Okinawa and the U.S. Military in Northeast Asia

By Shorrock, Tim | Foreign Policy in Focus, July 12, 2000 | Go to article overview

Okinawa and the U.S. Military in Northeast Asia


Shorrock, Tim, Foreign Policy in Focus


Nowhere in East Asia is the U.S. military presence as evident as it is in Okinawa, the southernmost prefecture of Japan. Okinawa, a small island with a population of 1.2 million, has been occupied by U.S. forces since the end of World War II, when the island was the scene of a horrific, three-month battle that killed 160,000 people. For centuries, until it was annexed by Japan in 1865, it was an independent, peaceful kingdom (known as Ryukyu) with its own language and culture. The Japanese forced the Okinawans to join their battle against the Americans. According to Okinawa's current governor, "The combat destroyed everything, including more than 200,000 invaluable civilians."

Although the U.S. officially turned over the island to Japan in 1972, Okinawa has remained a massive U.S. military base--a "cold war island" in the words of Chalmers Johnson, an expert on Japanese economics and politics who has written widely on Okinawa. In 1945, U.S. troops started building military bases on lands forcibly confiscated from thousands of Okinawans; not one piece of land has ever been returned. When landlords and farmers who lost their land challenged U.S. control several years ago, the Japanese courts ruled that Japan has no jurisdiction over U.S. military operations.

Constituting only 0.6% of Japan's land mass, Okinawa houses 26,000 of the 47,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan on 39 bases--one of the largest concentrations of U.S. forces anywhere in the world. The heart of U.S. operations there is Kadena Air Base, the largest U.S. military facility outside of the continental U.S., occupying 83% of the territory of Kadena, a city of 30,000. Japan's support for U.S. forces, according to the Pentagon, is the most generous of any U.S. ally, averaging about $5 billion each year in what the Japanese call "sympathy payments."

In 1994 the brutal rape of a 12-year-old girl by three U.S. Marines sparked massive protests from Okinawans demanding the removal of the U.S. bases. Many Okinawans believe the 1994 rape was just the tip of the iceberg. Since 1988, Navy and Marine Corps bases in Japan (almost all of them in Okinawa) have registered the highest number--169--of court-martial cases for sexual assault of all U.S. military bases worldwide. And despite attempts by the Pentagon to control its soldiers, the violence against women continues. In early July 2000, the island was again in an uproar after a U.S. Marine was accused of molesting a 14-year-old schoolgirl after having snuck into her unlocked apartment in Okinawa City.

The visit by President Clinton to Okinawa to attend the July 2000 meeting of the G8 (a group of the world's most industrialized nations founded in 1975) focused international attention on the U.S. military's presence. Partly in response to a major demonstration against the continued U.S. military presence, President Clinton delivered a speech to the Okinawan people, promising to "reduce our footprint on this island" by completing a 27-step process of consolidating the U. …

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