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This year’s Group of Eight summit meeting in Okinawa presents U.S. President Bill Clinton with a particularly sensitive political and diplomatic challenge. The success of the summit for Americans will probably be judged more by the tone of the president’s reception in Okinawa than by the substantive outcome of the meetings themselves.

Throughout the postwar period, Okinawans have both resented and economically benefited from the U.S. bases. Periodic tensions, the most serious recent ones in 1995 after the rape of a 12 year-old girl by three U.S. servicemen, have punctuated the uneasy relations between the foreign forces and Okinawans.

The U.S. military has gradually reduced the number and size of its facilities and curtailed operations that inconvenienced the local population, but these changes have not satisfied most Okinawans. The Okinawan government remains committed to setting a deadline for the removal of the bases.

Clinton is making the first visit by a U.S. president to civilian areas of Okinawa. As a goodwill gesture, he will stop at the Cornerstone of Peace, a memorial built to honor all who died in the Battle of Okinawa.

Local expectations of the summit, and particularly Clinton’s visit, have been running very high. These expectations provide a basis for a very positive presidential visit. Should the visit be canceled at the last moment for any reason, the unmet expectations would result in dismay and anger in Okinawa as well as in Tokyo.

There is a widespread belief among Okinawans that their interests are often ignored in Tokyo. The overwhelming concentration of the U.S. military presence in Okinawa is frequently interpreted as one of many instances of differential and unfair treatment. Okinawans also point out that communities near U.S. bases in mainland Japan generally receive higher levels of Japanese government subsidies than the Okinawan communities.

Ironically, geography and the Cold War made Japan’s most pacifist prefecture the linchpin of the U.S. forward military presence in Asia. The U.S. military occupation after the war was originally intended to get Okinawa back on its feet as soon as possible, but the island’s strategic value as a staging base grew following the outbreak of the Korean War.

The Washington and Tokyo governments both regard the military facilities in Okinawa as indispensable to U.S. forward forces and thus regional peace and security. This broader regional perspective, however, is not widely appreciated or accepted in Okinawa, where discussion of bases has always been dominated by local issues such as property rights and crimes or high-handedness associated with the military.

The result is a complex Washington-Tokyo-Naha dialogue in which the parties frequently appear to be talking past each other because they have different goals in mind. Washington and Tokyo generally want to protect the existence and functioning of the facilities. Tokyo is typically in the middle, siding with Washington on strategic issues, but working to overcome base hostilities through compensation. Money, mostly from Tokyo in the forms of huge infrastructure projects, subsidies, and land-rent payments, has frequently been needed to reward cooperative local politicians and interests. The Okinawa side is frustrated by what it sees as a continuing unfair burden of hosting 75 percent of the foreign troops in Japan with no end in sight.

Americans sometimes assume that the bases are a huge boost to the Okinawan economy. The bases were central to Okinawa’s economic recovery during the years of U.S. administration. Today, including Japanese base-related payments, they are estimated to account for only about 5 percent of Okinawa’s gross prefectural product, much of that going directly to landlords. Okinawans commonly argue that the military use of one-fifth of the land area on the main island for only one-twentieth of the island’s economic product has actually hindered their prefecture’s development.

Not surprisingly, base tensions began to grow again in the post-Cold War era when Okinawans might have been expecting a “peace dividend.” This coincided with the 1990 election of Masahide Ota as the prefecture’s governor. An outspoken, staunch base opponent, Ota demanded removal of the bases as well as increased compensation in the mean time.

Tensions peaked after the Sept. 4, 1995, rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl by two U.S. Marines and a sailor. The incident spurred the largest protests in the prefecture’s history, with 85,000 demonstrators demanding that the U.S. and Japanese governments address their grievances. The incident and its aftermath caused the U.S. and Japanese governments to make a new and more determined effort to address local base issues. A plan was approved to return 10 U.S. military facilities, foremost the Marines’ Futenma Air Station located next to a residential area. Seven of those moves, however, were conditional upon finding a new location for the facilities. When all 10 are completed, about 21 percent of the total area used by the U.S. military will have been returned. The relocations will likely be within the prefecture albeit to less congested areas.

Gov. Keiichi Inamine has brought a significant change in the tone, if not the basic thrust and substance of base issues. Inamine has a more positive relationship with Tokyo, and has sought to cool base tensions and turn to issues of Okinawa’s economic future. The late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi’s choice of Okinawa for the G8 summit was intended to show central government support for this approach.

Prior to the decision to hold the summit in Okinawa, conventional wisdom in Tokyo said the U.S. would frown on such a move. In fact, Washington leaned over backward to say that it had no intention of trying to influence Tokyo, and that it would accept whatever decision was reached. The predominant feeling was that the G8 summit in Okinawa presented an opportunity for the U.S. to demonstrate high-level attention and gratitude to Okinawa and to strengthen the U.S.-Okinawa relationship.

But no matter how successful the visit, the tensions over the bases are long-term.

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