Japanese Militarism Has Put the People of Okinawa on the Firing Line

Okinawans have long campaigned against the massive US military bases that dominate their island. But the Japanese state is pressing ahead with a new base against their will, placing the island on the front line in a region made more dangerous by US saber-rattling against China.

US military planes fly off the coast of Okinawa on January 7, 2022. (Stephen Pulter / US Indo-Pacific Command)

On January 23, voters went to the polls in the city of Nago, located in northern Okinawa, Japan. The incumbent, Toguchi Taketoyo, supported by the ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), defeated his challenger Kishimoto Yohei by 57.5 to 42.5 percent. The outcome reflected a mood of powerlessness in Okinawa that the Japanese state has cultivated through decades of obduracy and high-handed policies.

About an hour’s drive from the Okinawan capital, Naha, and with a population of sixty-one thousand, Nago may not be an especially large or important Japanese city. However, this election took on particular importance because the city contains the site of a major military base that the Japanese authorities are building for the US Marine Corps. The contradictions of the Japanese state and its relations with the US are most evident in a peripheral space like Nago.

Okinawa, which is closer to Shanghai than Tokyo, was only incorporated directly into the Japanese state in the late nineteenth century as Okinawa Prefecture, annulling the long-established Ryukyu Kingdom. The island was the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting between Japan and the United States in the Pacific War. Its geographical location and role as a US military hub mean that it would be in the front line of any China-US confrontation.

The danger of being embroiled in conflict, combined with the land-grabbing of foreign military bases and the many abuses committed by US soldiers, have stoked passionate opposition to the US presence. However, the authorities in Tokyo have repeatedly thwarted efforts to close and return the bases, committed as they are to a role as Washington’s client state in the region.

A Base Like No Other

Marine Corps Air Station Futenma is one of about eight hundred US bases around the world. A cluster of those bases have occupied about a quarter of the prefecture’s land on the island of Okinawa since 1945. Futenma sits on 480 hectares of prime land in the middle of the township of Ginowan, close to Naha.

The Japanese state covers most of the cost of maintaining bases like Futenma, so it is cheaper for the United States to station its forces there than it would be to maintain them on US domestic soil. Washington has deployed units based in Okinawa at will everywhere from Korea and Vietnam in the 1950s and ’60s to Iraq in recent decades.

In 1995, the abduction and rape of an Okinawan schoolgirl by three US servicemen put the whole base arrangement on the island in jeopardy. A 1996 article for the Brookings Institution described the situation at the time:

Japan’s smallest and poorest prefecture, Okinawa houses about three-fourths of the US military facilities and two-thirds of the 45,000 American troops in Japan. Roughly 20,000 of the 29,000 troops on Okinawa are Marines. Artillery firings, low-flying aircraft, and other military exercises disrupt Okinawans’ daily lives, as do the thousands of crimes committed by US soldiers since 1972, when Okinawa was formally returned to Japan by the United States after 27 years of occupation.

It seemed essential for the US and Japanese governments to promise the return of some base land in order to defuse the wave of anger across the island and maintain US hegemony in the long run.

In April 1996, Japanese prime minister Hashimoto Ryutaro and US ambassador Walter Mondale announced that the Futenma base would return to Japanese control “within five to seven years.” I well recall my astonishment on hearing this news at the time. It seemed too good to be true, as indeed it proved to be.

Broken Promises

The reversion hinged on the construction of a substitute facility. That facility would have to be in Okinawa, at a place called Henoko, on Oura Bay, which happened to be within the boundaries of Nago City.

Initial plans coyly described the new base as a heliport, but its dimensions grew and grew, with a monstrous 1,800-meter dual runway structure, protruding ten meters above the surrounding sea, now slowly beginning to take shape. Henoko would also possess a deep-sea port and ordnance storage facility, making it much grander and more multifunctional than the troublesome Futenma base it was supposed to replace.

The insistence of the Japanese government on constructing such a facility, against strong Okinawan opposition to it at prefectural, city, and village levels, has been a recurrent flashpoint in Japanese politics. The only occasion on which elected officials in Nago City ever consented to the base’s construction was in 1999. The mayor at the time, Kishimoto Tateo, whose son Kishimoto Yohei was the unsuccessful candidate this year, agreed to a highly restricted formula for a joint US-Japan facility, not a solely US base, with a limited life span of fifteen years, and governed by the strictest environmental regulations.

