As two U.S. Marine Corps aircraft soar above a pristine Pacific beach, a Japanese environmentalist on the shore worries that she may see many more of them very soon.
“I feel the vibration” when Marine aircraft pass overhead, says Anna Shimabukuro, 37. “I feel uncomfortable.”
She’s spent more than half her life fighting a proposal to place new Marine air strips near the village where she grew up on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa. Her side has thwarted the plan year after year.
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But the day when Marine planes land near her may be inching closer, with Tokyo and Washington insisting that the runways must be built. They plan to expand a base on the front lines of a standoff where traditional U.S. allies are guarding against China’s growing military might in the South and East China seas.
There’s no replacing for being close to where you need to be.
Marine Capt. Caleb Eames
The military urgency behind the plan, however, crashes against perennial local anxieties over the concentration of Marine forces the U.S. has kept on Okinawa since World War II.
“We don’t need bases that generate wars. I want to start the peace from Okinawa,” Shimabukuro said.
Now in its 19th year, the impasse is so entrenched that the U.S. is preparing to spend $145 million to improve an air base on Okinawa that has been marked for closure since 1996. The money will buy essential repairs to keep safe a fleet of 24 V-22 Osprey planes that cost about $60 million each, said Col. Peter Lee, the base’s commander.
His air base, Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, is known around Okinawa as “the most dangerous base in the world” because the city of Ginowan, with 96,000 people, surrounds it.
Some of Ginowan’s residents have feared Futenma since 2004, when one of its helicopters crashlanded at Okinawa International University. Outside the base’s gates, a group of white-haired protesters heckles Marines nearly every morning with signs declaring “No Osprey.”
Both countries want to close the base, but the only solution they’ve found to do so while retaining Marine combat power in the western Pacific centers on a plan to lay two runways in the coral-filled waters of Oura Bay.
That agreement sounds ideal in world capitals.
It would ease tension in the city around Futenma and allow the governments to build on land that’s already used by the Marines at an infantry base called Camp Schwab. That base sits next to Henoko village, which has a reputation as the most pro-military community on Okinawa.
But it’s a nonstarter on Okinawa, where daily protests are held outside Camp Schwab’s gates. They are reminders that local residents and international activists are willing to put their bodies on the line to protect the bay from a construction that would partially fill it.
“We never give up,” said Ooshiro Satoru, an Okinawa labor union leader who joined a protest outside Camp Schwab last summer on the eve of a typhoon’s expected landfall.
Okinawa voters made their wishes clear last year when they elected a wild-card governor named Takeshi Onaga to upend the already long-delayed pact.
Onaga has followed through on his pledge. He took his campaign to the United Nations, revoked a critical development permit and has slowed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to begin building the runways.
“I am determined to stop that new base construction using every possible and (legitimate) means,” Onaga said in a September address at the United Nations.
Neither side is budging. The government this month took Onaga to court, seeking to overturn his decision.
“I believe the relocation to (Camp Schwab) is the only solution,” Abe said after an August meeting with Onaga.
While many mainland Japanese officials and influentials say they recognize China as a potential threat to regional security and stability, even most conservative Okinawans do not believe a Chinese threat to Japan (or elsewhere) necessarily means a threat to Okinawa.
2006 diplomatic cable from the U.S. consulate on Okinawa that was published by WikiLeaks
The prime minister tried to pacify Onaga, pledging $2.4 billion in development aid for Okinawa projects. That tactic worked with Onaga’s predecessor, Hirokazu Nakaima, who withheld support for the Oura Bay runways until Tokyo sweetened development commitments.
With Onaga, experts aren’t sure yet whether he’ll change course.
“He just wants to make sure the runways are not built. His mind is made up. The prime minister’s mind is made up and the alliance’s mind is made up. Something has to give,” said Patrick Cronin, the director of the Asia-Pacific program at the Center for New American Security.
Onaga is mining a desire among Okinawans to defend their identity as distinct from mainland Japan.
Okinawans have their own language and commonly trace their history to the Ryukyu Kingdom, which stood as a separate political entity from Japan until the 17th century.
The people of Ryukyu were known to keep peaceful and prosperous relationships with both Japan and China. That history continues to shape their perspectives during today’s conflicts between Tokyo and Beijing.
In some cases, Okinawans maintain that they trust Beijing more than their own government in Tokyo. That feeling shapes their perceptions of China’s attempts to muscle into waters claimed by Japan in the nearby East China Sea, according to a 2006 diplomatic cable from the U.S. consulate on Okinawa that was published by WikiLeaks.
