Okinawa Airport

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TOKYO- The national elections have come and gone and the DPJ (Democratic Party of Japan) has taken a serious hit in the polls. This has left Prime Minister Naoto Kan in a very precarious position in regards to his stance on raising the consumption tax to combat Japans immense national debt, his own ability to effectively push through legislation with a drastically weakened body of support and his commitment to the Obama administration, to reposition as opposed to totally remove, the highly controversial Futenma Marine Corps Air Station from Okinawa Japan.

Where is Futenma, what is it?

Located in the middle of Ginowan city on the Island of Okinawa,

Marine Corps Air Station, Futenma began in 1945 as a bomber base. Construction of hangars and barracks began in 1958. The airfield was commissioned as a “Marine Corps Air Facility” in 1960 and became an Air Station in 1976. The Air Station is home to approximately 4,000 Marines and Sailors. It is capable of supporting most aircraft and serves as the base for Marine Aircraft Group 36, Marine Air Control Group 18, and Marine Wing Support Squadron 172. The Air Station provides support for the III Marine Expeditionary Force and for Marine Corps Base, Camp Butler.

More than 3,200 Marines are stationed at Futenma, which covers about 480 hectares and includes a 2,800-meter-long and 46-meter-wide runway. The installation is a critical component of the Marine Corps’ forward deployment because it is the home base of the 1st Marine Air Wing. The Wing’s primary mission is to participate as the air component of the III Marine Expeditionary Force. The wing’s Marine Air Group-36 provides tactical fixed and rotary wing aircraft and flies about 70 aircraft, including CH-46 and CH-53 helicopters and KC-130 aerial refueling airplanes.

What has Prime Minister Kan agreed to support?

PM Kan has vowed to keep his job and unlike so many other Japanese Prime Ministers, not give up and step down when things get hard. If he truly hopes to do this, he has his hands very full indeed. His predecessor, former PM Yukio Hatoyama stepped down suddenly when he realized that he was unable to keep his initial promises regarding the Futenma MCAS and his assurances that it would be completely removed from the island of Okinawa.

Public pressure to have the base and corresponding personnel removed is immense and it has become a national hot point in recent months yet again. Prime Minister Kan however, has assured the Obama administration that he will support the air stations relocation as opposed to its removal from Okinawa.

PM Kan has agreed to the relocation, as of May 27th, of Futenma MCAS from the area of Ginowan city to the Camp Schwab Henoko-saki area and adjacent waters. This would involve a massive amount of construction including “land reclamation” or building over the water. It is also clear that this endeavor would seriously damage the enviroment in the surrounding area including a spectacular coral reef located near Camp Schwab.

Why the controversy?

MCAS Futenma  is and has been a major obstacle for developing infrastructure to the city of Ginowan and its residents for years.

The airfield covers about 1,187 acres and is located in the middle of the small city of Ginowan (New Yorks central park by contrast is only 843 acres). Everything critical to a developing urban area: roads, sewers, water mains all have to be awkwardly and expensively rerouted around the base. Just for these reasons, many locals are left asking questions like “Why can’t they just move the base to the larger and more appropriate Kadena Air base?” This is a valid question, all the functions could be readily employed there and the Kadena base has more than enough room to accommodate the Futenma group. The answer seems to the average Okinawan absurd; inter service rivalries: Kadena air base is an AIR FORCE base and Futenma is a MARINE base, these facts make combining these bases inconceivable to the Military there.

Helicopters take off during all hours of the day and night. The “Whoop whoop whoop” of rotor blades chopping air from a CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter is not something that the average person easily sleeps through. Aircraft fly so low over the civilian buildings that the city itself is not allowed to build a structure over XXXX height for fear of some aircraft smashing into it.

The fear of aircraft crashing is in fact very real and something that is largely ignored or played down by the United States Government, the Military, the Japanese Government in Tokyo and the US Media. The Wall street journal callously stated in a recent article that….

The agreement calls for the U.S. to move 8,000 Marines to Guam by 2014 and to shift part of an existing Okinawa helicopter facility to a rural part of the island from a densely populated area. The aim is to diminish local hostility to the Marine presence, which has been stoked by a rape case and a helicopter crash.

