What to Do With Okinawa: The Big Picture Behind the Henoko Base Relocation

What to Do With Okinawa: The Big Picture Behind the Henoko Base Relocation
U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, located in the middle of the city of Ginowan, is the most controversial American military facility in Japan's Okinawa prefecture. (Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images)
Ian Henderson

With the September election of the Liberal Party politician Denny Tamaki as governor of Japan’s Okinawa Prefecture, tensions between the U.S. military, the government of Japan, and the Okinawan prefectural government have risen beyond normal levels.

The planned relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, Okinawa, to a new location in Henoko Bay has spurred outrage among local residents. Land reclamation efforts are scheduled to begin on Dec. 14 and all efforts to stop its building have failed, including a last-ditch appeal to the Naha branch of the Fukuoka High Court.

The move was signed into law in 2013 by a previous governor, Hirokazu Nakaima, of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party. His successor, the late Takeshi Onaga, opposed the measures, but could not prevent the construction of the relocation, as it had already been signed into law by Nakaima. With Onaga’s sudden death in August, a special election was triggered and Tamaki was elected as the new governor.

Tamaki continues Onaga’s opposition to the relocation of the base. This leaves the Okinawan government at odds with Tokyo and the United States, which both heavily favor the relocation. What exactly led to this dispute and why is it causing so much controversy?

US Military Presence

Following the defeat of Japan at the end of World War II, the bulk of U.S. military bases in occupied Japan were positioned in the Okinawa Prefecture. Even when the United States returned sovereignty to Japan in 1952, Okinawa remained under U.S. governance for an additional 20 years until 1972. The small island chain has been densely packed with tens of thousands of U.S. troops for over seven decades since the end of the war.

Over time, as the Cold War became more intense, the need for a larger U.S. military presence in the region prompted the expansion of bases, and personnel grew to the point where it is today. Noise from the bases, training accidents, and a number of crimes committed by U.S. troops against locals have caused the people of Okinawa to develop a disdain for the American presence on the islands.

In response to the aforementioned issues, the United States, the government of Japan, and the administration of former governor Nakaima agreed to move the air base in question to a more sparsely populated part of the island.

The activist element of the Okinawan populace as well as a majority of Okinawan politicians oppose this relocation out of fear that the existing problems won’t end, but just be shifted to another part of the island. Activists are also concerned that it will ruin the natural habitat of Henoko Bay.

For years, activist groups have called for the complete demilitarization of Okinawa. Given the growing Chinese naval threats in the region, this is an extremely naive position, and politicians like Onaga and Tamaki on the island haven’t done anyone any good by stoking the anger of the locals against the Japanese government and the U.S. military.

Conversely, the United States isn’t accomplishing anything by kicking the can down the road and turning a blind eye to the locals’ legitimate complaints. This creates division and conflict when all parties need to work together to create the most equitable solution to ensure continued security in the island chain.


What the Okinawan leadership needs to acknowledge is that there must be a military presence in Okinawa. That being said, there are two questions that need to be answered: How big should that presence be, and who should be there, the United States or Japan?

It would be foolish to not have any military bases on the island chain when it is positioned in a region that is subject to intense territorial disputes with China. Tamaki needs to make this crystal clear to his constituents.

With the passage of the 2015 Japanese security legislation “Anpo Hoan,” the Japanese Self Defense Forces (JSDF) have more flexibility in their ability to operate in regional security matters. Additionally, in 2017, Abe scrapped the 1 percent cap on military spending that had been in place since World War II. This will allow for the growth of the JSDF and its ability to take more responsibility for defending Japan in areas where the United States is overwhelmed.

A densely populated area has developed around the Futenma base since it was first built in 1945. This has led to congestion, overcrowding, and a higher propensity for accidents to occur due to the proximity of local neighborhoods to the base.

In December 2017, the window of a U.S. helicopter flying out of Futenma fell onto the sports ground of an elementary school near the base, injuring a child. This is only one example of the plethora of problems due to the population density surrounding the base.

The continued population growth will inevitably lead to more accidents and violent incidents between the U.S. forces and locals. Relocation to a more remote location would greatly reduce the number of accidents and incidents between U.S. troops and locals, thus easing tensions.

The precaution of restricting development outside of necessary military facilities should also be established to ensure that the overcrowding that exists around Futenma doesn’t occur with Henoko.

Yes, Henoko Bay would go from a quiet, scenic location to an eyesore of a military installation. The alternative, however, would be to continue with the existing issues in Futenma, which is still an option, yet one with far more issues attached to it.

Solving Cultural Tensions

The other major factor contributing to this issue is a clash of cultures. Most American troops are deployed to Okinawa for a couple years only to be relocated to another base globally. This, on top of their rigorous schedule, doesn’t give them time to learn Japanese, understand the culture, or attempt to gain the trust and respect for the locals as much as they could.

What would ease tensions is for the U.S. and Japanese governments to consider converting the existing U.S. bases on Okinawa into joint U.S.–JSDF bases. The JSDF troops, being Japanese themselves, have an understanding of Okinawan culture to a degree that U.S. troops do not.

In a similar vein to that of the KATUSA program in South Korea, having a regimen where U.S. and JSDF units are assigned to train and work together on a daily basis would not only allow the JSDF to expand its military capacity and experience, as the Abe administration desires, but would also mandate U.S. troops to understand the Japanese modus operandi.

As the JSDF is more respected by Okinawans, due to being less alien than U.S. troops, a decreased U.S. presence and increased JSDF presence would likely ease tensions significantly.

Another option to consider is recruiting local Okinawans to serve in these joint U.S.–JSDF bases with special incentives not offered to mainland Japanese (i.e. free college or vocational school tuition, special pensions, etc.). This would further ease tensions as locals would be assigned to the joint U.S.–JSDF units.

Coinciding with the Japanese government’s desire to become more involved with regional security, the development of joint bases with a dual U.S.–JSDF makeup would deepen the already close relationship that Japan and the United States share, increase cultural understanding between the parties involved, and further strengthen unit cohesion among two militaries whose presence and cooperation is vital to ensure a balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region.

Ian Henderson is a contributor to Shield Society, former director of outreach for The Millennial Review, and former development coordinator for PragerU.
Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Ian Henderson is a contributor to Shield Society, former director of outreach for The Millennial Review, and former development coordinator for PragerU.
Related Topics