Okinawa: Old wounds, new battle

On Aug. 15, 1945, after being devastated by widespread suicide, war casualties and two nuclear detonations, Japan officially surrendered to the United States.

The Second World War was not easy for Japan. The island community of Okinawa remembers this well. The Battle of Okinawa, code-named Operation Iceberg, became the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific theatre.

The war memorial in Ginowan City is overcast by the Futenma Marine Corps Air Station. Captured in 1945, it has since housed 60 per cent of the American forces in Japan and their families.

As the decades passed, office buildings, apartments and commercial establishments have come to surround Futenma. At 92,000 residents, Ginowan is not a particularly large city. However, the daily bustle of transport planes, helicopters and screaming fighter jets overhead have begun to wear patience thin.

While successfully brokering peace in East Asia, Futenma needs to move; a statement that the Americans and Japanese can finally agree upon. However, not much else has united the two sides over this issue and tensions still burn.

The question of where the base will move to, how it will get there and how much it will cost still troubles both sides. On Jan. 12, U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton met with Japan’s foreign minister, Katsuya Okada, to discuss the issue. While promising not to let the dispute sour relations, the disagreement has reopened deep wounds.

Negotiations have stubbornly pressed on since 1996. After an incident involving three marines gang-raping a 12 year-old Okinawan girl caused great uproar in the community, the Japanese have opposed almost every attempt the U.S. has made to reconcile differences.

Nonetheless, Clinton has been firm in her proposal. She insists that Futenma be relocated within the island itself; a suggestion that has left Okinawans distraught.

Yukio Hatoyama, Japan’s newly elected prime minister, had vowed to personally oversee that Futenma be ousted from the island entirely, a promise made during his election campaign. That promise became the principle source of friction with the current Obama administration.

The Hatoyama administration, acting under the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), has continually refused to move the base to a bay in north-eastern Okinawa in exchange for the withdrawal of 8,000 marines.

Early in her diplomatic career, Clinton enacted a treaty with Japan’s former government, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). In order to relocate Futenma, the U.S. was demanding six billion USD. The Americans expected the Japanese to honour the request even after the new government, the DPJ, assumed power.

The style of relations practiced by the U.S. has been successful in securing 53 years of co-operation with the LDP. However, it is doubtful that the Hatoyama administration and the DPJ will stand for it.

In the early 1960s, the treaty of mutual co-operation and security yielded extremely favourable results. The Japanese offered the Americans military bases and cold cash in exchange for nuclear and non-nuclear American security. This helped to bolster peace. However, relations have cooled off over the past decade.

At the time, Junichiro Koizumi, Japan’s prime minister, had pledged his contribution to the war on terror following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Additionally, the U.S. had anticipated the emergence of a new Japan, one aligned to an active security agenda. To date, Japan has made no effort on either front.

Proponents of the security alliance have insisted that over the years, the ongoing U.S. presence has afforded the Japanese more than just peace. In fact, many argue that the U.S. occupation of the island nation has allowed the country to keep military spending at a minimum, instead permitting the government to direct efforts towards the economy and various commercial industries.

Others claim that Japan has grown subordinate to American interests.

Jan. 19 marked the 50th anniversary of the security treaty marking the alliance between Japan and the U.S. This marker presents a good opportunity to reopen talks. However, the wounds of the past have proven hard to forget and continue to hamper future reconciliation.

By the numbers

The total number of American troops based in Japan, most of whom reside on the island of Okinawa.

The number of years the Japanese-American security alliance has been in effect.

The number of days The Battle of Okinawa raged for in 1945.

The number of miles behind the island of Okinawa and mainland Japan.

The year that U.S. servicemen raped a 12 year-old Okinawa girl igniting mass demonstrations on the island.

The percentage of Okinawans who oppose the U.S. military’s presence on the island, according to a 2007 Okinawan Times poll