Karleen C. Chinen

In 1972, 27 years after the end of World War II and governance by a civil administration put in place by the United States government, Okinawa once again became a prefecture of Japan. The process was known as “reversion.” But the U.S. military presence on the island prefecture, which began with the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, did not end . . . and, in fact, continues to this day, 70 years later, much to the dismay of the Okinawan people.

An escalation of that dismay brought Okinawa governor Takeshi Onaga to Honolulu last month. Onaga, who has been in office for only six months, was en route to Washington, D.C., where he hoped to plead Okinawa’s case to U.S. government officials. Traveling with him was a delegation of 20, including the mayors of Nago and Naha cities, and working media from Japan and Okinawa. His itinerary in Honolulu included meetings with members of Hawai‘i’s congressional delegation; Gov. David Ige, Hawai‘i’s first governor of Okinawan ancestry; Consul General of Japan Toyoei Shigeeda and the membership of the Hawaii United Okinawa Association — all meetings aimed at calling attention to Okinawa’s latest base issue: the planned relocation of the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in central Okinawa to Camp Schwab in Henoko in northern Okinawa. Onaga also met with Hawai‘i reporters on May 28, where he spoke through his staff interpreter, Takao Aharen.

A Japanese Coast Guard vessel (left) confronts a boat carrying opponents of the resumption of a seabed-boring survey by the Okinawa Defense Bureau off Henoko in Nago in March. (Kyodo photo)
A Japanese Coast Guard vessel (left) confronts a boat carrying opponents of the resumption of a seabed-boring survey by the Okinawa Defense Bureau off Henoko in Nago in March. (Kyodo photo)

Onaga said he understands the importance of the U.S-Japan Security Alliance and said it is “unfortunate that we have to talk about the issue of U.S. military bases in Okinawa.”

The Okinawa base issue dates back to World War II. Under terms of the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty, governance of Okinawa was placed under the United States Civilian Administration Ryukyus (Okinawa), essentially leaving Okinawans as a people without a country, said Onaga.

“For those 27 years under the U.S. administration, Okinawa people were not Japanese people, and also not U.S. citizens, as well,” Onaga said.

He said the build-up of U.S. military bases began in those 27 years, without the consent of the Okinawan people.

“We didn’t offer our land. Our land was expropriated when Okinawan people were in concentration camps.” Okinawan civilians who were captured by or surrendered to U.S. servicemen in the Battle of Okinawa were temporarily housed in tent-structure “concentration camps.”

“The U.S. military excluded us, then constructed U.S. military bases,” Onaga said, “That was the starting point for how U.S. military bases developed.”

Although World War II ended 70 years ago, in many respects, it has not ended for the Okinawan people. “Still in Okinawa, 73.8 percent of facilities used by U.S. forces [in Japan] are concentrated in Okinawa, which accounts only for 0.6 percent of Japan’s total land mass.” Onaga noted that Okinawa island has a population of 1.4 million, but the U.S. military occupies 20 percent of its land.

Up until 20 or 30 years ago, revenue from the bases helped support Okinawa’s economy. That is no longer the case, Onaga said. He noted that in areas where U.S. military facilities were once situated and the lands had been returned to the prefecture, primarily in the southern and central areas, “redevelopment was very, very successful. There are many employment opportunities — 100 times more than when U.S. military bases were located [there],” Onaga said.

“Japan says by putting most of the bases in Okinawa, they will defend Japan in this way,” Onaga said. “However, I don’t think it’s a reasonable way of sharing the burden. We think the U.S. military bases in Japan should be equally shared as a whole,” he emphasized.

Onaga believes the U.S.-Japan security arrangement needs to be revisited. “We have to say, ‘There are so many bases in Okinawa,’ so I have to raise up the issue. That is why I have to go to Washington, D.C.”

The presence of U.S. military bases on Japan’s southernmost prefecture has been a sore spot between Okinawa and Japan’s National Government for decades. Onaga was not the first Okinawan governor who felt compelled to take the U.S. base issue to government officials in Washington. Masahide Ota, who lived through the Battle of Okinawa and served as governor from 1990 to 1998, was the first governor to visit Washington, asking that the bases be equally distributed within the rest of Japan. Ota made numerous trips to Washington to plead his prefecture’s case. For the most part, his pleas were ignored.

The base issue accelerated following then-U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s 2003 visit to Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in densely populated Ginowan City. Onaga said Rumsfeld called Futenma “the most dangerous place in the world” because the base was situated so close to the civilian population. In 2004, a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter crashed into Okinawa International University in Ginowan. Classes were not in session, so there were no human casualties. Residents have also complained about the loud noise from military aircraft flying overhead.

It was decided then that Futenma would be relocated to Camp Schwab in Henoko, which is part of Nago City in northern Okinawa. The base would be created through land reclamation, filling Oura Bay in Henoko with dirt upon which a V-shaped runway would be constructed.

The new plan, which the Japanese government approved, was opposed by Okinawans from the outset. They said it would damage Oura Bay’s fragile ocean environment.

“This is a beautiful water zone where there are dugongs living and there are beautiful coral reefs,” Onaga said. Besides the endangered dugong, there are also sea turtles in the planned reclamation area.

