In Japan, Futenma Deal Reaches Breaking Point

by John D’Amico:

Nothing inspires more vitriol in the U.S.-Japan relationship than the relocation of the Futenma Marine base in Okinawa. Okinawans claim, not without basis, that the American presence has increased crime and pollution. From 1972 to 2009, U.S. servicemen perpetrated 1.7 percent of the crimes while comprising only 4 percent of the population.  High-profile cases included the 1995 rape of an Okinawan girl by three Marines and the death of one 19-year-old in a January 2011 traffic accident.  Crime serves as a focus point for Okinawan outrage over the presence of U.S. soldiers, who number over 20,000 strong on an island where U.S. bases consume one fifth of the available land. So to help alleviate the pressure of overall American presence, the U.S. agreed to move the Futenma base, located in the midst of a heavily populated area, to a more remote northern location around Henoko Bay.

Residents of Okinawa protest the continued U.S. military presence's negative environmental effects on their land. (Chris Davis/Flickr Creative Commons)

Though it has a GDP that ranks among the lowest of Japan’s prefectures, Okinawa regards the omnipresence of U.S. bases not as a boon to its ailing economy but instead as emblematic of its economic dependence. In the 1970s, the prefectural government initiated a movement away from the “base economy” to a more independent Okinawa through several restoration plans.  Tourism, one of the major pillars of these efforts towards a base-independent economy, relied and continues to rely on the beauty of Okinawa’s landscape: its beaches, coastlines, and coral reefs are notoriously picturesque.  Unfortunately for the fate of tourism, however, the U.S. presence—characterized by military drills, base construction, and general noise pollution—contributes to the degradation of natural beauty and inconveniences those who live in and travel to Okinawa.

Still, the U.S. military provides a key force for deterrence in a Japan stripped of offensive military capacity under treaty. The strategic significance of the bases in Okinawa endures as the rallying cry for those American and non-Okinawan Japanese who support their continued existence. The Okinawans, however, perceive the bases as an unfair burden imposed by a distant and apathetic mainland Japan.   As it is, three-fourths of all U.S. military structures in Japan are in Okinawa; many call for a more equal distribution of U.S. military presence across Japan. In the original 2005 agreement over the base, the U.S. agreed to move 8,000 troops from Japan to Guam.  The recent announcement of President Obama to position 2,500 troops in northern Australia, along with the previous agreement, both reflect a wider strategic repositioning of U.S. forces in the Pacific as the existence of bases in Okinawa becomes increasingly untenable.

Moving forward with the construction of the Futenma Replacement Base in Henoko Bay, the U.S. and Japan ran into criticism for the base’s effect on the nearby coral reefs and local endangered dugong populations. The Japanese government promised to send out a report detailing the environmental impact of the base, but it has yet to be released.  At a drinking session with members of the media this past Tuesday, Tanaka Satoshi of the Defense Ministry explained the report’s absence in this–rather crass–way: “When you are planning to rape someone, do you say, ‘I am going to rape you’ ahead of time?” A widespread outcry throughout Japan followed, and Tanaka was fired. A Japanese senior official stated in response, “Moving Futenma is now impossible, isn’t it?” His question is a sobering reflection on the political difficulties involved when local, national, and U.S. interests collide in Japan.

John D’Amico ’15 is in Pierson College. He is a Globalist Notebook Beat Blogger on topics relating to East Asian politics and culture. Contact him at