Some 65,000 people turned out in Naha, Okinawa to protest against the continued American military presence on Japan’s southern island. It follows the murder last month of an Okinawan woman, allegedly by a former US marine now working as a civilian contractor.
Approximately half of America’s 53,000 troops in Japan reside on Okinawa, much to the chagrin of the locals. It had looked like things would change just a few years ago when the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) stormed to power in Tokyo under the stewardship of Yukio Hatoyama. One of the DPJ’s main pledges was to reduce the burden on the Okinawans having to host the bulk of American forces in Japan, with a particular emphasis on relocating the massive Futenma Air Base off the island.
Such intentions were not easy to follow through with, however, and were one of the key reasons why DPJ support soon plummeted, with factional infighting also contributing to a succession of leadership changes and a resurgence of support for the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) under the hawkish Shinzo Abe.
Abe is more selective in his interpretation of recent Japanese history and recognises the importance – both strategic and symbolic – of the American presence on Okinawa. Indeed, it forms a cornerstone of post-WWII US-Japanese security relations and is something that neither Abe, nor President Barack Obama, wish to see overturned.
Protests over the US presence on Okinawa have been driven by local public opinion and NGOs, erupting intermittently over the last couple of decades. They peaked in 1995 when three American servicemen brutally raped a 12-year old girl on the island. Foreign military ‘occupations’ tend to go hand-in-hand with unsavoury incidents, particularly when troops have a fair degree of freedom to engage in such acts. Whilst an extreme example, the 1995 rape is just one of several occasions in Okinawa when American troops have conducted themselves with a dishonour not befitting of a supposed ally.
Of course, a ‘hostile’ American presence on Okinawa predates the last twenty years. 1945 saw a massive invasion of the island by 185,000 US Army and Marine Corps troops as Japan’s resistance in the Pacific Theater began to crumble. Despite facing overwhelming odds, the Japanese defended the island with a ferocity almost unparalleled in recent history. They lost at least 75,000 killed (the bulk of their force), whilst some 20,000 Americans also died. In addition, the toll on the civilian population was catastrophic, with upwards of 50,000 killed in the crossfire or committing suicide as the Americans finally broke through.
Such battles are not easily forgotten, whether US-Japan relations have entered a new era of friendship or not. For many Okinawans, the US military presence has been both incessant and substantial, with few tangible benefits to show for it.
Abe is keen to bolster the US military alliance further, however, and these protests are a fly in the ointment. With China acting increasingly assertively in the Asia-Pacific, and the North Korean nuclear threat remaining persistent and unpredictable, strong American backing remains critical because of the constitutional restrictions on Japan’s ability to wage war.
Both Obama and Secretary of Defense Ash Carter have apologised for the latest tragedy in a bid to ease the pressure on Abe. The Japanese Prime Minister will be expected to be strong in his condemnation of American actions on Okinawa, yet he is a belligerent character very unwilling to deviate from his personal political ideals.
It remains likely, then, that despite this show of indigenous force, the Okinawa protests will fall on deaf ears. The bitter historical memories of bloody invasion, savage defiance and uneasy cooperation will continue to simmer as a resentment not formidable enough to sway the current regimes in Tokyo and Washington. Until these governments are replaced with more amenable alternatives – and such a scenario is not inconceivable in the near future – the Okinawans will have to continue to grin and bear it.
What the ramifications will be for active American servicemen in Okinawa (if any) is undoubtedly a topic for closed-door discussions, the details of which we shall await to be leaked by those unscrupulous officials with a stake in the end result.