The Japanese authorities never drew up any such plan, let alone put it into effect. The only prefectural governor to give his consent, Nakaima Hirokazu in December 2013, reversed his own electoral pledge to do so. He made it clear his understanding was that Futenma should revert to Japanese control within fifteen years — in other words, by 2028.

The national government never took that time limit seriously either. Today, Futenma remains in operation, and the latest estimated date for its reversion and the opening of Henoko is circa 2040, a full thirty-five years after the “five to seven years” that were promised in 1998, or twelve after the date agreed to in 2013.

When Okinawans, especially residents of Nago City, have had the opportunity to express their views, they have made their opposition to any new base clear, from the 1997 Nago plebiscite (54 percent opposition) to the prefectural opinion survey of 2019 (70 percent opposition) to the polls taken on the eve of the 2022 election (62 percent opposition). Just before the 2022 poll, despite decades of determined government insistence that the works would proceed, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper only found 24 percent of Nago people in favor of construction.

Nurturing Hopelessness

We cannot consider the 2022 election as a statement of Nago sentiment on the Henoko project because it pitted one candidate, Kishimoto, who took a resolutely anti-base stance, against another, Toguchi, who refused to express any view on the matter. Toguchi’s two election victories in 2018 and 2022 were the culmination of decades of national government cajolery, intimidation, and deception.

In 2022, Toguchi declared that the base was solely a matter for the national and prefectural governments, and confined his campaign to the “carrots” on offer from Tokyo by way of better services for the city, such as free childcare, school lunches, and medical care for children. He never acknowledged that these were the state’s “quid” for the city’s “quo” of silent cooperation on the base.

From the start, the national government did not take seriously the various agreements on reversion, from the 1996 Mondale-Hashimoto announcement to the Nakaima pledge of 2013. Both set time limits that have long passed. Okinawans have learned that their national government is not to be trusted. Their experience is of a Japan that routinely denies democracy and the human rights of Okinawans.

What the national government strives to cultivate in Nago is not democratic citizenship and sovereignty but a mood of akirame, or hopelessness. Why bother to vote when you know the government will pay no attention? The 68 percent voting rate in 2022 was the lowest on record, 8.6 percent below the 2018 figure. We can understand this, at least in part, as an expression of that hopelessness.

Anti-base activists understand this mood of hopelessness not as related to base construction per se, but rather as a sense of despair with the idea of ever persuading the government to change course through the ballot box. The most Nago’s citizens can hope to gain from elections is financial benefit, not the cancellation of the base. Their voting for conservative candidates thus made some sense in the undemocratic and heavily weighted system.

Demilitarizing Okinawa

The LDP government in Tokyo greeted Toguchi’s victory as a green light for base reclamation and construction. However, it remains far from clear whether the base will, or can, ever be built. The site is especially ill-suited to any large construction because of the mayonnaise-like soft ocean floor and the dual fault lines crossing the bay in its vicinity.

Moreover, despite the election result, the Okinawan opposition has declared its intention to persist in on-site protest and court actions. In 2021, when the national government asked prefectural governor Tamaki Denny to agree to a major redrawing of the reclamation and construction design, Tamaki bluntly refused to give his consent. Okinawa, he said, would not cooperate.

Fifty years after Okinawa’s supposed reversion from US to Japanese control, much of it, including Futenma, remains in US hands, increasingly subject to Washington’s agenda of preparation for a new war against China. If the Henoko base is built, opening around 2040, it will lock Japan into subordination to the US on its eastern flank and hostility to its giant and indispensable neighbor to the west for decades to come.

Such a Japan might become the world’s third-greatest military power if the government presses ahead with current plans to double military spending. Yet that is unlikely to deliver peace or security for the Japanese people.

As the Nago election campaign approached its climax, a huge US-Japanese armada of ten warships, including two US aircraft carriers (the Carl Vinson and the Abraham Lincoln) and the Japanese helicopter destroyer Hyuga, maneuvered threateningly in the waters of the East China Sea, between Okinawa and Taiwan. The prospect of a Taiwan yuji (contingency) becomes ever more plausible. If that prospect were to materialize, Okinawa could anticipate devastation akin to what it suffered in 1945.

For roughly five hundred years between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries, Okinawa, as the Ryukyu Kingdom, enjoyed close, more or less friendly relations with mainland Japan, China itself, and the kingdoms of Southeast Asia. Demilitarized, it threatened no one and faced no threats. Today, too, the island’s security would be much better served by pursuing the agenda of regional disarmament and cooperation rather than that of US and Japanese militarism.