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Okinawa and the U.S. military, post 1945


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By Lane Johnston

Okinawa has had a tumultuous history and a scattered identity throughout the twentieth century. As a Japanese territory before World War II, Okinawans did not ever fully adopted Japanese culture as their own. During WWII, Okinawa was a major location used in the U.S. military’s island-hopping towards mainland Japan. After the Battle of Okinawa concluded in June 1945, Okinawa was under control of the U.S. Navy. During the war, up to 160,000 Okinawan citizens, young and old, males and females, were sacrificed by the Japanese army or killed by U.S. military personnel in case they were spies for the Japanese side (Sarantakes 2000). This paved an immediately uncertain and distrustful relationship between Okinawans and the U.S. military in the years after WWII.

After the war, this relationship was further hindered by the fact that Okinawan farmland began to be appropriated by the U.S. military for the construction of naval and army bases (Bugni 1997). Sentiment between U.S. military based in Okinawa and the local Okinawans continued to be poor as a result of the increased military presence on the island. In the mind of the United States, Okinawa was located in a strategic position for a number of reasons. First, with the threat of communist expansion, increasing power of Soviet Russia and the nearby revolution in China during the early years of the Cold War, the U.S. wanted to maintain control and exert power over the Ryukyu Islands, including Okinawa, as a show of resistance to the communist movement (Sarantakes 2000). Then, in 1950 with the start of the Korean War, Okinawa again became a foothold for the U.S. in Asia to help their South Korean allies, resulting in more land seizures for military base expansion on the island (Sarantakes 2000). For these reasons, as well as others, Okinawa’s role as a stepping-stone into Asia for the U.S. military continued, just as it had during the final years of the World War II.

During this time, the United States Civil Administration of the Ryukyu Islands (USCAR) had replaced the direct military control of Okinawa (Aldous 2003). After the signing of the Treaty of Peace in 1951 by Japan and the U.S., Okinawa became a territory of the United States (Onishi 2012). Despite this, Japan still held “residual sovereignty” over Okinawa, causing Okinawans to be considered neither U.S. citizens nor Japanese citizens (Onishi 2012). This undoubtedly put additional strain on the Okinawan identity during the years post WWII: an identity that had not fully incorporated Japanese culture into their own even before the war.

The interaction between Japanese and American cultures was tangled from 1945 to 1972. The control that the U.S. held was manifested in the U.S. dollar as the official currency, and Okinawans were required to hold travel permits to go to mainland Japan. Even the display of the Japanese flag was prohibited (Aldous 2003). Nonetheless, Japanese was the language taught in schools and used in daily life (Aldous 2003). U.S. military troops and their families continued to be stationed on the island during the 1950s and 60s, increasing the presence of U.S. military bases on Okinawa. The military bases were (and continue to be) used for testing and storage of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons as well as aircraft and naval equipment fused by the military personnel stationed there. In 1959, Okinawan sentiment towards U.S. military worsened after a U.S. fighter plane crashed into an elementary school during a test flight (Close The Base 2011). Furthermore, many Okinawans were living in impoverished conditions as a result of either loosing their land, and therefore livelihoods, or due to a lack of food and the fact that basic standards of living were not being met (Feifer 2000). As a result, the years Okinawa was under the exclusive control of the U.S. military were unpleasant ones for the people of the island.

Figure 1: Protest at Kadena Air Base: In 1987, a protest outside of the Kadena Air Base comprised of 24,000 people as a human chain demanding for the closure of the base. Okinawan resentment increased as U.S. military bases we not reduced following Okinawa’s return to Japanese control.

Figure 1: Protest at Kadena Air Base: In 1987, a protest outside of the Kadena Air Base comprised of 24,000 people as a human chain demanding for the closure of the base. Okinawan resentment increased as U.S. military bases we not reduced following Okinawa’s return to Japanese control.

In 1969, the U.S. and Japan came to an agreement to return the island of Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty and in 1972 Okinawa formally rejoined Japan (Aldous 2003). In the years leading up to 1972, Okinawans wanted to return to Japanese control because the Japanese economy was growing a good rate, especially in comparison to the Okinawan economy, which had stagnated as a result of U.S. military base expansion (Aldous 2003). In addition to the increased livelihood expected by the rejoining of Okinawa to Japan, it was thought that U.S. military bases would begin to diminish and even perhaps disappear on the island (Feifer 2000). Instead, Japan allowed the U.S. to continue to exercise their large military presence on Okinawa and livelihoods of Okinawans did not dramatically improve, nor did the relationship between Okinawans and U.S. military personnel improve (Feifer 2000).

