By Elizabeth Fitzgerald | March 7, 2018
Japan is widely regarded as one of the United States’ most reliable and important allies, and has played host to a large military base on the southern island of Okinawa for more than sixty years. However, the two countries have lately become frustrated with the costs involved and the current burden-sharing arrangement. Maintaining a U.S. military presence in Japan is strategically imperative for both nations in terms of national and regional security. This is especially true in recent years, due to heightened concerns in South and East China Sea territorial disputes, North Korean aggression, and global power shifts. The U.S. military presence on the island of Okinawa is an integral piece of the larger collective defense strategy between the two nations.
However, local protests to relocate MCAS Futenma, home to more than 3,000 permanently-stationed marines, have recently grown. The government of Japan is facing mounting pressure to find an alternative approach. To mitigate the frustration, a plan has been proposed to relocate forces from one base on the island of Okinawa, to another base on the same island. Unfortunately, this plan is extremely costly and does not solve the underlying issue that created the dispute: historic conflict between Okinawa and mainland Japan.
One argument for relocation underscores the imbalanced proportion of U.S. troops stationed on Okinawa: the small southern island is bearing more than its fair share of the costs associated with Japan’s U.S. alliance. About 25% of all facilities used by U.S. Forces Japan are located in the prefecture, which comprises less than 1% of Japan’s total land area. This imbalanced burden only adds to the narrative of neglect and discrimination Okinawa has suffered since it became part of Japan.
The Okinawan population is ethnically different from Japan and has a separate history. This divide and resentment goes deeper than the issue of MCAS Futenma and the U.S. military presence. Unfortunately, the disproportionality of U.S. troops on the island exacerbates the history of neglect from the government of Japan. Additionally, the U.S. is guilty of souring relations through numerous incidents ranging from rape to aviation mishaps. The Okinawans are justified in their dissatisfaction.
As a way to mitigate local concerns in Okinawa, the governments of Japan and the U.S. found an agreeable alternative: to move MCAS Futenma to Henoko, a district on the northern, and less populated, part of Okinawa island. Despite the agreement, there has been pushback by both the Governor of Okinawa and members of the U.S. Congress, who have stalled funding for the project. Ultimately, the move to Henoko does not redress the key grievance, which is a domestic dispute of imbalanced troop allocation between the island and mainland. There will be no change to the argument of disproportionality as a result of the relocation of and the Okinawan citizens will still feel the direct effects of the U.S. military presence. This move is also extremely costly; both governments will incur high costs and possibly create irreversible damage to the environment.
Despite Okinawan unhappiness, the strategic interests of the U.S. and responsibility to allies in South Korea, Taiwan, and ASEAN necessitate the operational capabilities available on Okinawa. Since the establishment of the military bases after WWII, the strategic importance of Okinawa has only grown. It’s geographic proximity to the South China Sea and key regional allies shortens potential response time, which in turn provides deterrence.
However, the government of Japan can still make concessions to Okinawa by sharing more of the burden associated with hosting U.S. military installations. Additionally, it should be feasible to move some troops to mainland Japan without compromising their response ability. This will lessen the impact US soldiers will have on Okinawa’s resources and population. Only 500 miles away from Okinawa, the main islands of Japan have similar beaches for amphibious operations, modern ports for Naval stations, and land for airfields. The disproportionate amount of troops stationed in Okinawa is more politically motivated by domestic Japanese politics than it is by U.S. military strategy.
Redistributing forces from Okinawa to other locations on mainland Japan would be a favorable move for the U.S. The American forces would be less concentrated (a significant factor in the case of a missile attack) and still maintain the same operational capabilities that meets their mission. For example, aircraft and troops can be relocated to smaller bases on mainland Japan, which are still strategic in location. Already, forces have been moved from MCAS Futenma to MCAS Iwakuni, located in the southern Japanese prefecture of Yamaguchi.
For the time being, it is in the best interest of the U.S., Japan, and other allies in Asia to keep MCAS Futenma on Okinawa. At the heart of the Okinawan resistance lies a deeper issue of domestic discord, rooted historically in the unequal treatment of Okinawa by the government of Japan. A more realistic solution is for Japan to create a long-term plan to transition much of the U.S. military presence on Okinawa to the mainland, while conceptualizing an alternative Japanese defense strategy.
Elizabeth graduated from the University of Tampa in 2010 with a B.A. in Government and World Affairs. She commissioned in the United States Marine Corps and served for 6 years. As a logistics officer, she served as part of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit in Okinawa, Japan, and served as a Company Commander at the Recruit Depot at Parris Island, South Carolina. She left active duty to pursue a graduate degree in International Affairs at UCSD. In the summer of 2017, Elizabeth was an intern for the State Department in the political office at the U.S. Embassy in Rome. She is interested in pursuing a career in policy analysis and diplomacy.