Realignment of Marines stalls as Okinawans’ outrage grows

Anti-base protesters at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma hold hands in front of the base sign in May, 2010. The organizers of the event, timed to commemorate the 38th anniversary of Okinawa’s reversion to Japan by the U.S., claimed success on two of three attempts to join hands around the eight-mile fence line, symbolically closing the controversial base.


By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 5, 2012

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Eight months after reaching a breakthrough agreement to trim Marine forces on Okinawa and ease a core cause of anti-military friction, the U.S. has made scant progress on the drawdown and is once again trying to quell outrage over off-base, alcohol-related crimes that have escalated Japanese tension to its highest point in years.

Recent allegations involve an after-hours assault on a teen, drunken trespassing, public urination by a naked sailor and the rape of a Japanese woman by two sailors outside Kadena Air Base.

Such incidents have fueled calls for cutting the number of Marines on the island and closing the Futenma air station since at least 1995, when two Marines and a sailor gang-raped a 12-year-old. But the U.S. and Japan have been unable to make any progress on reducing the largest concentration of forces in the country — and the biggest thorn in the alliance — despite continuing cycles of military crime, protest and Okinawan anger.

Department of Defense spokeswoman Catherine Wilkinson called the drawdown a “lengthy” process in a statement to Stars and Stripes and said the two countries are still discussing how to execute the April agreement.

The pact aims to relocate about 9,000 Okinawa Marines to Guam and elsewhere in the Pacific, close Futenma and replace it with a new air station elsewhere on Okinawa, and begin the return of military land to Okinawans. A U.S.-Japan accord signed in 2006 called for roughly halving the Marine Corps presence on Okinawa by 2014 but was abandoned this year after both countries admitted delays had made the deadline unrealistic.

Even with the new agreement, shifting about 5,000 Marines to Guam remains uncertain as military budget hawks in the Senate have imposed a spending freeze that threatens realignment funding for a second fiscal year in a row.

Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., told Stars and Stripes he supports hastening the move to the U.S. territory but “the Department of Defense has not yet provided Congress with the legally mandated master plan that identifies costs, schedules and other requirements.”

Navy studies are also needed before Marine Corps housing and a controversial firing range can be built on Guam, a process that will put off any relocation there for at least two years.

Meanwhile, the DOD has yet to determine where in the Pacific the remaining 4,000 Okinawa Marines will move, Wilkinson said.

Discussions on Futenma have focused on how to pay for continued operations at the aging, controversial facility, she said. Deterioration and a lack of progress in closing the air station have forced the U.S. and Japan to consider hundreds of millions of dollars in needed upgrades.

The return of military land to Okinawans appears to be stymied as well. The Japan Ministry of Defense said Wednesday it does not expect to complete any plan before the end of the year, despite the April agreement that parcels on bases in southern Okinawa could immediately be given back to the local government for redevelopment.

“While we remain committed to tackling the military-related problems on Okinawa, we have no concrete schedule for the consolidation plan of military land south of Kadena,” a ministry spokesman said.

Meanwhile, tensions over the large U.S. military presence have been fueled by a series of incidents that began this past summer on Okinawa.

The island erupted in demonstrations as the U.S. and Tokyo followed through with plans to deploy tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft to Futenma despite vigorous objections from local government and residents and the long-stalled promise to close the facility. In October, protestors blocked access gates to the air station for days.

As the island fumed over the Ospreys, two sailors were arrested and charged with choking, robbing and raping an Okinawan woman in a parking lot during a night of partying outside Kadena Air Base. The incident echoed past sex crimes on the island, including the notorious 1995 gang-rape of a school girl, which originally pressured the U.S. and Tokyo into a promise to reduce Marine forces.

The military quickly imposed a curfew for troops across Japan, but commanders on Okinawa and the mainland have struggled to stop drunken off-base crime despite escalating liberty restrictions.

Lt. Gen. Sam Angelella, the commander of U.S. Forces, Japan, contends that public anger over military crime and stalled efforts to reduce the large number of forces on Okinawa are not connected.

“I think these are all separate issues, but as you go from one issue to the next, it might look like it’s connected,” Angelella said. “My view is that, you know, there were protests against the Osprey because the local population was afraid, they were unsure of the safety of the aircraft.”

Those protests have abated because the U.S. and Tokyo have allayed the safety concerns, he said.

Angelella said the recent spate of crimes in Japan is not due solely to the Marines stationed on Okinawa.

“It’s been all the services and so that’s why we’re working together as a joint service to eliminate the crime so we can concentrate on the Futenma way forward and the redeployment of the Marines and the rebalance to the Pacific,” Angelella said.

Crackdowns have done little to stop military crimes on Okinawa, where more than half of the roughly 50,000 servicemembers in Japan are stationed.

In 2008, the island was gripped by unrest for four months after a Marine staff sergeant was arrested and eventually convicted by court-martial of molesting a 14-year-old Okinawan girl. There was a second alleged rape, as well as alcohol-related incidents and a military curfew.

The Air Force on Okinawa imposed a curfew in 2005 after a Kadena airman was arrested for molesting a 10-year-old, and the Marine Corps imposed an islandwide drinking ban in 2000 after a Marine entered a Japanese home and crawled into bed with a young girl.

“What people here want to see is reduction in the military presence, which is a direct contributor to incidents involving servicemembers,” said Naoya Iju, chief of the Futenma Relocation Task Force, which is part of the Okinawa prefectural government.

Frustration has grown as promises to relocate Marines have languished and the U.S. and Tokyo have decided to deploy the Ospreys despite local opposition, Iju said.

“The promises have been made over and over, and each time we ended up with disappointment,” he said. “This makes people harbor distrust of the Japanese government, questioning how serious they are about Okinawa.”

Stars and Stripes reporters Chiyomi Sumida and Wyatt Olson contributed to this report .