It’s a Shame Chalmers Johnson Did Not Live to See the U.S. Air Base on Okinawa Closed

Futenma, Okinawa(To left, U.S. air station Futenma in Okinawa.)

I contacted Chalmers Johnson last spring when we were putting together a coalition to oppose the relocation of the Futenma air base in Okinawa. Johnson, who died over the weekend, was best known for his book-length critiques of U.S. foreign policy (Blowback, The Sorrows of Empire, Nemesis, and this year’s Dismantling the Empire). But he began his career of scholarship with books on China and Japan, and in 1999 published an edited collection called Okinawa: Cold War Island.

Johnson graciously arranged to send a signed copy of the book on Okinawa to a congressman heading to Japan. And he agreed to pen an op-ed to coincide with the massive protest against the base relocation that took place in Okinawa on April 25. In the piece that my colleague Emily Schwartz Greco ultimately placed with The Los Angeles Times, he wrote:

The U.S. has become obsessed with maintaining our empire of military bases, which we cannot afford and which an increasing number of so-called host countries no longer want. I would strongly suggest that the United States climb off its high horse, move the Futenma Marines back to a base in the United States (such as Camp Pendleton, near where I live) and thank the Okinawans for their 65 years of forbearance.

Johnson was a realist. “Unfortunately, I’m not very optimistic that either the Obama administration or the Japanese will do anything about closing Futenma,” he wrote to me at the time. As it turned out, he was right. The Obama administration put maximum pressure on the Japanese government to abide by an earlier agreement to build a replacement facility on Okinawa. As a result, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama reversed his initial skeptical position on building a new base and then promptly resigned.

Two trends, however, may force both the United States and Japan to change their policy. In the United States, a veritable fever to cut the deficit has descended on Washington. The preliminary Deficit Commission report, released earlier this month, recommended a one-third cut in U.S. military bases overseas. Even conservatives such as Tom Coburn (R-OK) are willing to put the Pentagon budget on the chopping block.

Meanwhile, in Okinawa, two prominent figures are battling for the governorship of the island. Both incumbent Governor Hirokazu Nakaima and former Ginowan Mayor Yoichi Iha want Futenma closed and the replacement facility built somewhere other than the Okinawan prefecture. Iha, supported by the Social Democrats and Communists, has gone one step further: he doesn’t want the base in Japan at all. The election takes place next weekend. Given the sentiments of Okinawans – more than 80 percent oppose the current Tokyo-Washington relocation plan – the new governor of the island, whether Nakaima or Iha, will be a thorn in the side of the alliance.

Chalmers Johnson would no doubt have continued to be skeptical of change in the short term. No other Japanese prefecture is interested in another U.S. base. The Pentagon is pushing back against any substantial cuts and is not eager to reduce its overseas footprint. But, as I wrote back in spring for TomDispatch,

NIMBY movements may someday finally push the U.S. military out of Japan and off Okinawa. It’s not likely to be a smooth process, nor is it likely to happen any time soon. But the kanji is on the wall. Even if the Yankees don’t know what the Japanese characters mean, they can at least tell in which direction the exit arrow is pointing.

Chalmers Johnson explained the how and why of U.S. empire, and for that we all owe him an enormous debt of gratitude. It is a shame that he did not live long enough to see that empire dismantled. But in the work we do toward that goal, we honor his name and his work.