If you’re into planes, the hilltop park overlooking the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma is not a bad place to be. You can watch cargo planes make wide circles over the green hills of Okinawa all day, swooping down to the airfield below for a landing or practice drop, and lifting back up into the overcast winter sky. You can also get a pretty good idea of how the locals feel about those planes. A decidedly unsubtle placard at the overlook shows an aerial photo of the airstrip and the surrounding neighborhood rammed up against its fences. Every elementary school, kindergarten, hospital, elderly-care center, playground and religious institution within crashing distance is marked. Quite clearly. In English.
For years, residents in the Okinawan city of Ginowan have called for the Futenma air base to leave their neighborhood. And for years, residents near Camp Schwab, a more remote Marine base on the north of the island that the U.S. and Japan have agreed will absorb Futenma, have been protesting that too. The Okinawans’ standoff – fueled as much if not more by resentment of Tokyo than the U.S. – has been a major headache between Japan and the U.S. at a time when both sides are looking to strengthen security ties in the face of the looming specter of a stronger and more assertive China.
This week, something resembling a resolution — or at least a step forward in some direction — may be coming into focus. Japanese government sources told reporters that the U.S. and Japan had “reached a broad agreement” to transfer 4,700 Marines off Okinawa and move them to Guam. If it goes ahead, the move would be a revision to a 2006 bilateral agreement, known as the U.S.-Japan Realignment Road Map, which originally linked the transfer of 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam with the relocation of the contentious Futenma air base out of the crowded city of Ginowan.
The discussions are happening during meetings this week between the U.S. and Japan in Washington, and reports of the Marine transfer have not been confirmed or denied by the U.S. government. Commander Leslie Hull-Ryde, a Department of Defense spokesperson, said in a statement that “the United States and Japan are continuously looking for more efficient and effective ways to achieve the goals of the Realignment Road Map. However, no decisions have been made; therefore, there are no announcements to be made.” But the statement did affirm that “the two countries remain fully committed to the implementation of the Futenma Replacement Facility and the relocation of the MCAS Futenma air base to Camp Schwab.”
Japanese media are reporting that a joint announcement is on its way within the week. Whatever it is, it’s not going to go down well on Okinawa, despite the fact that many on the island have been fighting for the Marines and all other U.S. military members to leave the island for years. Why? By detaching the Marine relocation from the 2006 deal – part of the U.S. “pivot to Asia” strategy of installing more smaller and nimble forces around the Pacific from Hawaii to Darwin to Guam – Okinawans may have lost whatever bargaining chip they had left with Tokyo. The incentive to find a good solution to the Futenma relocation now comes down to good faith, which isn’t to say that the U.S. and Tokyo are not committed to making Okinawans, who were occupied by the U.S. until 1972, more comfortable with the arrangement. It’s just that Okinawans might not see it that way.
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While Guam, which has been waiting to receive the influx of Marines for years now, has for the most part been looking forward to the boom of a military buildup, Okinawans are fed up with hosting half the American forces in Japan. The U.S. military has exclusive access to 18% of island, and most of that is encircled in high fences and barbed wire, which, frankly, makes it feel like a lot more. Though islanders blame the worst atrocities they endured during World War II on the Imperial Army, their list of grievances with the U.S. military and its personnel is also long, running from daily nuisances like plane noise and drunk Marines ending up in their yards to fatal traffic accidents and sexual assault. The brutal kidnapping and rape of a 12-year-old girl by three U.S. service members led to massive protests in 1995 and, ultimately, laid the foundation of the agreement to move Futenma.
Mike Green, Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says although a “garrison mentality” that developed during the U.S. occupation “created a lot of resentment,” the military has been working hard to get its act together. “The crimes by American soldiers and Marines are way down,” Green says. “The safety records are way up. They have taken all these measures to reduce the impact.”
But for many, the deadlock in Okinawa is not as simple as finding the right place to move loud aircraft and rowdy 20-year-olds out of a crowded neighborhood. It’s about 70 years of feeling overlooked and abandoned by Tokyo. The island remains the poorest prefecture in Japan, with one of the highest unemployment rates, despite the oft touted economic benefits that the 26,000 American personnel and their families bring. “Okinawa was totally destroyed during the war,” says Susumu Matayoshi, director general of the Okinawa prefectural government. “Who started the war? Japan. During 30 years of [U.S.] occupation, while Japan was enjoying an industrial boom, Okinawa was left behind.”
It’s hard to see how Okinawans won’t interpret this week’s arrangement, whatever it turns out to be, as another deal made with the mainland’s interests at heart. Toshio Odo, a retired teacher out taking a morning walk along the fence near his house in Ginowan, points up at a plane coming in for a landing. “I can see the faces of the pilots from my house,” he says. When he was a boy, Odo says, he watched his friend killed in a hit-and-run accident. The driver, an American serviceman, got out of his car, threw a blanket over the dead boy, and drove off. “This was America then. We couldn’t do anything,” recalls Odo, now 63. “I’m not against Americans. I’m not against any nationality. But I am against people who treat us cheaply because they have power.”