This article is part of a weekly FPIF series on the Obama administration’s “Pacific Pivot,” which examines the implications of the U.S. military buildup in the Asia-Pacific—both for regional politics and for the so-called “host” communities. You can read Joseph Gerson’s introduction to the series here.
Peace and tranquillity never really seem to last long in Okinawa. Looking over the dark blue Pacific on a cloudy morning, an Okinawan fisherman will hear a steady drone emanating from the dark mass of cumulous cloud.
Then it appears, dropping out of the grey hue. It gets larger and louder. It’s a U.S. Air Force C-130 transport aircraft. As it thunders low over the island’s small houses, the deafening roar from four Rolls-Royce engines drowns out school teachers and rattles window panes. The behemoth descends to land at Kadena Airbase and calm is temporarily restored.
Having lived with a massive U.S. military presence for decades, the people of the southern Japanese island of Okinawa are becoming increasingly dismayed by the countless broken promises to remedy the accidents, noise pollution, and crimes committed by U.S. servicemen that have plagued the local population. The United States maintains Air Force, Marine Corps, Army, and Naval installations on Okinawa, covering 233 square kilometres of the main island—approximately 18 percent of its total territory. Therefore, residents seldom escape contact with up to 26,000 American troops stationed there, whether they are driving on the island’s streets or powering their way into the skies above.
The controversy reached a whole new level in 1995 when three U.S. servicemen gang-raped a 12-year-old girl. The crime remains well known throughout Japan and ratcheted up tension between the military in Okinawa and the local population, who called for the removal of all U.S. military installations. In 2004, a Marine Corps helicopter clipped a university building before crashing and exploding in a residential area. The three crewmembers escaped with their lives, but debris was strewn throughout the district. In the urban area of Ginowan, where the Marine Corps maintains an air base, any accident could have deadly ramifications for the civilian population.
Once isolated, the key airbases at Kadena and Futenma have exacerbated the problems posed by Okinawa’s massive urban sprawl. The areas surrounding the runways used to be green fields, but shops, houses, and busy streets have developed in a place where land has become priceless. The local population wants the Americans to move, but the amount of land available elsewhere is insufficient. The U.S. and Japanese governments have signed a deal to close down the base at Futenma and construct a new facility on reclaimed land in the northern part of the island, but this is progressing extremely slowly and has been dogged by local opposition in the north.
The Osprey Albatross
The latest talking point is the arrival at Futenma of six MV-22 Osprey aircraft, the first deployment of an eventual 24 expected to arrive by 2014. The Osprey is unique—its tilting rotor assemblies enable it to take off like a helicopter before cruising like a plane. The United States has claimed an urgent need to replace the Marine Corps’ aging, 1960s-vintage fleet of CH-46 transport helicopters in order to respond effectively to emerging threats within the Asia-Pacific region. While the U.S. military has hailed the Osprey as a quantum leap in capability, observers—including the people of Okinawa—have claimed that the aircraft is too unsafe for use at Futenma, which is surrounded by the dense city streets of Ginowan.
The Osprey’s safety record has certainly come under scrutiny, and it remains a controversial topic. During the aircraft’s testing phase between 1991 and 2000, there were four crashes with 30 fatalities. After the Osprey became operational in 2007, one crashed in Afghanistan in April 2010, and another crashed in Morocco in April 2012. Subsequent investigations concluded that the likely causes were human error, probably as a result of harsh desert conditions. Another Osprey crashed in Florida during training in June 2012, the cause of which is currently under investigation.
All new aircraft suffer teething problems, and a project as complicated as the Osprey has proved no exception. Glitches with computer software, engine compressor stalls, and hydraulic leaks have been progressively eliminated to make the Osprey a much safer aircraft. Although Tokyo has confirmed its satisfaction with Washington’s assurances over the aircraft, local campaigners remain skeptical.
In response to the deployment, a crowd of around 100 Okinawans appeared at the gates of Futenma airbase. A local TV station showed protesters chanting and unfurling banners in opposition to the aircraft’s arrival. Police forcibly removed activists staging a sit-in at the base’s main gate. Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima called the deployment is “disappointing and extremely regrettable.” He went on to state that the concerns of Okinawa’s residents should have been addressed before the Ospreys were dispatched to Futenma.
Immediately following the protests, the reputation of U.S. troops deteriorated even further with news emerging that two 23-year-old sailors had been arrested for the alleged rape of a Japanese woman. According to the Guardian, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, John Roos, strongly condemned the incident, stating that “the United States government is extremely concerned by recent allegations of misconduct by two individual United States service members. We are committed to co-operating fully with the Japanese authorities in their investigation. These allegations, given their seriousness, will continue to command my full personal attention.”
Governor Nakaima met with Japanese Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto in order to voice his concerns about the incident, calling it “extremely heinous and despicable,” according to the Kyodo news agency. The timing couldn’t have been much worse for the United States, and the island is quickly becoming a tinderbox of anger, frustration, and resentment.
Pivoting on a Tinderbox
Regardless of the outcome of the U.S. presidential election, the United States is going to consider Okinawa a vital strategic hub for the foreseeable future. Republican candidate Mitt Romney is intent on increasing military expenditures if he becomes president, while President Obama has confirmed that America’s foreign policy will be increasingly focused on the Pacific. However, the Obama administration has demonstrated its desire to improve the situation on Okinawa by signing an agreement to move up to 8,000 Marines off the island. They are expected to be redistributed to Guam, Hawaii, and Australia, although activists in each locale have expressed their own opposition.
The outrage shows no signs of waning, with Okinawans claiming their government is treating them like second-class citizens, breaking a promise to remove the U.S. military presence at Futenma. With the pace of Osprey operations increasing, so too is the catastrophic disparity between the U.S. military and the people of Okinawa.