Reports of the rape and murder of a 20-year-old Okinawan woman, linked to an American military contractor, have renewed protests of American military presence in Okinawa, an island south of mainland Japan (1). Since the end of the Second World War, the United States has militarily occupied Okinawa through a chain of several bases. Today, roughly half of the 53,000 U.S. troops occupying Japan are located in Okinawa, which accounts for only 0.6 percent of Japan’s landmass (2). As Okinawa disproportionately shoulders the burden of an American military presence, opponents of this security arrangement argue that the time has come for Japan to revise its relationship with the U.S.
On May 23, Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga called upon Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to launch a review of the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) – a source of profound resentment among Okinawans against U.S. military presence. Among other provisions, SOFA restricts the ability of Japanese authorities to conduct criminal investigations and hold jurisdiction in cases concerning U.S. service personnel (3). Although no SOFA-related issue has arisen following the death of the 20-year-old Okinawan woman, Washington could have either refused or delayed the suspect’s transfer to Japanese authorities, if prefectural police had not arrested him first. According to the current status-of-forces agreement, Japan cannot detain a serviceman or civilian worker on a U.S. base. The 1995 rape of a 12-year-old girl by three U.S. servicemen in Okinawa illustrates this dissonance. Insulated by SOFA, the United States initially refused to hand over the three detained suspects to prefectural police who, according to the status-of-forces agreement, could not enter the U.S. base to arrest these men (4). In an attempt to mitigate the occurrence of atrocities, the U.S. military has instituted curfews and other restrictions, like the U.S. Navy’s ban on drinking in Okinawa. However, critics argue that such preventive measures are mere formalities. Real deterrence, they contend, will require a revised status-of-forces agreement that clearly outlines Japan’s ability to detain a serviceman or civilian worker at a U.S. base in Japan.
The most ardent revisionists insist that the most effective response to this violence is the complete removal of America’s military presence on Okinawa. In 1996, a bilateral agreement was signed between the U.S. and Japan that would relocate the Futenma base in an effort to relieve tensions in Okinawa. According to the agreement, the U.S. would transfer 8,000 to 10,000 Marines to bases in Guam and Hawaii by the end of the 2020s, after the relocation of Futenma scheduled for 2025. Debate over the relocation of Futenma has delayed the progress of this agreement (5). Tokyo wants to move Futenma to Henoko, a less populated area of Okinawa; however, Governor Onaga and his supporters want the base removed from the island altogether. Henoko residents, in particular, fear the environmental degradation such a move would cause in an area known for its pristine beaches and diverse ecosystem. Although the Japanese government has halted construction of the relocation site in order to resume talks with Okinawan authorities, Tokyo continues to strengthen its security ties to the United States (6). Chinese aggression in the East China Sea, closest to Okinawa, and the longstanding nuclear threat from North Korea have driven Tokyo to further shield itself under the U.S. security umbrella (7). As the Japanese government depends on the United States for such security, complete removal of America’s military presence on Okinawa remains a distant hope.
In order to effectively mitigate the myriad harms its military presence poses, the United States should make Japan’s defense the responsibility of Tokyo, not Washington. From 2004 to 2013, Japanese defense spending fell five percent. Moreover, Japan’s defense expenditures are a paltry one percent of its GDP, compared to around three percent in China, Japan’s primary adversary, and around 3.5 percent in the U.S., Japan’s primary benefactor (8). A lack of will, rather than a lack of funds, keeps Japan from military independence. By leaving Okinawa and forcing Japan to pursue greater autonomy, the U.S. can rest assured that security cooperation with Japan is not dependent upon its presence there. However, what follows – use of Okinawa’s bases by Japanese forces, the transfer of control to the Okinawan government or the return of land to private individuals – should be the decision of the Japanese (9).
(1) Soble, Jonathan. “Okinawa Murder Case Heightens Outcry Over U.S. Military’s Presence.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 04 June 2016. Web. 27 June 2016.
(2) Bandow, Doug. “Let’s Bring Troops Home From Okinawa: Japanese Should Decide Own Defense Future.” The World Post. The Huffington Post, 21 June 2016. Web. 27 June 2016.
(3) “EDITORIAL: Okinawa Leader Onaga Is Right: SOFA Needs a Sweeping Review.” The Asahi Shimbun. Asia and Japan Watch, 24 May 2016. Web. 27 June 2016.
(5) Goenka, Himanshu. “Japan To Halt US Okinawa Base Relocation Work But Government Says Plan Intact.” The International Business Times. IBT Media, 04 March 2016. Web. 27 June 2016.
(6) “Japan to Suspend Work on Relocating U.S. Base in Okinawa.” Reuters. Thomson Corporation, 04 March 2016. Web. 27 June 2016.
(7) Tatsumi, Yuki, and Mengjia Wan. “Don't Expect Too Much of Japan's Defense Reforms.” The Diplomat. Trans-Asia Inc., 09 Oct. 2015. Web. 27 June 2016.
(8) Bandow, Doug. “Let’s Bring Troops Home From Okinawa: Japanese Should Decide Own Defense Future.” The World Post. The Huffington Post, 21 June 2016. Web. 27 June 2016.
Image: © Videowokart | Dreamstime.com - <a href="https://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-photography-us-military-base-okinawa-image23021267#res14972580">US military base in Okinawa</a>