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.

Advertisements

Putin & Abe Unlikely to Resolve Kuril Dispute: sovereignty, nationalism and history combine for toxic mix

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met in the Black Sea resort of Sochi last Friday, with the ongoing territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands set to dominate proceedings...at least from the media’s point of view.

The Kremlin claimed that Putin and Abe discussed the Kuril dispute very 'constructively'
The Kremlin claimed that Putin and Abe discussed the Kuril dispute very ‘constructively’

No agreement over the islands was expected to arise from the summit, hampering the potential for the signing of a peace treaty to formally end hostilities between the two nations, an issue left unresolved since World War Two (WWII).

Stretching some 750 miles between the southern tip of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula and the north-eastern coast of the Japanese island of Hokkaido, the Kurils are thought to have first been settled by the indigenous Ainu people. Coming under semi-administrative control of the Japanese during the Edo period, the only economic activity of note relating to the islands was fishing and, later, whaling.

The changing borders of the Kuril Islands
The changing borders of the Kuril Islands

In the 19th century, Russia lay claim to the Kurils and in 1855 the Treaty of Commerce, Navigation and Delimitation was signed giving Japan control over the southernmost islands and Russia over the northern ones. In 1875 this was overwritten by the Treaty of St Petersburg which gave full control to the Japanese in return for their relinquishing of any claims to Sakhalin, which came under sole Russian authority.

The Japanese retained control over the Kuril Islands until towards the end of WWII when, with their defeat almost secured, the Soviet Union finally entered the war in the Pacific Theater. Stalin had avoided opening up a second major front during the preceding years due to the ferocity of the fighting during the repulsion of the Nazi invasion. Despite frequent attempts by the Allied forces – particularly the Chinese whose very existence was threatened by Tokyo’s expansionist foreign policy – Stalin had no intention of spreading his forces too widely. He was, however, a ruthless opportunist and Japan’s capitulation offered the prospect of new territory in the Far East.

In 1946, the Soviet authorities expelled the approximately 17,000 Japanese citizens from the Kurils and resettled them with Russians. Despite vociferous protests ever since, the Tokyo administration has never regained any of the islands, which continue to give Russia a strategic foothold on the very threshold of Japanese territory.

Long-term inhabitants of the Kuril Islands, the Ainu people were progressively assimilated and/or expelled by the both the Japanese and the Russians
Long-term inhabitants of the Kuril Islands, the Ainu people were progressively assimilated and/or expelled by the both the Japanese and the Russians

Commensurate with his rather assertive foreign policy, Putin has in recent years ordered the strengthening of Russia’s military presence on the Kurils, including the construction of new operations bases and missile defence sites. This has understandably not been received with fanfare in Tokyo, particularly given the nationalist tendencies of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and of Abe himself. With the Prime Minister intent on creating a more ‘normal’ Japanese foreign policy – essentially allowing Japan to take part in more than just self-defence operations, as prescribed by its post-WWII constitution – territorial disputes such as this remain a potential flashpoint.

Both the East China Sea and, more significantly, the South China Sea have received extensive press attention for the myriad arguments over sovereignty and economic rights, with the Chinese effectively seizing control of the latter with their land reclamation projects and military re-alignment. The Kuril Islands receive less coverage, yet the failure to reach any long-term resolution on the dispute means that it too is a potential cause for inadvertent conflict between the some of the world’s superpowers.

America naturally comes into the equation. It was Roosevelt whose determination to encourage the Soviets to enter the Pacific War led to a promise at the Yalta Conference that Stalin would receive the Kuril Islands. However, when it came to signing the Treaty of San Francisco to secure a lasting peace between Japan and the wartime Allies, Stalin accused the Americans of reneging on their promise at Yalta to recognise Soviet sovereignty over the Kurils. For their part, the Americans stated that the agreement at Yalta only related to the northern Kuril Islands, not the four large southern islands that the Japanese continue to claim. The lasting historical enmity over this supposed duplicity – in addition to Cold War antagonisms – has only increased Soviet obstinacy on the Kuril issue.

With Russia and China both militarising some of the most contentious territorial disputes in the Pacific, and refusing to even acknowledge any counter-arguments to their stated positions, the prospect for an ‘incident’ to occur between two major powers cannot be overlooked. Given the nature of geostrategic power politics in the region, such an incident would likely involve more than the two belligerents.

The Kuril Islands are strategically located, although they appear to have limited economic potential
The Kuril Islands are strategically located, although they appear to have limited economic potential

Nationalist tension is undoubtedly high and it is fuelled by history. It would be comforting to think that a meeting between two of the most powerful heads of state may lead to an easing of diplomatic anxiety, yet the reality is more sombre.

Analysts continue to assess the most likely source of a future war between great powers. They would do well to start by looking at the Pacific, a region often overshadowed by the disasters of the Middle East but with a history of violence that is almost comparable.