GINOWAN, Okinawa Pref. — In Japan, where land is a precious commodity, many U.S. bases boast golf courses, football fields and giant shopping malls whose food courts offer everything from Taco Bell to Subway to Starbucks.
They are the most visible point of grievance in a sharpening debate about the cost to Japan of supporting the 47,000 U.S. service members — about $2 billion a year. That’s nearly a third of the total, and about three times what Germany pays to host U.S. forces there.
But facing economic woes and seeking a more equal relationship with the U.S., the Hatoyama administration is questioning whether Japan should spend so much on U.S. forces — a topic that was taboo under the pro-Washington Liberal Democratic Party administrations that governed for most of the postwar era.
The scrutiny in Japan, Washington’s deep-pocketed ally and most important strategic partner in Asia, comes at a bad time for the U.S., whose defense budget is already spread thin in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Japanese call their share a “kindness budget,” implying the U.S. is getting a free ride, and its opponents say it is rife with waste. The opposition also reflects a long-standing feeling, particularly on the left, that the U.S. is taking its security alliance with Japan too much for granted.
The alliance has come under intense pressure since Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama took office last September. He says the alliance remains a “keystone” of Japanese policy, but he wants to re-evaluate it.
“This will be a very important year for our relationship,” he said last month.
The flash point of the debate is Okinawa, where most of the nearly 100 U.S. installations in Japan are located.
Futenma airfield, where several thousand marines are stationed, was to have been moved from the town of Ginowan to Nago, in a less crowded part of the island. But that plan came into doubt last month after Nago elected a mayor who opposes having the base.
Once the replacement airfield is operational, the U.S. plans to shift about 8,000 marines from Okinawa to the U.S. territory of Guam and expects Japan to pay an estimated $6 billion of the moving costs.
The frustrations run deep in cramped Ginowan. Local media regularly run images of the golf course at nearby U.S. Kadena Air Base and criticize the forces relentlessly whenever a service member is involved in a local crime.
“When people who live in crowded areas in small houses drive by and see the situation on the bases, some feel angry,” said Hideki Toma, an official dealing with the bases in Okinawa.
“This is a bigger issue than the golf courses and free highway passes,” Toma said. “It goes back to the fact that Okinawa was occupied after World War II and why the bases have to be here in the first place.”
That sentiment is widely shared, and underscores a feeling that the bases should be spread out more evenly among Japan’s main islands and Okinawa. Okinawa was one of the bloodiest battlefields of World War II, and Okinawans feel that the continued U.S. presence places an uneven burden on them, though the argument that all U.S. forces should leave Japan is not popular.
American officials say the deployment in Japan of troops, fighter jets and the only nuclear-powered aircraft carrier based outside the U.S. has enabled Japan to hold down its own defense costs in line with the pacifist Constitution.
They say the U.S. presence also prevents an arms race in East Asia, acts as a deterrent against North Korea and counters the rise of China.
Facilities such as on-base golf courses represent a small fraction of the sum U.S. taxpayers chip in for the defense of Japan — about $3.9 billion a year, according to a U.S. State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the details.
“There is no difference in the facilities that our forces have here than they have anywhere else in the world, including the United States,” said Lt. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, the commander of the U.S Army’s Pacific Forces. “But we cannot view forces that are out here simply as Japan. They are in Asia; they are available for responsive deployment.”
Japan covers much of the cost for supporting American forces, including utilities, maintenance and physical upgrades plus the wages of tens of thousands of Japanese civilians working on the bases.
Previous governments were too willing to pay because they wanted to maintain a special relationship with the United States, said Eiichi Hoshino, a professor of international relations at the University of the Ryukyus.
“Japan had kept paying the kindness budget simply because it is the one that wanted the U.S. forces to stay,” he said. “If the United States wants to stay here at any cost, it should be the one who is paying.”
Tokyo’s share rose sharply until 2001 but has since decreased steadily, largely because of the shrinking economy and the objections of Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan when it was in the opposition. Costs have been cut, in part, by reducing utilities payments and the salaries and the number of Japanese base employees.