During this time, crime, noise, occupation of appropriated lands and military presence continued to be major problems for residents of Okinawa. Fortunately, the livelihoods of Okinawans began to improve slightly as increased financial assistance from the Japanese government went to Okinawans to improve infrastructure on the island (Sarantakes 2000). Additionally, Okinawa’s tourist industry began to market the natural resources of the island, including the beautiful beaches, coral reefs and mangrove swamps (Sarantakes 2000). These natural resources continue to draw tourists from across the globe today.

The relationship between the U.S. military and Okinawans is still poor today, in large part due to problems that result from having aircraft bases located on the island. Not only is noise a major problem for Okinawans living near the air bases, but also airstrips are still built over some of the most arable land on the island (Feifer 2000). According to the Okinawan Prefectural Government, U.S. military forces take up 18.4% of the land area of Okinawa, which is an immense portion on an island that is a third the size of Rhode Island (Okinawa Prefecture 2013).

Figure 2: U.S. Base Locations on Okinawa: Location of military bases used by U.S. Forces on Okinawa, including water-training grounds.

Figure 2: U.S. Base Locations on Okinawa: Location of military bases used by U.S. Forces on Okinawa, including water-training grounds.

The huge U.S. military presence continues to cause friction between Okinawans and military personnel. Additionally, despite being under Japanese control, U.S. military bases are not being reduced despite promises to do just that. Furthermore since 1972, there have been a reported 116 military aircraft accidents, such as fires and crashes, according to Bugni, causing additional resentment toward the continued occupation of Okinawa by U.S. military bases and personnel (1997).

There are numerous environmental impacts the U.S. bases are having on Okinawa. Noise produced during firing exercises has lead to forest fires, soil erosion and earth tremors on the island (Bugni 1997). The loud sound produced by military aircrafts also has caused loss of hearing and fatigue to the Okinawans living near the base (Bugni 1997). Furthermore water pollution problems occur frequently on the base and neighboring areas as raw sewage and oil are leaked into the water systems (Bugni 1997). Unquestionably it can be seen that the U.S. military bases on Okinawa are having impacts that go beyond the physical use of the land for the bases, including social, economic and environmental issues.

According to the article published in 1997 by Bugni, Okinawa “adopted the Cosmopolitan City Formation Concept” which states that Okinawa will be an area that contributes to the social and cultural development of Japan by the year 2015 (1997). In order for this to occur, U.S. military base land on the island must be reduced in order to allow for the economic development of the lands by Okinawans, as well as a continued development of the unique culture found on the island. The Okinawan government proposed a Base Return Action Program, which has laid out a three-phase plan to remove U.S. military bases from Okinawa (Bugni 1997). Part of these agreements being formed by the Japanese and American government include the moving of U.S. military bases to other places in Japan, but there are difficulties in finding areas that are interested in having a military base relocated to it (Bugni 1997). For Okinawa this could mean a two billion dollar loss to the island’s economy, but projects have been proposed to increase tourism as a main supplement to Okinawa’s economy (Bugni 1997). And still today similar proposals are still being discussed. A New York Times article posted this past April by Martin Fackler states that military bases and runways on Okinawa are to be moved to mainland Japan as well the U.S. Marines to bases in Guam, Hawaii and Australia as early as 2022 (2013). Any effort to mitigate the U.S. military’s impact on the Okinawan economy, society and environment will require the reduction in these bases and their subsequent activities.

The U.S. plans to move some of the troops stationed on Okinawa to other areas in the Asia-Pacific Rim, including Guam and Australia (Liebert 2013). Simply moving the Air Base to another area on Okinawa will not fix the problems of noise pollution, accident risk and environmental damage caused by reclaiming new land for the military base (Nakaima 2012). The current stagnation in removing U.S. military bases on the island of Okinawa continues to put immense strain on the relationship between Okinawans and U.S. military stationed there. Furthermore, the lack of initiation that the Japanese government has shown in attempting to relocate some of the U.S. military bases to other areas of Japan has undoubtedly dismayed many of the local Okinawans. Hopefully the future of Okinawa will improve with a reduction in U.S. military presence on the island, but with the growing power of China and other Asian nations, a notable reduction of U.S. military on Okinawa will likely not occur for many more years.