A rape case and a helicopter crash.

To date, there have been 41 helicopter crashes in Okinawa since the island regained its sovereignty from the United states in 1972. Considering this, it is unlikely that the local hostility is based simply on a singular helicopter crash. It is likely however that the lackadaisical language used in the WSJ article was meant to refer to an August 2004 incident in which a thirty-one year old CH53-D Sea Stallion Helicopter took off from MCAS Futenma and then subsequently crashed into the Main administration building of nearby Okinawa international university.

Amazingly, nobody was killed. The stabilizer from the helicopter broke off and fell in the street and it crashed, but thankfully, due to summer vacation, the building was empty. The clean up and response by the Marine Corps added immense fuel to the fire and further enraged local Okinawan’s and island authorities. Nobody, not the police, not the fire department, not even the mayor was allowed access to the grounds surrounding the crash. Yellow tape was put up with an English message warning everyone that there was “No Entry”. The university building was cleared, and, they even tried to stop local TV media from filming the crash site. The Marines used chain saws to cut down over fifty trees on Campus, without any sort of permission, scraped off the layer of top soil from the crash site and removed the wreckage back to the base.

This left the island outraged and justifiably so. Why the secrecy? That particular helicopter is old and the standard equipment on it is publicly accessible knowledge. It was being prepared for shipment to Iraq though, and it has been theorized that depleted uranium rounds were on board, something that is illegal in Japan. Whatever the reason, this particular crash, one of many, solidified the idea in the minds of many people that Futenma is the “Most dangerous military base on the planet” and that the American Occupation actually never ended.

Also mentioned in the WSJ’s drastically insufficient explanation was “a rape case”. This kind of language inflames people who know that in fact, there have been many such cases in Okinawa and will continue to be as long as The US military is there. Of course, the majority of violent crime in Okinawa is committed by the 400,000 Okinawan men within the designated age range effecting violent crime. The point to consider and remember is that the US military there is a guest and its continued presence a sore point, a point of continuous contention for anti-base activists so, it is literally necessary for all US forces on Okinawa to be perfect. This is something that likely will not occur.   The case the WSJ was likely referring to, was the highly politicized and horribly shocking abduction, beating and gang rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan school girl by two US Marines and one Sailor in 1995. This was followed by additional rape incidents and charges in 1999, 2001, 2006 and 2008. The 1995 rape was also proceeded by horrific incident after horrific incident since the occupation of the island in 1945.  Suzuyo Takasato of Okinawa Women Act Against Military Violence, explains:

Okinawa is a place where the armed forces have

learnt how to kill and hurt people in close proximity

to the local population for more than 60 years.

This situation breeds a structural violence, rather

than one that can be understood simply in terms of

the crimes of individual soldiers.

Okinawa reverted to Japanese administration in

1972 but the violence continued, and even became

more chronic. There were a number of rapes and

attempted rapes, as well as sexual abuse in public

areas and even a case where a private house was

invaded. The victims included a 10 year-old girl and

a 14 year-old girl.

These crimes particularly after 1995, garnered massive media attention and the consistency with which they occur and the US militaries immense shortcomings in properly dealing with them and the attention that accompany them have consistently and again, rightly, tarnished the USA’s image in Okinawa and the world.

The pain and controversy of these bases on Okinawa absolutely does not stop with regards to the United States and it’s actions. The Government of Japan and the leaders in Tokyo and in fact, the average Japanese citizen living in Japan have shown time and again that in reality, Okinawa is simply not terribly important to them. Out of site, out of mind.

70% of Americas military forces in Japan are located on Okinawa yet the islands entire population only accounts for about 1.3 percent of Japans total population. It is clear to anyone who looks at the situation that the Japanese enjoy, to some extent at least, having the American military security blanket but they do not want to deal with the American military on a day-to-day basis. This makes Okinawa an attractive alternative. The resorts that are so popular with well to do Japanese tourists coming to the island are also blessedly segregated from the areas that young US marines and airmen frequent.

