The loud dispute over the future of the U.S. Marine Air Station at Futenma, Okinawa, is puzzling. Even U.S. officialdom agrees that this base causes enormous inconvenience to the residents of Ginowan city who are forced to live alongside. Plans to have it moved have been around for years. But to where?
Even the very reasonable proposal by Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada that the noisy helicopter base functions be moved to the vast U.S. air base at nearby Kadena is rejected. There are technical problems, it is claimed. Sources say the real problem is traditional U.S. Marine-Air Force antagonism: that the Air Force has yet to be reconciled to the idea that the originally sea-based marines should have air power also.
So Japan is thrown into base chaos simply because of an irrational U.S. military factional dispute?
Then there is the messy dispute over numbers and functions. Most also agree that there are too many U.S. troops based in Okinawa. In 2006, Japan and the U.S. prepared what they called a “Roadmap for Realignment,” with Japan promising to pay $6.1 billion to cover much of the cost of moving 8,000 of the Okinawa-based marine troops to Guam by 2014.
To satisfy the marine forces remaining in Okinawa it was proposed to build a new environment-destroying airport at Henoko in Nago Bay well to the north of Futenma. That construction is now on hold as Tokyo tries to deal with airport opponents. But the quota for the Okinawa-based marine force is only 18,000, and departures, mainly for service in Afghanistan, bring the total down heavily.
So an expensive, locally opposed airport must be built just for those remaining after the 8,000 have moved to Guam?
The Japanese Foreign Ministry says that it is mainly the marine command units that will be moved to Guam — that operational combat units will remain in Okinawa and will need the brand-new Henoko airport. But Japanese opponents of both the Henoko and Futenma airports say they have U.S. data that proves the Futenma-based operational units, including those noisy helicopters, were also supposed to move to Guam under the 2006 agreement. Yoichi Iha, mayor of long-suffering Ginowan, has visited military authorities in Guam and says he has confirmed the data.
Now we also have a U.S. environmental impact report issued in November 2009 that lists three combat or training units as moving to Guam so that Guam can become the key U.S. military base in the western Pacific. So why the Tokyo bureaucratic insistence that the Futenma combat units have to remain in Guam until an alternative base is prepared, ideally at Henoko?
The obfuscation continues. A Diet-based group of Okinawan and Social Democratic Party members has tried to follow up on Iha’s claims. But Japanese defense and Foreign Ministry officials summoned to group discussions insist blandly that the midsize helicopters that the mayor has confirmed as moving to Guam will in fact come from the U.S. Iwakuni base in Yamaguchi Prefecture rather than Futenma. But the officials refuse to show the documents that the group demands as proof. As one member of the committee put it to me, the bureaucrats have yet to realize that a new government is in power.
In theory, at least, Guam is where the Futenma marines should be based since their main task is training Southeast and South Asian defense forces, and Guam is better located for that. But both Tokyo and Washington now seem to insist that providing an alternative base — Henoko ideally — is a condition for closing that much-hated Futenma base. Maybe the need to supply troops and helicopters to Afghanistan has convinced them of Okinawa’s advantages.
For sticky fingers in the Japanese ministries involved, there is also the inviting prospect of being able to control the funds needed for a new base. For the U.S. military, a new base would be an attractive addition to its vast inventory of overseas bases since Okinawa offers a better lifestyle than isolated Guam. It also means access to the “sympathy budget” funds that Tokyo seems willing to keep on providing for U.S. bases in Japan.
In effect Tokyo, which says it needs the bases for its security, is picking up the tab to train U.S. troops for service in Afghanistan.
Why is Japan so generous? And why does it want those U.S. bases in the first place, with all the costs, problems and denial of sovereignty they seem to entail?
No other self-respecting Asian nation would be so tolerant. One theory says Tokyo really does believe it needs U.S. bases to counter alleged threats from North Korea and potentially from China, and it is happy to dump most of them on the long-suffering Okinawans. Another says it is part of the Japanese mentality: In international affairs, as in daily affairs, the Japanese dislike having to go it alone in the world.
As Australian scholar Gavan McCormack puts it, they may actually enjoy being a U.S. client state. Or that it is pure inertia: The 50-year-old Japan-U.S. alliance is now part of a Japanese psyche impervious to change. Yet another theory says it is more calculated: that Tokyo realizes it needs all the U.S. help it can get if it is to counter-balance Chinese influence in Asia.
Yet another says the web of U.S.-Japan military/industrial/bureaucratic corruption that we glimpse occasionally in the never-ending military equipment procurement scandals is now too deep to be exorcised.
Finally there’s the simple fact that U.S. foreign policy increasingly is being dictated by a Pentagon that has little respect for Japanese, let alone Okinawan, feelings. As recent article by George Packard in U.S. Foreign Affairs magazine puts it: “It is time for the White House and the State Department to reassert civilian control over U.S. policy toward Japan, especially over military matters.”
This article by Gregory Clark first appeared in the Japan Times and has been republished on this site with the author’s kind permission. Gregory Clark is vice-president of Akita International University and a former member of the Bank of Japan, Expert Consultative Committee.