humanitarian actions. “Okinawa is in the center of an earthquake and cyclone region. There is probably nowhere better in the world from which to dispatch Marines to natural disasters.”

The only thing that everyone seems to agree on is that Futenma needs to go. Although the Hatoyama government has bought itself some breathing room by postponing the decision, it’s a real possibility that the extra time will result in nothing but a continued stalemate.

To find out more about US for Okinawa, see http://us-for-okinawa.blogspot.com. To read the full text of Lieutenant General Stalder’s speech, see http://meturl.com/stalder.