ITAMI, Osaka Pref. — In order for the U.S. and Japan to maintain friendly relations, America must reduce its military presence on Okinawa, which is little more than a colonial outpost controlled by the U.S. military, said leading Okinawa politician Tokushin Yamauchi during a recent symposium.
The former prefectural vice governor who led the successful campaign to have the U.S. return the Yomitan auxiliary airfield, Yamauchi is regarded by many local residents as the main challenger to Gov. Keiichi Inamine in the 2002 gubernatorial election.
Yamauchi has long opposed the presence of the U.S. bases, and, by his own admission, has been a thorn in the side of both the Foreign Ministry and the U.S. military since he first became mayor of Yomitan in the mid-1970s.
“In 1974, nearly 73 percent of Yomitan village was occupied by the U.S. military. Today, that figure is about 48 percent,” he said.
After becoming mayor, Yamauchi said he realized that municipal facilities like hospitals and welfare centers were lacking because there was no space available. Thus, to the surprise of many, Yamauchi proposed that facilities be created within the base itself.
“Most people were pessimistic that anything could be done. But my thinking was that Okinawa and Yomitan had the bases forced upon them, and that, under the Constitution, we had the right to demand changes,” said Yamauchi.
Not surprisingly, such plans drew sharp criticism from the central government.
“I had many fights with Foreign Ministry and Defense Agency officials because they opposed the kind of local autonomy I was proposing. What Tokyo bureaucrats didn’t want to admit was that, under the Constitution, the state is not above the community. But, in the early 1980s, we finally got them to agree to allow us to build within the base,” Yamauchi said.
Today, Yomitan is classified as a joint-use facility under the Status of Forces Agreement between Japan and the U.S.
Several facilities for use by local residents, including an exercise park, a baseball field and a village office, have been built within the base. But, Yamauchi said that problems remained after the agreement.
“Yomitan was being used by the Green Berets for parachute training, and there were numerous incidents involving the military and local citizens. We then began pushing for an end to the parachute training and the return of the air base,” he said.
The wish was granted Dec. 2, 1996, when the Japan-U.S. Special Action Committee on Okinawa announced that Yomitan would be returned after a new location for parachute training was found and the Sobe communications center was relocated.
Since then, Ie Jima airfield has agreed to accept parachute training, while the Sobe facility will be moved to Camp Hansen. It is expected that the 191-hectare airfield will be returned to the village by March 2001.
With these victories behind him, Yamauchi is now pressing for a further U.S. military reduction beyond the SACO agreement. He did not directly rebut U.S. President Bill Clinton’s recent remarks that most Okinawans support the American military presence, but he did say that virtually all Okinawans want more reductions.
“In order for Japan and the U.S. to remain friends, a new thinking is needed. The Cold War is over in Europe and in Asia, the situation on the Korean peninsula continues to improve. There is simply no reason for a large U.S. military presence in Japan,” Yamauchi said.
“I’ve told Diet members many times that if they really think U.S. troops are necessary then they should tell their constituents to accept a base to reduce the burden on Okinawa. But, of course, they won’t consider that because they know mainland Japanese don’t want a U.S. base in their neighborhood,” Yamauchi said.
“The result of their attitudes is plain: Okinawa is simply a military colony of the U.S.,” he said.