The increasingly knotty issue of the U.S. base presence in Japan has deep roots tangled in history and ongoing changes in the social fabric and political landscape. Stars and Stripes reporter David Allen, who has been covering Okinawa issues since 1994, offers the following answers to frequently asked questions about the debate swirling around Futenma:
What’s the big deal with Futenma? Is this just political maneuvering, or is it a serious threat to the U.S.-Japan military alliance?
Prior to the landslide victory of his Democratic Party of Japan in August, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s platform was to move the Futenma operations outside Okinawa, if not outside Japan. He has since said he just wants to revisit the agreement, and the issue now is seen in Japan as a test of his leadership. His left-center party is part of the ruling coalition with the Social Democratic Party, which is staunchly anti-military and opposed both to the presence of U.S. forces and the existence of the Japanese Self-Defense Force. If he fails in his bid to renegotiate the Futenma relocation plan and move the Marine air operations elsewhere, he could face serious opposition in elections next year.
Why do they have to move the air station at all?
It’s noisy and dangerous, and a symbol of what the Okinawans claim is their "unfair burden."
The rape and abduction of a 12-year-old Okinawa schoolgirl in 1995 by two Marines and a Navy Corpsman sparked massive anti-base demonstrations on the island and renewed calls for reducing the U.S. military footprint. Bowing to those demands, a bilateral U.S.-Japan committee was formed, devising a plan in 1996 to return about 20 percent of the base property to the prefecture and private landowners. A major component of the plan was to close Futenma, located in urban heart of the city of Ginowan, and build a new base in a more remote location.
In 2003, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited Okinawa and flew over the Futenma airfield. He commented that it was amazing there had not been any accidents. A year later, a Marine helicopter crashed on the campus of a university adjacent to the base, and the calls to close MCAS Futenma increased.
Why are the Okinawans upset about the relocation/realignment of U.S. bases on the island?
They don’t trust Tokyo and Washington on the issue. There’s a saying on Okinawa that the U.S. bases are the best deal for Japan and the U.S. and the worst for Okinawa. Japan gets to spend less on defense — one of the reasons why it has the second-largest economy in the world — and have almost half the U.S. troops based on Okinawa, an island far from the other larger, more populated Japanese territories. The U.S. gets bases close to potential trouble spots in the Western Pacific. And Japan picks up a hefty part of the bill. That leaves Okinawa hosting bases that cover a fifth of the island.
Also, there’s always been a strong independent streak on Okinawa. A large segment of the population believes the U.S. took their land at the end of World War II at the point of "bayonets and bulldozers," costing many families their homes and farms. During the 27 years of U.S. military occupation, there was a vibrant movement demanding a "military free" island.
When the prefecture was returned to Japan in 1972, many Okinawans felt betrayed because many U.S. military bases remained, and the Japan Self-Defense Force took other bases given up by the Americans. Some Okinawan critics continue to argue that they bear an unfair burden by hosting 75 percent of the land solely used for U.S. bases in all of Japan.
Supporters of the bases point out that the U.S. military is the second largest source of income on Okinawa, after tourism. Opponents argue that the bases hinder economic development.
Is the new Japanese government’s real agenda to expel all U.S. forces from Japan?
Definitely not. The Hatoyama administration, as well as the majority of the Japanese people, support the present security alliance with the United States, in place to aid in the defense of Japan should the country be attacked.
Hatoyama and his Cabinet members have repeatedly made it clear that the security arrangement is one of the core policies of the country.
Do the Okinawan critics of the realignment offer any alternatives? If so, why are they unacceptable to the U.S.?
During years of negotiations, many alternate sites for Futenma were proposed, including Iwo-to (formerly Iwo Jima), Guam, Hawaii, Japan Self-Defense Force bases on the mainland, Kadena Air Base, and two more remote islands in Okinawa prefecture. They were all rejected. The U.S. contends the Marine flight operations need to remain on Okinawa because of its close proximity to amphibious fleet units in Sasebo, for training on Okinawa and because of its proximity to China and North Korea. Moving the base to more isolated islands would be too costly and there is no room at Kadena Air Base for both Marine and Air Force operations. A plan to build a sea-based Marine air station some two miles off the coast of the Henoko peninsula, on which Camp Schwab is located, was scrapped after intense opposition by anti-base and environmental groups, who used small motorboats and kayaks to disrupt an environmental study of the area.
U.S. officials maintain Okinawa remains the best location, both in terms of cost, with Japan picking up the tab, and its strategic geographical location in the Western Pacific.
Why does the U.S. appear so resistant to any changes in the 2006 agreement?
U.S. officials insist the many years of negotiations leading up to the 2006 "Roadmap to Realignment" resulted in the best deal for both countries. The troop level on Okinawa would be reduced by more than 8,000 Marines plus their families, and Japan agreed to pay most of the tab for building the necessary infrastructure to support them on Guam.
How many U.S. troops are on Okinawa and how much does the Japanese government pay to have them there?
Today there are 43,400 status of forces personnel on Okinawa. They include 22,300 active-duty servicemembers, 2,100 Department of Defense civilians and 19,000 dependents. That number does not include Marines who are temporarily deployed to Okinawa from time to time from U.S. bases for training.
The Japanese government paid more than $5.2 billion for funding the stationing of U.S. troops in Japan in 2009. That includes facilities maintenance and improvements, Japanese support employee salaries, and other needs. Of that funding, $1.6 billion is for military support on Okinawa.
And there is indirect support, which includes waivers of taxes, road tolls and port fees for military operations, and SOFA personnel pay less tax on their cars than Japanese citizens.
What does moving 8,000-plus Marines from Okinawa to Guam have to do with moving a Marine air station on Okinawa?
It is seen as a way to sell the plan to move air operations to Camp Schwab. Sweetening the deal for the Okinawans, besides millions of dollars in subsidies for public projects from Tokyo, was the promise to also shut down Camp Kinser, the Naha Military Port, the rest of Camp Lester, part of Camp Foster and the transfer of major Marine commands to Guam.
While the conservative Liberal Democratic Party ruled, the project seemed inevitable and, except for a small protest group that’s been camped out at the Henoko port for the past five years, most people on Okinawa grudgingly accepted it.
Why can’t the Futenma issue be de-coupled from the Guam issue?
Without the new base development on Camp Schwab, there would be nowhere to put many of the Marines who would remain on the island. U.S officials from the start have said replacing Futenma was the key to the agreement.
Why can’t the U.S. on its own just move the Marines to Guam, where the U.S. territorial government would welcome them and the related economic development?
Under the realignment plan, the Japanese government has pledged to spend $6.1 billion on building up Guam to accommodate the influx of troops. Of that, $2.8 billion is expected in cash. The remaining would come in Japanese investments that the country may recoup over time. But should the realignment plan unravel, the entire cost of building installations, housing and infrastructure — projected at $10.6 billion — might have to be borne by U.S. taxpayers.
Stars and Stripes reporter Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this story.
E-mail David Allen at: firstname.lastname@example.org