Historically as well, Okinawa is not close friends with its bully of an older brother Japan. Okinawa has only been part of the country of Japan for 400 years. In addition to that, at the end of WW2 it is likely that many Okinawan people would have preferred an American presence to the Japanese option. 200,000 people died during the battle of Okinawa, at least half of them civilians. Many were killed by gun fire or explosions that originated from Japanese soldiers who were ordered to kill civilians as opposed to letting them surrender. Forced suicides occurred. Many of these memories are still very much alive in Okinawa among its people and the governments continuous disregard for the cries for help coming for those people fans flames that in conjunction with a growing and intense discontent for a foreign military force in their backyard could easily explain the current “controversy.”

Analysis and conclusions

Americas Military presence in Okinawa is not about protecting Japan. Japan has one of the most well-developed militaries in the world. In 2004 alone Japan spent 46 billion dollars on “defense”. The Japanese Military is 240,000 strong. Everyone constantly discusses how Japan has no Ballistic Missiles, yet, components developed for Japans space program could easily be adapted to fit the specific requirements of an ICBM (Inter Continental Ballistic Missile). Japan is not a militarily weak nation.

Regional security is often another component widely discussed in relation to troops in Okinawa, particularly the postioning there of  the 3rd Marine Expeditionary unit and its potential role in maintaining “order” in the region. If China was to move against Taiwan, the 3rd MEF would ideally jump into action however, since 2004 many units from the 3rd MEF have been deployed in such countries as Afghanistan, Iraq and Qatar, to name a few. What is left is a seriously diminished force if it is in fact meant to deal with a very competent and developed Chinese military.

It seems much more likely that maintaining the status quo and agreements made behind closed doors in Tokyo and Washington have much more to do with the state of the US military in Okinawa than the often allotted excuses. Shintaro Ishihara, the Mayor of Tokyo has made his opinions well-known and he claims that Japan is directly supporting American imperialism by allowing these bases to remain open in Okinawa.  Japan is a nation whose top 2% of the rich, ruling class have done very very well going hand in hand with the United States over the years.  It is unlikely that this “good ole boy” network would happily give up its connections and positions of power just to appease some people they do not even consider to be “real” Japanese, on a little poor island they never have to visit let alone try and raise a family on.

Whatever the true motivations, it is unlikely American forces will leave Okinawa any time soon.

This puts a very special strain on the people of Okinawa. Abandoned by their government, seemingly harassed and ignored by a foreign military power, the younger generation of Okinawans are being put to a choice. Allow a foreign military that you believe to be responsible for 60 years of repression further expand its control and desecration of your island home or do you begin to fight back more forcefully?

The government in Tokyo also is risking allowing the development of a more radical faction in the local Okinawan society to form by continually lying and scamming the people it is supposed to protect and represent.  Also, allowing the US the move forces to mainland Japan would be political suicide for anyone so it is clear this will not be occuring.  Imagine if a US helicopter crashed into Keio University (Japans Yale).  One can be certain every politician would be up in arms about the foreign militaries presence and changes would be affected.

The US military, despite modest efforts at supporting the community and improving relations with locals still parades around the island with an attitude of clear-cut supremacy and cultural ignorance.  This is seen easily and daily by the people that call Okinawa home and its effects simply cannot be ignored.

The US military does not need to leave Okinawa to fix this, not at a superficial level at least. Symbolically closing MCAS Futenma and relocating the majority of the operations to another area while conceding on several other smaller points of contention while making a genuine effort to appear earnest in attempts to reconcile with the Okinawan people would be enough to smooth these tensions over before they escalate to a level that all parties involved should hope to avoid. In addition, the National Government in Tokyo should promise smaller concessions and then quickly deliver said changes despite Okinawan insistence that the removal of the Futenma air station is the only possible answer. Making an effort, any effort and keeping promises, even if they are not the promises or efforts everyone is hoping for can go a very long way in Japan. At any rate it would be a far site better than the flat-out lies and empty promises, the ignorance and the overriding sense that nobody cares, which has been given to the Okinawan people thus far.

If you like this then, you should check out more from the “Myths of Japan” series:

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