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40 years from reversion Okinawa stuck with U.S. military burden

Date Posted: 2012-05-25

Although Tuesday marked the 40th anniversary of Okinawa's return to Japanese administration in 1972, the southernmost prefecture finds itself struggling under a continuing U.S. military presence it views as an unfair burden.

Some 74% of U.S. military facilities in Japan are in Okinawa, where they take up about 10% of the land. The prefecture was the only battlefield in the Asian nation that claimed civilian lives during ferocious fighting. While around 59% of U.S.-occupied land on Japan's mainland has been returned since the reversion, the figure stands at a mere 18% for the island prefecture--a linchpin of Tokyo's diplomatic and security policy, which centers on its alliance with Washington. With national security arguably built on the sacrifice of Okinawa, discontent lingers among local people.

"It's a problem that three-quarters of U.S. military facilities in Japan are concentrated in this small island," Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima told reporters last Wednesday.

The U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station in Ginowan City symbolizes the ongoing base problem in the prefecture. In 1996, the Japanese and American governments reached an agreement on the return of the Futenma station, which sits in a densely populated residential area and has been described as "the most dangerous U.S. base in the world."

But Okinawa's geopolitical importance seemed to give the two countries no option to move the base out of the prefecture. A bilateral deal was inked 10 years later to build an alternative facility in the Henoko coastal district in the northern Okinawa city of Nago.

The Democratic Party of Japan swept to power in the 2009 House of Representatives election after effectively pledging to relocate Futenma at least outside Okinawa. But this made the situation even worse. Then Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama sought to move the base to Tokunoshima Island, which belongs to Kagoshima Prefecture, the southwestern tip of the Japanese archipelago, only to backtrack soon afterward in the face of opposition from locals and Washington. The blunder further fueled anger among Okinawans, leaving the in-prefecture relocation plan in gridlock.

The United States rules out a transfer elsewhere because its defense strategies set Okinawa as the "cornerstone" of the Pacific, experts say. The Futenma station and the U.S. Air Force's Kadena Air Base, the largest air base in the Far East, served as crucial hubs during the Vietnam War and Iraq war. The prefecture remains strategically important today as China rapidly seeks to flex its military muscle in the Pacific.

Against this backdrop, the verdict on Japan's security policy has often been seen resting solely with Okinawa residents, with the base issue constantly placed at the center of debate in gubernatorial and other local elections. "I want the whole country to consider the security issue, not to force it on Okinawa alone," Governor Nakaima said, expressing his frustration.

The other side of the coin is that the U.S. military presence has played a role in supporting the local economy. In 1972, a total of 19,980 Okinawans were employed on U.S. bases, while military-linked revenue, including their salaries and fees to landowners, accounted for 15.6% of the total income earned by islanders.

Although the proportion has since fallen to around 5%, a total of 9,169 locals still worked on-base in 2011, making the U.S. military the second-largest employer in Okinawa, after the prefectural government.

Land revenue is pushed up by the relatively high ratio of private land used by the military. Whereas the state owns 87% of land used by American forces on the mainland, the figure stands at 35% in Okinawa, with private plots making up one third.

At the Futenma base, an overwhelming 92% belongs to private owners. "If Futenma and other bases are returned,” a former prefecture official says, “many will lose jobs and those who live on land fees will find it difficult to make ends meet."

The central government has established a series of special administrative zones in Okinawa to attract businesses from the mainland with preferential tax treatment, including a financial zone in July 2002. But these measures have so far failed to encourage companies to make full moves to Okinawa, with the prefecture still struggling with low incomes and high jobless rates. It remains to be seen how Japan and Okinawa will resolve the complex base issue, while at the same time balancing the much-desired return of military land with local economic development.

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