Okinawa under heavy US base burden, 50 years after the return

Half a century has passed since Okinawa was returned to Japan from United States administration. But for residents of the tropical islands that make up the prefecture, resentment remains over the ongoing American military presence.

Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio acknowledged Okinawa's most contentious issue in a speech to mark the anniversary of the prefecture's return to Japan.

"Even 50 years after Okinawa's return, its people bear a substantial burden in hosting military bases," he said. "The government takes this to heart and will remain committed to reducing the burden."

Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio
Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio speaking at a ceremony says the central government remains committed to reducing Okinawa's burden of hosting US military bases, in Ginowan on May 15, 2022.

The prefecture represents only 0.6 percent of Japan's total land area, but it hosts 70.3 percent of US military facilities in Japan.

Okinawa Governor Tamaki Denny, long a vocal critic of Okinawa's disproportionate burden, marked the occasion with a speech near one of the bases.

Tamaki said, "even 50 years after Okinawa's return to Japan, the prefecture is still being forced to bear the excessive burdens of military bases, including accidents, crimes and the problems of noise and environmental pollution."

Okinawa Governor Tamaki Denny
Okinawa Governor Tamaki Denny urged the central government to address the issue of hosting so many US military facilities in Okinawa, in Ginowan on May 15, 2022.

The Battle of Okinawa and beyond

World War Two changed Okinawa irrevocably.

The 1945 Battle of Okinawa claimed the lives of a quarter of the population. And while the rest of Japan regained its independence from the postwar Allied occupation in 1952, Okinawa remained under US administration for another two decades.

The prefecture continues to host the bulk of US bases in Japan, some of which were built by bulldozing people's homes.

The United States took large areas from the locals to build bases across Okinawa. This picture from 1945 shows a B-29 Superfortress airstrip being cut from the terrain in Futenma.

Resentment builds

When Okinawa was returned to Japan in 1972, residents' demands to have the US bases removed went unheeded.

Concerns over safety and noise pollution were compounded in 1995 when three US servicemen raped a 12-year-old local girl.

The attack sparked outrage and led to a surge in calls for a reduction in the prefecture's US base presence. An estimated 85,000 people gathered at one rally after the incident, according to figures released by organizers.

Thousands of people gather in Ginowan on October 21, 1995, to protest against the US military's presence. The rally took place after three workers of a US base raped a teenage girl.

A deal sparks anger

The following year, the governments of Japan and the United States agreed to a deal that included the return of the land used for the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which is in a residential area.

But there was a significant caveat. The governments also agreed to relocate the base in the prefecture, in the less-populated Henoko district of Nago City.

That decision stoked such anger that protests have been staged near the proposed site almost daily ever since. The transfer has yet to happen.

Current status of US bases

The scale of US military bases in Okinawa has decreased since its reversion 50 years ago, but the prefecture remains home to 31 facilities with a combined footprint larger than Washington DC.

Map: US Military Base in Okinawa

In February and March, NHK carried out a survey of people in Okinawa.

More than 80 percent of respondents said they thought it was wrong that the prefecture has to host such a disproportionate share of the US facilities in Japan.

Graph: What do you think about 70% of US bases in Japan being located in Okinawa?

The Japanese government's view

Japan's leaders say Okinawa’s location is critical for national security.

A report by the Defense Ministry says:

"The stationing of US forces, including the US Marine Corps, capable of dealing with a wide range of missions with high mobility and readiness in Okinawa further ensures the effectiveness of the Japan-US Alliance, strengthens deterrence, and contributes greatly not only to the security of Japan but also to the peace and stability of the Indo-Pacific region."

But Professor Maedomari Hiromori of Okinawa International University says it is "nothing but discrimination" to have so many of the bases in one prefecture.

"If the Japanese government believes US bases are necessary for national security reasons, the rest of Japan should equally share the burden," he says.

Maedomari Hiromori of Okinawa International University
Maedomari Hiromori of Okinawa International University says having so many military bases in one prefecture is "nothing but discrimination."

Towards a self-sustaining economy

The NHK survey also asked people whether the presence of US bases in Okinawa benefited their daily life or work. More than 70 percent of respondents said it did not.

Graph: Are US bases in Okinawa useful for your job or personal life?

Okinawa Prefectural officials say base-related revenue, such as salaries paid to people working on the bases and lease fees paid to owners of land used by the military, accounts for just six percent of gross prefectural income.

The primary driver of Okinawa's economy is tourism, and Maedomari says the presence of US bases in Okinawa is proving an impediment to that industry.

"Providing land for private economic activities is far more productive than providing land for military bases," he says.

"This has been made clear from the use of military base sites that have been returned in Okinawa. Luxury hotels are being built in Okinawa.

"Okinawa's economic development is gaining momentum. But the military bases in urban areas are standing in the way of Okinawa's economic growth.

"According to one estimate, one trillion yen ($7.9 billion) in potential profits are being lost in Okinawa every year due to the presence of the military bases."

Maedomari says the government needs to live up to its promise to grow Okinawa's economy, and remove what he sees as the shackles of the military presence.

Like many others in the prefecture, he wants people living elsewhere in Japan to support the call, and to think of Okinawa's bases as their problem too.