Japan: America & the Marginalization of Okinawa


Okinawa is a small island chain off the southern tip of Japan. Its population of 1.3 million comprises less than 2% of Japan’s total, while its area is .6 per cent of the nation’s. So why is it home to 62% of American military bases in Japan?

This is what it looks like to be 0.6% of the area

Known as the ‘keystone of the Pacific,’ Okinawa boasts easy access to China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and much of Southeast Asia. The bases are in part a remnant of the Cold War; US bases on the islands were used for troop-stationing and re-fueling during Vietnam.

Vietnam-era Okinawa was US-Occupied: while the US occupation of mainland Japan was officially dissolved in 1952, Okinawa remained under US control until 1972 when the US-Japan ‘reversion’ agreement returned it to Japan.

What’s left of America’s Okinawan occupation is the US-Japan Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which has kept the majority of US bases in Japan on the island. Crimes committed by US servicemen against Okinawans, noise-pollution from the bases, environmental issues, and a myriad of other complaints have led 80% of Okinawans to oppose the bases (as of 2013), yet little has been done to change the island’s situation.

The problem is three-fold: Okinawans bear the burden of being seen as irrelevant to the US military and second-class citizens to their own government. Meanwhile, the Japanese government is subordinate to that of the US, and therefore cannot even protect Okinawans when it might like to.

The US government prioritizes the military defense of an entire region over the frustrations of the people of a small island, and Okinawa remains the most strategic location for this defense. The US military therefore accepts the marginalization of Okinawa in the US-Japan Security Treaty through the disproportional number of bases on the island compared with the rest of Japan. Its disregard of the hardships of Okinawans is pragmatic: while Okinawa citizens stress what they have deemed the ‘human security’ of local residents over regional security, the US military insists that the security of Japan and Asia through these strategically located bases must trump the comfort of relatively few local residents.

The last King of Okinawa, Sho Tai

From a Japanese standpoint, Okinawans have long been perceived differently from other Japanese citizens: Okinawa was in fact a separate kingdom until Japan annexed it in 1879 and its people continue to speak a different dialect, eat different food, and practice different traditions. It is widely understood that the Japanese government allows US bases to impose on Okinawans far more than on mainland Japanese, in part because of their prejudices toward what retired University of Chicago professor Norma Field calls Okinawans’ “incomplete Japanese-ness.”

Finally, Okinawa suffers from the fact that the Japanese government is not on equal footing with the US. Japan Scholar Gavin McCormack has deemed Japan a “Client state” of the US, “structurally designed to attach priority to US over Japanese interests” such as the inclusion of extraterritoriality in SOFA, a policy that dates back to 19th century imperialism. In 2009, when Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama attempted to remove a US marine base from Okinawa, President Obama rebuffed Hatoyama, insisting that the US relocate the base rather than move it. Obama won out and Hatoyama resigned later that year. To many, the incident demonstrated that even when the Japanese government takes Okinawa struggles into its consideration its relationship with the US stands in its way. For both Japanese and American politicians, Okinawan sacrifices are regarded as a small price to pay.

Yukio and Miyuki Hatoyama meeting with Barack and Michelle at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2009


Sonia Schlesinger is a second-year in the College. She is from Washington, DC.

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