Despite Okinawa’s opposition, construction crews have begun work in the area, setting up an off-limits zone with ropes. Onaga said 45-ton concrete anchors are being dropped into the bay to hold the ropes in place. Onaga said Okinawans believe the anchors have crushed some of the coral reefs. According to Onaga, the Japanese government has resisted efforts by the Okinawa Prefectural Government to check on the effects of the work in the ocean.

Onaga said the Japanese government informed Okinawan officials that the reclamation work of filling soil into Oura Bay will begin by the end of July. He said some 600 10-ton trucks are scheduled to transport dirt to the bay daily.

Onaga is asking that the construction be halted and that all parties return to the table to discuss the future of the Futenma relocation.

Onaga said Okinawans are united in their opposition to the Henoko relocation, as evidenced by a May 17 rally in Naha, in which at least 35,000 people turned out to oppose the relocation to Henoko. Onaga said about 100 Okinawans go to Henoko every day to protest the construction.

He said the Henoko issue has solidified the Okinawan people around their Okinawan identity. Onaga believes Henoko and the ongoing base issues trump political affiliation. Onaga noted that his father and his older brother, as well the governor himself, all ran as candidates of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party. But Japan’s government has refused to listen to the concerns of his people.

“I thought that this issue should not be based on our ideology, because the situation now, with so many bases on Okinawa, is not appropriate. . . . We are united, regardless of whether we are reformists or conservatives. We are united as one,” he said. “Identity exceeds ideology,” Onaga added.

“We have to create Okinawa in a better position for our children and our sons (villages), so we have to solve the issue of the U.S. military bases.”

Onaga noted that over 200,000 lives were lost in the three-month-long Battle of Okinawa in 1945 — more than 100,000 Okinawan civilians, along with over 100,000 Japanese and U.S. military personnel.

“We cannot repeat such a tragic history. That’s why we are now united as one.” He said Okina-wans are united in their resolve that “we will not allow new construction of Henoko.”

He said, thus far, the U.S. government response is that Henoko “is a domestic issue in Japan, so therefore, they say we have to talk to the Japanese government.”

But the U.S. military bases are in Okinawa, Onaga argued. “Therefore, I don’t think the U.S. government can ignore this situation. And, what is more, if Henoko is not built, the U.S. has to be involved. They cannot continue to ignore the situation.” In the interest of bilateral relations between the U.S. and Japan, he said, the Okinawan base issue should be resolved.

Onaga said Okinawa is not against hosting U.S. military bases in the prefecture. “I will support hosting the U.S. military bases if they are equally shared [with the rest of Japan].” And, “I request that Futenma Air Station be relocated outside of Okinawa, not in Henoko.”

An internet search of U.S. military bases in Okinawa Prefecture turned up 15 bases (11 Marine Corps, two Army, one Air Force and one Navy), with eight bases located outside of Okinawa Prefecture (three Navy, two Air Force, two Marine Corps and one Army).

Onaga met a day earlier with U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono in her Honolulu office. He said that she told him she understands the situation, but that it is a matter to be discussed and resolved between Okinawa and Japan, and that the Japanese government should listen to Okinawa’s viewpoints.

Other options, including relocating a current base in Okinawa to another prefecture of Japan in return for going forward with the Henoko construction are not being considered by the Japanese government, said Onaga.

“Other parts of Japan will not accept any bases from Okinawa,” he said. “We cannot endure shouldering such a heavy burden,” Onaga reiterated.

While in Hawai‘i, Onaga paid a courtesy call on Consul General Toyoei Shigeeda, the Japanese government’s representative in Hawai‘i. Shigeeda said he told Onaga that his focus is on enhancing Hawai‘i-Okinawa relations.

He said Onaga explained Okinawa’s base dilemma to him during their meeting. However, Shigeeda said he told Onaga that the base issue isn’t one that can be discussed in Hawai‘i.

“There are some issues that I cannot comment on because I am a member of the Japanese government,” he told the Herald.

According to Shigeeda, Gov. Onaga did not ask him to speak to Japanese government officials on Onaga’s behalf.

During an earlier meeting with Okinawa Vice Gov. Mitsuo Agena, Shigeeda said he told Agena that the Henoko issue is “a matter to be discussed between the governments of Japan and the United States, inside of Japan, and Hawai‘i is not where it should be talked about.”

In Washington, Onaga met with U.S. Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. McCain’s office released a statement after the meeting, saying, “Today I had a friendly and respectful meeting with Governor Onaga. I expressed my appreciation for the people of Okinawa and my continued willingness to engage in constructive dialogue with the governor. At the same time, I expressed my ongoing support for the current plan to relocate U.S. Marines on Okinawa, to which the U.S. and the Government of Japan remain committed.”

Onaga also met with Joe Young, director of the State Department’s Office of Japanese Affairs, and Cara Abercrombie, acting deputy assistant secretary of defense. In a follow-up press release, they expressed “sincere appreciation to Okinawa for its vital contributions to the U.S.-Japan Alliance, the cornerstone of peace and stability in East Asia.” They also acknowledged that the presence of U.S. troops in Okinawa is “fundamental to our treaty commitment to the defense of Japan.” However, Young and Abercrombie emphasized that “the governments of the United States and Japan share an unwavering commitment to the construction of the Futenma Replacement Facility, the airfield at Camp Schwab.” They reiterated that the U.S. is committed to “maintaining good relations with the local communities on Okinawa, noting impact mitigation measures such as aviation training relocation, the relocation of the KC-130s to Iwakuni and the return of the West Futenma Housing Area.”


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