Storm over US bases on Okinawa
NAHA, Okinawa, Japan ― The future of American power in Asia revolves closely around U.S. forces on this island that is home to a full panoply of U.S. air and ground forces well south of the Japanese ``mainland.” Most people here would just as soon they go somewhere else.
Uncertainty about the American military presence may not be much of a consideration, however, to the ruling elite of mainland Japan. The leadership of the Democratic Party of Japan, having taken over from the deeply conservative long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party on pledges to get rid of U.S. forces here, has just about abandoned the idea.
The hot air of getting the Americans out of bases they have occupied since annihilating the island’s Japanese defenders in a three-month battle 67 years ago began blowing downwind while China asserted its claim on the Senkaku Islands to the south.
Now that the Chinese have staked out a sphere of influence from the Yellow Sea to the South China Sea, no one’s quite sure how to respond. The North Koreans added fuel to the fire by torpedoing the Cheonan in the Yellow Sea more than two years ago and shelling Yeonpyeong Island eight months later. Then came last month’s North Korean missile test and fears the North will conduct a third underground nuclear test.
Against this background, Japan Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s pledge on Tuesday, the 40th anniversary of the ``reversion” of Okinawa from American to Japanese control, had a hollow sound. Sure, the government would remove much of the defense burden from this beautiful semi-tropical isle, home to three-quarters of the U.S. bases and half the 47,000 U.S. troops in Japan. No, U.S. Marines will not stay forever at the Futenma base a few minutes’ drive from where he was talking at an official celebration in a convention center.
In the hours before Noda spoke, a couple hundred protesters staged a colorful rally in tiny Friendship Park down from the main gate of the base. The atmosphere was peaceful, and the turnout was small. Before the crowd dissipated in a sudden storm, the protest focused on plans for Marines to add the Osprey, a plane that lands and takes off like a helicopter but flies like a turbo-prop, to the aircraft already on base.
The noise all these planes make, and the danger they pose to nearby residents, is a burning issue to which there may be little chance of resolution despite a deal cooked up by the United States and Japan to build a new base in a far less populated area to the north. Nor does the prospect of transferring 9,000 Marines to bases elsewhere in the Pacific, from Australia to Guam to Hawaii, seem likely to placate the protesters. They say the Japanese government promised, when taking back Okinawa on May 15, 1972, and making it the country’s 47th prefecture, to do away with the U.S. bases. Instead U.S. forces here are stronger than ever in terms of equipment and mission, they allege, with no sign of relinquishing what protesters call ``American control.”
It’s one thing, though, to join the chorus demanding they leave and another to figure out what to do about the defense of the region. The same issues that face Americans and Japanese here confront Americans and Koreans in South Korea. People wonder if the Chinese would challenge the Japanese ever more forcefully in the Senkakus if the Americans were no longer around.
The positions of the Japanese and Koreans vis-à-vis the Americans differ, however, in crucial respects. The Americans came as conquerors here, destroying Japanese forces dedicated to fighting to the last man. The Americans did not ``conquer” South Korea. Rather, they saved Korea from the Japanese before going to war again to defend the South against invading North Koreans and Chinese.
In their fanaticism, the Japanese committed the war crime here of forcing hundreds of schoolgirls and boys to serve as nurses, orderlies and messengers during the battle. Rather than send them to relative safety when they knew the Americans were about to invade, they pressed these kids into service. Most of them were killed. As the end neared, a number were forced to follow the example of Japanese soldiers and commit suicide by blowing themselves up with grenades or jumping off cliffs into the rocky seas below.
It’s no wonder, while people here carry Japanese passports and speak Japanese, they don’t really see themselves as ``Japanese.” Some refer to people from the ``mainland” islands as ``the Japanese” as if to distinguish them from their own place as blood descendants of the kingdom of the Ryukyus, the island chain taken over by the Japanese in the 19th century.
For centuries Ryukyu kings ruled these islands, gradually ceding control to Japan before the final demise of their monarchy. Shuri Castle, the seat of their power, rebuilt from the rubble of the battle of Okinawa, is a stop on tourist routes in this sprawling prefectural capital along with the stone-walled labyrinth of the Japanese military headquarters where the Japanese commander and his staff killed themselves before the end. The tour guides neglect to say they would have been tried as war criminals for making local children serve them in battle had they been captured alive.
Demonstrators know, though, when they gather outside U.S. bases here, they’re protesting Japanese rule as well as American militarism. Koreans might appreciate the sentiment while shoring up their own defenses against forces to the west and north.
Donald Kirk, author and journalist, may be reached at email@example.com. His website is www.donaldkirk.com.