CHATAN, OKINAWA PREF. - Fifty years ago this week in February 1968, ten U.S. B-52 bombers arrived at Kadena Air Base to launch direct bombing operations from Okinawa over Indochina as a way to bring pressure on North Vietnam to come to the peace table. Their numbers grew to an average of 18 over the coming weeks and months. In the meantime, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson announced in March he would not run for re-election and the Democratic Party hopeful Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in June. It would be another seven years before the war actually ended.
In November of that first year of the Stratofortresses’ deployment to Okinawa, voters went to the polls for the first and only election of the chief executive, a post similar to the present-day governorship. In a fairly close race, influenced by U.S. and Japanese government efforts to see elected a pro-base candidate, popular former educator and pro-reversion candidate of the left’s “joint struggle” front Chobyo Yara won against his former student.
A week after the election, one of those B-52s crashed moments after takeoff on Kadena, igniting more than just the plane and immediate ground around it. Some 360 buildings in Yara area of the neighboring town, including a school, were damaged and there were dozens of injuries (fortunately, no one was killed, including among the crewmen).
Eventually, the push for Okinawa’s reversion became stronger, and a decision was reached to return the geostrategically important island chain to Japan by 1972. Unhappy with the central government’s handling of the agreement, however, voters re-elected Yara in November 1972 by an even wider margin.
Much has taken place in the interim, some good, some bad. This is not meant to make light of the problems or of the successes. For example, over the years, almost all people of the prefecture have come to think that reversion to Japan was a good thing (with figures usually more than 80 percent). Nevertheless, aircraft mishaps and other problems continue today.
Because of this, it is clear much more needs to be done. Yet, a lot of what has held the relationship back is what I call the four “mottainai.” As most readers know, mottainai, a Japanese expression meaning “what a waste,” is often used in the sense of being environmentally and ecology conscious to reuse or recycle, or at least to not waste things.
But mottainai can also be used in the context of missed opportunities. And there have been many such chances and continue to be more now.
The first one is the very fact that the relationship between Okinawa and the Japanese and U.S. governments remains poor. Some will say that the relationship is not that bad, or is the best that can be expected. No, I disagree. It is bad. Certainly, it is not the best it can be.
This is particularly ironic in that the decision to relocate the functions of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma air station, which has caused nearly 22 years of friction (following announcement as part of the U.S.-Japan bilateral Special Action Committee on Okinawa’s interim report of April 1996) and promises to cause another 20 more (for the remaining construction and decades after that in the operations) if not handled well, was meant alongside other measures to “reduce the burden on the people of Okinawa” and improve the overall relationship.
The second mottainai is that the bases, as seen in the above report, are viewed as “burdens” rather than as assets. In fact, they can be both, but the imposition side is stressed exclusively at the expense of the other beneficial aspects, to include commercial, economic, disaster response-related and, most important, in the areas of cultural, international exchange, education and human resource development. It is political suicide, in Okinawa, however, to call for this, or even mention it. Synergy dies without oxygen.
Similarly, the third wasted opportunity is that the full potential of Okinawa itself is not being realized. Okinawa is a vibrant place with a wonderful people. Low education, poor leadership and policies, ideology over the practical, the failure to exploit the above “bases as assets” approach, etc., have all held Okinawa back to the detriment of many over the decades.
While Okinawa is known as a popular place to move to, there are also significant numbers of those who have moved from there or intend to, either those originally from Okinawa or who moved there attracted to it only to be disappointed and leave. Some of the reasons cited are the closed nature of its society, its highly politicized environment, the lack of educational or job opportunities, the difficulty in doing business there, or discrimination felt there. For Okinawa to really prosper, it needs to openly tackle these below-the-surface problems.
A final mottainai is that the base consolidations did not go far enough. There was much more that could have been done during the 2005-2006 base realignment talks that ended up essentially endorsing the Henoko plan found in SACO. Those talks ignored the complicated social, political, and economic dynamics within Okinawa, focusing on the military, and the U.S. military in particular. But the so-called Okinawa problem is a knot that needs to be untied carefully.
Relocating to Camp Schwab was a last-century idea for the alliance that preceded 9/11, the China threat and 3/11. It does not meet the requirements of a 21st century alliance or even a modern-day relationship with local citizens. Rationalization of the bases, to include immediate shared use of all installations with the Self-Defense Forces, as found in mainland Japan, and the return of unnecessary lands and facilities, does not weaken the alliance, but actually strengthens it, while truly and visibly reducing the footprint and impact on residents.
Despite the rise in friction and tensions, it is not too late to turn the situation around if progress on these wasted opportunities could be overcome. It would be mottainai not to do so otherwise.
Robert D. Eldridge is a visiting researcher at Okinawa International University and the author of numerous books about bilateral relations including “Post-Reversion Okinawa and U.S.-Japan Relations.” He served as deputy assistant chief of staff of government and external affairs for the U.S. Marine Corps in Japan from 2009 to 2015.