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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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20 Years of Deadlock

Yoichiro Tateiwa

May 16, 2016

It's been 2 decades since US and Japanese officials agreed that the site of US Marines Corps Futenma Air Station would be returned to the Okinawan people.

But the airfield continues to be operated by the US military to this day. We spoke with former officials from both the Japanese central government and the Okinawa prefectural government to find out why.

Hideo Usui served as the head of Japan's Defense Agency 20 years ago.

"Returning the Futenma Air Station site was a key issue for the Japan-US Special Action Committee on Okinawa, or SACO, that was set up in 1995," Usui recalls.

When he headed the agency, his work mostly involved dealing with US bases in Okinawa.

At that time, frustration among people in Okinawa over hosting US bases was reaching new levels.

Their anger over the facilities was fueled by the 1995 rape of a schoolgirl by 3 US military personnel. The incident and its fallout pushed the Japanese and US governments to try to reduce the burden of the bases in the prefecture.

One of the top issues became dismantling the Futenma airbase.

The facility sits amid residential areas. Noise from the base and the risk of accidents are constant concerns for residents. The leaders of Japan and the US decided to shut down the facility.

"The site of Futenma Marine Corps Air Station will be returned to Japan within 5 to 7 years," Former Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto said at the time.

The announcement had government officials hoping they had found a way to ease Okinawa's burden.

"I thought we'd found a solution to the problem," Usui says. "During talks with the US military at the time, we agreed to settle the matter within about 5 years. I thought that's how it would happen."

But the agreement came with the condition that the functions of the base would stay in Okinawa.

Usui's sentiment was not shared by officials in Okinawa.

Masanori Yoshimoto served as a negotiator for the prefecture at the time.

"The day before the press conference, I was notified that the prime minister would call Okinawa's governor. So I went to the governor's office. In the call, the prime minister told the governor that the return of the land used for Futenma would happen, but he also said that the base would be relocated within Okinawa," Yoshimoto says.

"The governor wanted to question this relocation plan, but I told him not to. I said he should let the prime minister announce the plan to relocate Futenma within Okinawa, and that it would then be our battle with the Japanese government."

You don’t have to visit Futenma to know that Yoshimoto was right. The base stands as it was 20 years ago.

To Yoshimoto and officials of the prefectural government, it was crystal clear from the start that the government's plan wouldn't work. In fact, right from the start, the agreement was between Japan and the US, but not with Okinawa.

Newsroom Tokyo's chief correspondent Yoichiro Tateiwa joined anchors Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.

Shibuya: So we've seen from the report that from the start, there was a misunderstanding over the agreement on the dismantling of Futenma between officials of the Japanese government and officials of Okinawa Prefecture from the beginning.

Tateiwa: After speaking to Usui, I was surprised to learn that the Japanese government had a highly optimistic view on the issue. I also was surprised to know that the Okinawa side was aware back then that the relocation issue would not work out.

Looking at the past 20 years, the Japanese government has been promoting the relocation of the base within Okinawa by spending huge amounts of money there, which it says stimulates the local economy. But it seems to me that it hasn't succeeded in gaining the understanding of local people, resulting in a deadlock that's lasted 2 decades.

Beppu: Why do you think Yoshimoto, the former vice governor, was quite sure from the very beginning that the agreement would not pan out in the way the Japanese government wanted?

Tateiwa: He says it's all deeply related to the history of Okinawa. Okinawa was forced to be under the control of the US government even after Japan gained its independence. The Cold War turned hot with the onset of the Korean War in 1950. A ceasefire was declared in 1953. In 1952, Japan regained its sovereignty, and the pacifist Constitution came into effect. So the US was faced with the problem of where to station a large military in the region. And Yoshimoto says that's when Okinawa took on its heavy burden.

Last Sunday marked the 44th anniversary of Okinawa's return to Japan from US control.

In 1972, Okinawa was returned to Japan, 20 years after the country gained independence from the US Occupation following World War 2.

Declassified documents from the National Archives in the United States detail how the US military proceeded with the realignment of forces in East Asia in the 1950s.

They show the US hastened to move troops on Japan's mainland to Okinawa after its independence. Relocating the Marine Corps to Okinawa was a top priority for the US military.

One of the documents shows that then Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi expressed concern to the United States over the concentration of US forces in Okinawa.

Kishi was worried about US forces acquiring huge tracts of land in Okinawa against the people's will.

"It is of the utmost importance that the Ryukyus problem be handled with great care because of the sensibilities of the people," Kishi wrote.

Then US Secretary of State John Dulles responded to Kishi.

"We appreciate the statement of the Japanese toward operations in the Ryukyus, particularly Okinawa. The US has no desire to exercise power only for the sake of power," Dulles wrote.

Dulles shared Kishi's misgivings. But the documents suggest the US military had already decided to concentrate its bases in Okinawa. The top US commander in East Asia wrote to Washington that the sole US interest in Ryukyu Island is strategic.

Tomohiro Yara is a journalist covering the base issue in Okinawa.

"In mainland Japan there were various citizens' movements during the 1950s and '60s. There was also an anti-US movement," Yara says. "This in part led US officials to believe it would be difficult to maintain bases in mainland Japan. So, as US documents show, the military intended to make the bases invisible. They wanted to keep potentially troublesome facilities out of sight of the Japanese people. It was a basic policy of the US. The US knew it could keep bases in Okinawa."

As a result, Okinawa came to host 74 percent of US military facilities in Japan. That's despite the fact that the island comprises just 0.6 percent of the country's territory.

The former defense chief now wants to ask the leaders of Japan and the US to stand by the people of Okinawa.

"We failed to understand the burden on Okinawa. Our government, including me, has been emphasizing the importance of Okinawa for the national security of Japan," Usui says. "But I think we have to seriously listen to the voice of Okinawa and we all share the burden to reduce that of the people of Okinawa."

Shibuya: So declassified US government documents reveal that because the return of Okinawa was delayed, the US military was able to use the prefecture as one of its most important garrisons in the region. Do you think the Cold War have a major impact on bringing about this situation?

Tateiwa: I think so. The US military placed great importance on Okinawa, calling it the "Keystone of the Pacific." The documents repeatedly emphasize that the US was facing a confrontation with communist nations including China and the former Soviet Union. They also reveal that Washington was deeply concerned over a possible "domino effect," in which countries in Indochina would turn communist one after another.

The documents repeatedly point out that the strategic location of Okinawa is of particular military importance.

Beppu: Looking at this map, talking about the strategic importance of Okinawa, it's quite known that it's quite close to the Southeast Asia war fields at that time. Even now, with the changing strategic environment, now it's considered strategically important when you talk about China. So in that way, do you think there's something parallel in the logic of using Okinawa as a strategically important place?

Tateiwa: The situation is the same. Today, officials of the Japanese and US governments say Okinawa's strategic importance lies in its role in response to China's increasing maritime activities and North Korea.

As the former head of the Defense Agency said, security in the region must be considered from a wider perspective, and if that's important, it must be shared with many people, not just those in Okinawa. Otherwise, the frustrations of the Okinawan people, who have had to put up with living under the control of the US military for 20 years, and with living alongside massive US military facilities today, will never be healed.