“While many mainland Japanese officials and influentials say they recognize China as a potential threat to regional security and stability, even most conservative Okinawans do not believe a Chinese threat to Japan (or elsewhere) necessarily means a threat to Okinawa,” the cable says.
Today’s dynamic was cemented during World War II, when the Japanese military dragged out fighting on Okinawa against American Marines and soldiers over three bloody months in the summer of 1945. More than 200,000 people died in the battle, with some natives killing themselves rather than allowing their families to be captured by American forces.
The war’s aftermath nurtured a feeling among Okinawans that Tokyo had sacrificed them to delay an American invasion of Japan’s mainland. After the war, the U.S. governed Okinawa until 1972 – 20 years longer than it held on to the rest of Japan. The island became a launching pad for forces fighting in the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Military leaders consider it an invaluable location for strategic reasons, giving the Marines a launching pad for potential conflicts on the Korean Peninsula or in the seas on China’s borders. Troops from here have also responded to environmental disasters from Nepal to the Philippines.
“There’s no replacement for being close to where you need to be,” said Marine Capt. Caleb Eames, a military spokesman here.
I am determined to stop that new base construction using every possible and (legitimate) means.
Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga
Okinawa now hosts about 26,000 American military service members, more than half of the troops assigned to U.S. bases in Japan. Most are Marines. The island also is home to an Army special forces battalion and the Air Force’s largest combat wing, which flies out of Kadena Air Base with dozens of fighter jets and a handful of Navy surveillance planes.
Okinawans commonly describe the U.S. and Japanese military bases on their island as a burden they carry for their country.
They often cite a statistic that suggests their island is home to almost three-quarters of U.S. military facilities on Japan that are used exclusively by American forces, even though Okinawa holds less than 1 percent of Japan’s land.
Around the island, barbed-wire fences flanking both sides of four-lane roads are visible reminders of the military presence.
Outside the gates, Okinawans live in compact apartment buildings. Inside, rolling green lawns ring military buildings, just as they do at U.S. bases around the world.
“We are treated like a colony,” said a masked protester on an August morning outside of Futenma. He declined to give his name, implying that he had gotten in legal trouble for past protests.
For that burden, Japan’s central government in Tokyo reimburses Okinawans. Locals who own land that has been seized for military use are paid rent by the government. Tokyo also funds large developments near military communities, such as schools and sports facilities.
Washington and Tokyo have been trying to reduce some of the impacts of military training on the island, such as by moving exercises off Okinawa.
Young Marines are under tight restrictions on when they can drive or stay out off base after hours. The military has moved a squadron of loud refueling jets out of Futenma to a different base on mainland Japan, reducing noise complaints.
“We’re in a very sensitive environment. We’re just guests here,” said Col. Lee, the base commander.
Military and diplomatic leaders won’t say that they’re settling in to keep flying out of Futenma while giving up on the proposal to move aircraft to Oura Bay, but some people who’ve been watching the stalemate are drawing that conclusion.
They see too many obstacles that would prevent the proposed runways from being built, from local political opposition to a complicated construction plan that would take years to develop even if it goes perfectly.
“I don’t think it will ever happen. Does that mean Futenmna will stay where it is? Logically, yes,” said Robert Eldridge, a former political adviser to the Marine command on Okinawa and former professor at Osaka University.
We don’t need bases that generate wars. I want to start the peace from Okinawa.
Environmentalist Anna Shimabukuro
Outside Futenma, Ginowan residents sometimes warily watch Marine helicopters and Ospreys come and go. They say they fear that a military aircraft will crash into one of the schools or daycares within blocks of the base.
“I am worried every day about where and when another one is going to crash,” said Ginko Ueya, 61, who works at a daycare near the base. She had to walk past the smoldering wreckage of the helicopter to reach her home after the 2004 accident.
Her mayor is Atsushi Sakima, an ally of Prime Minister Abe. In one big way, Sakima’s office looks like the city he leads: Everything revolves around the Marine air base in the middle of town.
Two large maps of Marine Air Corps Station Futenma are built into the tables at the center of Sakima’s office, reminders that the base eats up a quarter of his city’s land.
Sakima said he’s noticed Futenma fading into the background of Japanese politics since Onaga took office and focused attention on Oura Bay. It troubles him, because it’s a sign to him that Futenma won’t close.
“It’s going to be the same problem in another 20 years. This base can’t be fixed here forever,” he said.
The TNT goes to East Asia
News Tribune military reporter Adam Ashton spent three weeks in Japan and Guam this summer on a McClatchy project exploring what President Obama has called the “Pacific pivot.” Ashton has also written extensively the last few years about how JBLM troops are part of the pivot, shifting much of their attention from Iraq and Afghanistan to East Asia partnerships.