From a Bloody Invasion to a Hostile ‘Friendly’ Invasion: Okinawans lose patience with the US Military

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.

Crowds of people congregate to protest the presence of US military bases in Okinawa
Crowds of people congregate to protest the presence of US military bases in Okinawa

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.

Futenma has been an American air base since the 1945 invasion of Okinawa
Futenma has been an American air base since the 1945 invasion of Okinawa

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.

A protester burns an American flag on Okinawa after the 1995 rape incident
A protester burns an American flag on Okinawa after the 1995 rape incident

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.

A demolition crew from the 6th Marine Division watch dynamite charges explode and destroy a Japanese cave
A demolition crew from the 6th Marine Division watch dynamite charges explode and destroy a Japanese cave

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.

US-Japan relations have strengthened under the stewardship of Obama and Abe
US-Japan relations have strengthened under the stewardship of Obama and Abe

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.

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Iran Plays Powerful with Control Over Hormuz Strait; 500 Years on from Afonso de Albuquerque

The Strait of Hormuz is one of the most strategically important waterways in the world today.  Providing the only sea passage between the Persian Gulf and the open ocean, it is used to transport approximately 20% of international petroleum requirements from the Middle Eastern oil fields.

The Strait of Hormuz has great strategic and, by extension, military importance
The Strait of Hormuz has great strategic and, by extension, military importance

At its narrowest, the Strait flows between Iran to the north and the Omanian exclave of Musandam to the south.  It has been the scene of diplomatic incidents, military clashes and maritime collisions but to Tehran, in particular, it is a chokepoint of great potential.

The Iranians periodically threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz and have, indeed, made the potential for such a scenario central to their belligerent foreign policy.  It is the United States, unsurprisingly, that is typically the target of such threats and whilst Iran would suffer from halting oil shipments out of the Persian Gulf, its control over the Strait is an undoubted bargaining tool.

It is 500 years since the great Portuguese explorer, conqueror and administrator Afonso de Albuquerque perished in Goa, that strategic gateway to India whose capture secured a foothold for Lisbon in Asia. Eight years prior to his death, Albuquerque had sailed into the Strait of Hormuz on the orders of his patron, King Manuel I of the House of Aviz.

Ever since Vasco da Gama had landed at Calicut in 1498, the Portuguese had been in competition for dominance over the lucrative Indian Ocean trade with Muslim merchants, whose own commercial routes stretched all the way to Egypt and the Mamluk Sultanate, Manuel’s rival in the Mediterranean.  Capturing Ormuz Island on what is today Iran’s southern coast would be a major step in thwarting Muslim ambitions.

Da Gama's famed voyage initiated an era of worldwide European exploration and conquest
Da Gama’s famed voyage initiated an era of worldwide European exploration and conquest

With little effort, Albuquerque and his men captured their target in October 1507, only for their joy to be short-lived.  In a harsh climate without sufficient supplies, Albuquerque’s aim to build a garrison to hold the island led to resentment amongst his subordinate captains and provoked resistance from the local population.  A mutiny of the Portuguese ensued, whereby all bar Albuquerque’s ship returned to Portuguese India and Ormuz was lost.

Not to be deterred – and after securing Goa and Malacca in a series of brilliantly daring raids – Albuquerque returned to Ormuz again in 1515 with more than 1,000 men in 27 heavily-armed vessels.  This time the conquest led to the establishment of a permanent garrison, effectively cutting off the Indian Ocean to the Muslim merchants and securing the first overseas empire by a European power.  Indeed, it would not be until 1622 that the Portuguese presence at Ormuz was ended by the British.

Ormuz offered the Portuguese a grasp on both the Indian and Persian trade
Ormuz offered the Portuguese a grasp on both the Indian and Persian trade

There are few men as ‘great’ as Albuquerque today – and this term refers to his military and administrative achievements not his propensity to dispense brutal justice to those who dared cross him – nor as pioneering as his predecessors da Gama and Francisco da Almeida.  Indeed, we live in a world where such personalities are discouraged and any sense of individualism is often treated with noted scepticism.

Albuquerque was a formidable character...so much so that he earned the sobriquet O Terrível (The Terrible)
Albuquerque was a formidable character…so much so that he earned the sobriquet O Terrível (The Terrible)

The 16th century was characterised by the disproportionate achievements of the few against the many.  Nowadays it often appears as if thousands upon thousands of faceless diplomats and bureaucrats are incapable of creating the slightest change.  The Iran nuclear deal took the involvement of hundreds of such characters and, whilst driven by a select few global ‘leaders’, time is likely to prove how ineffective this venture has been.

Iran’s threats ring hollow; closing the Strait of Hormuz would hurt its enemies but also itself.  Sometimes it is hard not to pine after the dashing era of Albuquerque and his bloody-minded cohorts, who could ride roughshod over the barricades and penetrate the enemy heartland, safe in the knowledge that their technological and martial superiority would grant them passage.

Alas; timid diplomacy, bureaucratic gridlock and unadventurous leaders are all we can hope for in our tormented world of scrutiny, cynicism and obstinacy.

Source

Crowley, R (2015), Conquerors: How Portugal Seized the Indian Ocean and Forged the First Global Empire