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Okinawa marks Reversion 40th Anniversary

Date Posted: 2012-05-18

Okinawa marked the 40th anniversary Tuesday of its return to Japanese administration on May 15, 1972.

The Japanese government and the Okinawa Prefectural Government held a ceremony Tuesday afternoon at the Okinawa Convention Center in Ginowan, where the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station is located. More than 1,200 were invited to the ceremony, including Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, Tatsuo Kawabata, minister in charge of Okinawa issues, Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima and Zenshin Takamine, head of the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly. Noda, Nakaima and U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos delivered speeches.

Meanwhile, 300 members of a citizens' group marched from a park in Naha to the prefectural government office in the Okinawa capital city, calling for the Futenma base to be moved out of Okinawa, which hosts three-fourths of U.S. military facilities in Japan. In front of Futenma MCAS, another civic group held a gathering to protest against the Japanese government's planned deployment of the U.S.-made MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft at the base. Ahead of the ceremony, Nakaima held talks with Noda in Ginowan, and submitted a set of measures that would be taken over the next 10 years to develop Okinawa. Noda expressed the government's intention to reduce Okinawa's base-hosting burden.

Once a bloody World War II battlefield, Japan's Okinawa Prefecture has remained a cornerstone of the global strategy of the United States even since its reversion to Japanese control in 1972. In recent years, with U.S. strategy geared toward dealing with an increasingly assertive China, the intractable issue of closing and relocating U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma has effectively been set aside as an impediment to the strategic position.

Following a bilateral agreement in April to rework the U.S. military realignment in Japan, while leaving behind the stalemated Futenma issue, Robert Scher, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Plans, was quoted as saying the accord "provides for a more 'politically sustainable' arrangement for basing U.S. troops in Japan." The remark suggests that U.S. military and political interests remain the priority over the wishes of the people of Okinawa.

On April 30th, following summit talks with visiting Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, U.S. President Barack Obama welcomed the agreement to revise the 2006 road map for the U.S. military realignment in Japan. "We think we've found an effective mechanism to move this process forward in a way that is respectful of the situation in Okinawa, the views of residents there,” Obama said, “but also is able to optimize the defense cooperation between our two countries and the alliance that's the linchpin not just of our own security but also security in the region as a whole.”

The agreement, announced four days before, calls for transferring 9,000 Marines from Okinawa to the U.S. territory of Guam and other Pacific locations such as Hawaii and Australia and delinking these moves from the Futenma relocation issue. Under the accord, five American military facilities and areas in southern Okinawa will be returned to the prefecture. The redeployment of Marines is designed to set up a security posture that will have adequate depth and extent to deal with attacks from China, which has looked to move beyond the strategic line connecting Okinawa, Taiwan and the Philippines, introduced an aircraft carrier and promoted ballistic missile development.
Some 10,000 Marines and the command will remain in Okinawa. So will the U.S. Air Force's Kadena base, the largest air base in the Far East and a nagging source of noise pollution for nearby residents.

The United States is believed to have no plans for a complete pullout from Okinawa, where it receives Japanese government largesse of host-nation financial support for base upkeep costs. In the Cold War era, Okinawa was an important strategic point for the United States, with B-52 bombers taking off from the Kadena base. American soldiers were sent to war after training in Okinawa, while arms and other supplies were transported via the subtropical island prefecture. Okinawa also served as a base from which U.S. troops departed for the 1991 Gulf War and the war in Afghanistan from 2001. The importance of Okinawa remains and will remain the same, a senior U.S. military officer told the Japanese side during the latest realignment review process.

Okinawa's Wish Falls on Deaf Ears

Kurt Campbell, who played a key role in crafting and managing the Obama administration's policy toward Japan, trumpeted the new military realignment plan.
"We think it breaks a very long stalemate on Okinawa that has plagued our politics, that has clogged both of our systems," said Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. He was also involved in the landmark 1996 bilateral agreement to return the Futenma base site to Japan. In the 2006 road map, the transfer of Marines from Okinawa and the return of military facilities and areas in southern Okinawa was conditional on the relocation of the Futenma base.

More recently, however, Japan and the United States agreed to change course and go ahead with the first two irrespective of progress on Futenma. Consideration for the people of Okinawa was not the direct cause of the policy change. In the spring of 2011, the United States turned down a Japanese request for the return of military facilities and areas in southern Okinawa ahead of the Futenma relocation. But Washington made the abrupt about-face after Congress made clear it would not approve spending on Marine transfers to Guam without tangible progress on Futenma.

The U.S. government has quickly lost interest in the Futenma relocation after it was disconnected from the U.S. funding problem. A senior Pentagon official has called Futenma a domestic issue of Japan. With Japanese government officials increasingly resigned to the distant prospect of a breakthrough on the relocation issue, there are concerns that the controversial Futenma base will never be relocated, leaving the dangers associated with the base fixed in the host city of Ginowan.

Despite an outcry from local residents, the U.S. Marine Corps will deploy the MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft to Okinawa as early as July. The residents are concerned about the aircraft's safety following a series of fatal crashes during its development phase.

At a summit meeting in February 1996, then Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto first asked then U.S. President Bill Clinton for the return of the Futenma site. Since then, the Futenma relocation issue has been a consistent item on the agenda of Japan-U.S. summit talks. In a symbolic sign of change, however, the word "Futenma" was not uttered by Noda or Obama during their two-hour meeting last month.

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