Spending 40 years together would be usually enough for any two people to understand each other’s feelings and pain.
But the Japanese mainland has failed to build such a relationship with Okinawa Prefecture, which marks the 40th anniversary of its reversion to Japan’s sovereignty on May 15.
In a joint survey conducted by The Asahi Shimbun and The Okinawa Times in April, 50 percent of residents in the southernmost prefecture said “discrimination by the mainland” is the reason why the scale of U.S. military bases in the prefecture remains unchanged.
Clearly, the problems behind this response should not be left unaddressed.
In 1952, when Japan restored its sovereignty, 90 percent of the U.S. military bases in the country were located on the mainland. As various functions and operations of these bases were relocated to Okinawa, which was under U.S. occupation, or consolidated within the mainland, 59 percent of the U.S. military facilities in Japan were in Okinawa at the time of its return to Japanese sovereignty.
Now, Okinawa is home to 74 percent of the American bases in Japan, a situation that is described as “Okinawa exists within bases.”
Over the years, the Japanese government has kept rubbing Okinawans the wrong way.
Symptomatic of the government’s attitude toward Okinawa is its insistence that the only effective solution to the question of the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, a U.S. base in a densely populated area of Ginowan that poses a threat to the safety of local residents, is to relocate it to a less crowded district in the city of Nago in the prefecture.
Why do we need U.S. Marines in Okinawa in the first place?
The government’s explanation is that the presence of American troops in Okinawa, whose vicinity to the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait makes it a point of strategic importance, acts as an effective deterrent.
But defense experts are divided over Okinawa’s strategic importance.
In recent years, some U.S. lawmakers have argued that there is no need to keep so many Marines in Okinawa.
The reasons cited for keeping U.S. forces in Okinawa have also changed over the past four decades. During the Cold War era, they were described as the bulwark against communism. Following the end of the Cold War, the fight against terrorism became the principal mission of the American forces.
Now, the U.S. military operations in the region are primarily aimed at responding to a possible contingency in the Korean Peninsula and the security threat posed by China’s military buildup.
From Okinawa’s point of view, however, all these rationales appear to be mere attempts to justify the presence of massive U.S. military installations in the prefecture.
The 40th anniversary of Okinawa’s reversion to Japan has provoked various arguments that consider the issue of U.S bases in the prefecture in the same context as the issue of nuclear power plants.
The Fukushima nuclear disaster has drawn the attention of many Japanese, who consume electricity generated at nuclear power plants, to the government’s energy policy.
The main beneficiaries of the security provided by the U.S. forces stationed in Okinawa are people living on Japan’s mainland.
No matter how strongly people in Okinawa, who account for only 1 percent of Japan’s population, call for serious responses to address the situation, however, the debate on the issue doesn’t attract much attention from the remaining 99 percent of the Japanese.
That’s because Japanese mainlanders have little interest in understanding the sufferings of Okinawans caused by U.S. bases in their cities and towns, such as living amid deafening noise and constant fears about possible accidents.
On the other hand, some people living in the mainland are very sensitive to any development concerning the disputed Senkaku Islands, a set of uninhabited islands belonging to Okinawa Prefecture.
This gap appears to symbolize the skewed views about national security shared by many Japanese.
Okinawa is bearing an unreasonably large portion of the burden for national security that cannot be compensated for by any economic policy support from the central government. And Japanese living on the mainland have forced Okinawa to keep bearing that burden.
It is time to change the security policy that ignores this grim reality.
--The Asahi Shimbun, May 15
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