Japan and the United States are two nations with a longstanding military alliance. No country hosts more US troops than Japan, and nowhere in Japan are there more US bases than on the island of Okinawa. Naturally, this has caused more than a little friction between the people of Okinawa and the US and Japanese governments.
In the bloody, muddy month of April in 1945, US troops first invaded Okinawa in one of the last Pacific combats of WWII. Nearly three-quarters of a century later, more than 45,000 US military personnel still inhabit the coral-fringed island.
Formerly part of the Ryukyu Kingdom, Okinawa has endured Japanese colonization as far back as 1609, when the Japanese feudal domain of Satsuma invaded the island. In 1879, Japan annexed the entire Ryukyu archipelago and initiated an assimilation policy that lasted through WWII.
After the war, Okinawa became an official US territory until 1971, when it was formally relinquished to the Japanese in return for political and military privileges. During these negotiations, Japan and the US tacitly agreed to keep the majority of military bases in Okinawa. Quite literally, Okinawa has been, and to a certain extent still is, a colony of both countries.
“I think both countries still have that mindset towards Okinawans,” says Takuma Sminkey, professor at the Okinawa International University and translator of renowned Okinawan author and activist Shun Medoruma’s novel In the Woods of Memory. “Even today, you’ll hear US servicemen saying that they won Okinawa in the war, so they have every right to be here. Similarly, mainland Japanese don’t see anything wrong with the fact that most of its military bases are in Okinawa, not on the mainland.”
The island is currently home to nearly 75% of US military bases in Japan. American military leaders justify this by pointing out that Okinawa, the so-called “Keystone of the Pacific,” is strategically located near Taiwan, China, and the Korean peninsula and has played a pivotal role in most major US wars since WWII.
Caught in a geopolitical web and under the thumbs of both the US and mainland Japan, the inhabitants of the small Japanese island have been struggling to reassert themselves, to regain their power, autonomy, and peace.
Demonstrators have been fighting to close the bases for decades, particularly those with higher risks and negative impacts like the Futenma Base haphazardly situated in the middle of a densely populated city, but their calls have largely fallen on deaf ears.
“The bases are a constant threat to Okinawans’ safety and security, cause pollution, and have a negative effect on the economy,” Professor Sminkey asserts, “Many of the bases are located on prime real estate along the ocean. Other bases are in the middle of cities, thereby disrupting normal traffic flow. And, of course, there are numerous rapes, murders, crimes, and accidents.”
The US bases are a constant source of noise pollution, from constant aircraft takeoffs and landings to combat drills that last all night and day, making sleep nearly impossible for those living nearby. A surprising amount of accidents and crashes put residents in harm’s way.
In one instance, a US military helicopter crashed into Okinawa International University’s administration building and burst into flames, throwing students, teachers, and local residents into a state of panic and fear. “I witnessed the crash from my office window,” Professor Sminkey says, “I can't imagine this would be tolerated in the US.”
Moreover, a number of crimes committed by US military personnel have plagued the citizens of Okinawa for decades. Just last year a woman was raped and murdered by a former military serviceman. US personnel accused of sex crimes are often given lighter punishments such as fines instead of jail terms.
In a more subtle yet pernicious way, the bases are also symbols of the island’s violent past and the trauma incurred during the war, the repercussions of which, as Medoruma’s In the Woods of Memory powerfully conveys, have rippled through time into the present day.
Although government officials have agreed to relocate Futenma Base to the more remote Okinawan location of Henoko Bay, thousands of Japanese rights activists have been protesting against this planned construction, which would essentially fill the coral bay with concrete and obliterate the region’s rich marine life.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre, the plan to build a military base in Henoko would “add threats of noise pollution, chemical pollution, soil erosion, and exposure to depleted uranium” that would prove disastrous to the region’s marine life, including Okinawa’s endangered dugongs species.
Many scholars believe that the protests against the military bases in Okinawa have little chance of succeeding. The Japanese government is essentially stuck between the desire of the Okinawan people and the desire of the Americans. The US insists they need these bases. From the Japanese government’s point of view, Okinawa is a good place to situate the US bases because in a sense Okinawa is not really Japan, but rather a sort of internal colony somewhat detached from mainland Japan both geographically and culturally.
“Most people are probably willing for Okinawa to have some bases here,” says Sminkey, “but even conservatives generally feel that the burden on Okinawa is extremely unfair. It's not just a matter of war trauma; it's a matter of being treated with dignity and respect.”
To alleviate the burden of US militarism and imperialism on Okinawa, US and Japanese policy changes need to reduce damage to cities and fragile ecosystems, fully prosecute and prevent egregious crimes, and take concrete measures to protect the local culture.
For many Okinawans, the war has never ended. And with no sign of these policy changes on the horizon, it seems it will continue to linger in the minds of the Okinawan people.
If the plight Okinawans face strikes a chord with you, we recommend Okinawan author Shun Medoruma’s thought-provoking novel In the Woods of Memory, a book The Japan Times lauds as a “masterpiece of Okinawan literature” that takes an “unsparing squint into the darkest moments of human experience.” Narrations through nine points of view, Japanese and American, from 1945 to the present day reveal the full complexity of events and how war trauma inevitably ripples through the generations.
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