As Tokyo Cozies Up to Washington, Tensions Flare Over U.S. Military in Okinawa

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Toshifumi Kitamura / AFP / Getty Images

This picture taken on April 24, 2010 shows the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma base in Ginowan, Okinawa prefecture.

Some 100 demonstrators staged a sit-in at Okinawa’s government offices this week, incensed by what they called Tokyo’s “sneaky” tactics to keep a U.S. military base on the Japanese island. Sometime before dawn, federal employees had delivered several boxes to Okinawa’s prefectural headquarters, containing the environmental assessment report for relocating a U.S. marine base from a busy part of the island to a more remote location where it wouldn’t have as much impact on Okinawans’ daily life.

That’s the plan, anyway. The problem is that a sizable chunk of the island’s residents demand that the American military be removed altogether – not just removed from view. In 2006, Washington and Tokyo agreed that the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma would move to Camp Schwab, an existing U.S. base further north on the island. Once that happens, the U.S. has agreed to move some 8000 marines off Okinawa to the American territory of Guam.

The deal has been stalled for years due to Okinawans’ objections over the presence of the U.S. military. Roughly a quarter of the island’s civilian population was killed in the long and bloody Battle of Okinawa in World War II, and after the war ended, the island was under U.S. occupation until 1972, when it was handed back over to Japan.

Today Okinawa still hosts about half of America’s 50,000 military personnel in Japan – a burden activists say is unfair considering their history and relative population to mainland Japan. In the 1990s, the rape of a young girl by U.S. servicemen and two fatal car crashes involving U.S. personnel and Japanese civilians further fueled Okinawans’ anger toward the American presence. In 2010, protests over the base reached a crescendo when over 90,000 demonstrators showed up to oppose the relocation. The uprising eventually led to the resignation of then Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who had been elected in part on a promise to move the base off Okinawa, but ultimately found no mutually beneficial way to renegotiate Japan’s agreement with a vital economic and defense partner.

Despite the odd, pre-dawn delivery, the Okinawan government accepted the central government’s environmental impact report yesterday, further angering the demonstrators. As one elderly resident told the daily Asahi Shimbun: “I am just so mad. I don’t know what else to say.” He and other protestors are disappointed that their governor, who opposes the relocation of the base, has nonetheless agreed to consider the report and formally present his opinion on it early next year, per Japanese law.

This all comes at a bit of an awkward moment for Tokyo, which is gunning to strengthen security ties with the U.S. Last week, Japan bought 42 fighter jets from Lockheed Martin, a move that analysts say will not only boost bi-lateral goodwill but enable the Japanese to cooperate more seamlessly with the U.S. forces in a part of the world where everyone has one eye on China and the other on North Korea. Days later, the administration of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda also ended the nation’s decades-long ban on weapons exports, a move that the U.S. has been encouraging in order to pave the way to start selling jointly developed weapons systems to allies.

Tokyo’s decision to press ahead with the base issue is also part of this effort: In September, after the U.N. General Assembly meeting, Noda had a meeting with Obama, during which the U.S. President told him that, with regard to Futenma, the “time for a decision is near,” according to Forbes. In November, the leaders met a second time in Honolulu, and Noda assured Obama that progress was being made on the matter.

Will the U.S. lose patience? There are legitimate concerns on both sides of the Pacific that the Okinawa agreement is at serious risk of coming undone. Congress has yet to approve the funds for the  transfer of the marines to Guam, citing Okinawa’s objection to the base relocation as a problem. But the marines’ transfer is one of the big carrots to try to get Okinawans to agree to the base relocation; it’s hard to see a change of heart on the island without assurance from Washington that their troops will go. Still, last March, the U.S. replaced a senior U.S. diplomat who allegedly called the Okinawans “lazy” and “masters of extortion” and issued a formal apology after.  (The outrage in Japan over those comments was, however, short-lived; the diplomat left his post a day before the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.)

On Wednesday, U.S. Department of Defense press secretary George Little released a statement that the delivery of the environmental report signaled “significant progress.” But he also said the next step will be to get the local permit to reclaim land needed to build a new runway at Camp Schwab, the proposed relocation site. And the governor of Okinawa has repeatedly said he will not approve the landfill. And so it begins again.

Krista Mahr is a correspondent at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @kristamahr. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.