About the Author: Lane Johnston is a Junior at the University of Southern California, majoring in Environmental Studies with a minor in International Relations.

References:

Aldous, C (2003) Achieving Reversion: Protest and Authority in Okinawa, 1952-70. Modern Asian Studies 37:2, 485-508.

Bugni, T (1997) Continued Invasion: Assessing the United States Military Presence on Okinawa through 1996. Suffolk Transnat’l L Rev. 21: 85- 112.

Close the Base (2011) Okinawa Prefecture art exhibition memorializing victims of the June 30, 1959 U.S. military jet crash into Miyamori Elementary School. <http://closethebase.org/2011/06/30/okinawa-prefecture-art-exhibition-memorializing-victims-of-the-june-30-1959-u-s-military-jet-crash-into-miyamori-elementary-school/.> Viewed Mar 24th 2013.

Fackler, M (2013) U.S. and Japan Agree on Returning Okinawa Land. The New York Times. < http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/06/world/asia/us-and-japan-reach-deal-on-returning-okinawa-land.html?_r=0> Viewed May 21st 2013.

Feifer, G (2000) The Rape of Okinawa. World Policy Journal 17:3. 33-40.

Liebert, L (2013). Japan’s Move to Relocate Okinawa Base Welcomed by U.S. Blomberg.com. < http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-03-22/japan-s-move-to-relocate-okinawa-base-welcomed-by-u-s-.html> Viewed Mar 24th 2013.

Nakaima, H (2012) Landfill for U.S. Base Will Destroy Environment: Okinawa Gov. Jiji Press English News Service.

Onishi, Y (2012) Occupied Okinawa on the Edge: On Being Okinawan in Hawai‘i and U.S. Colonialism toward Okinawa. American Quarterly. 64.4: 741- 761.

Okinawa Prefecture (2013) U.S. Military Issues. Okinawa Prefecture. <http://www.pref.okinawa.jp/site/chijiko/kichitai/25185.html>. Viewed Mar 25th 2013.

Sarantakes, N (2000). Keystone: the American occupation of Okinawa and U.S. – Japanese relations. Texas A&M University Press.

Stearns, P Ed. (2008) Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern World. Oxford Reference. Oxford University Press.

Tzeng M (2000) The Battle of Okinawa, 1945: Final Turning Point in the Pacific. The History Teacher 34: 95-118

Images: Top: From the Ryukyu Cultural Archives: Looking at Okinawa’s History through Images and Photographs. Originally from The Okinawa Times: http://rca.open.ed.jp/web_e/city-2001/his/index.html; Bottom: Source: Okinawa Prefecture. http://www.pref.okinawa.jp/site/chijiko/kichitai/25185.html

Editor’s note: Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife is offered as part of an experiential summer program offered to undergraduate students of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences through the Environmental Studies Program.   This course takes place on location at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island and throughout Micronesia. Students investigate important environmental issues such as ecologically sustainable development, fisheries management, protected-area planning and assessment, and human health issues. During the course of the program, the student team will dive and collect data to support conservation and management strategies to protect the fragile coral reefs of Guam and Palau in Micronesia.

Instructors for the course include Jim Haw, Director of the Environmental Studies Program in USC Dornsife, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies David Ginsburg, Lecturer Kristen Weiss, SCUBA instructor and volunteer in the USC Scientific Diving Program Tom Carr and USC Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies.

Previously in this series:

The 2013 Guam and Palau Expedition Begins
A New Faculty Member on the Team
An Analysis of Sargassum Horneri Ecosystem Impact
Marine Protected Areas and Catalina Island: Conserve, Maintain and Enrich
Northern Elephant Seals: Increasing Population, Decreasing Biodiversity
The Relationship Between the Economy and Tourism on Catalina Island
Guam and Palau 2013: New Recruits and New Experiences
Bringing War to the “Island of Peace” – The Fight for the Preservation of Jeju-do
Dreading the Dredging: Military Buildup on Guam and Implications for Marine Biodiversity in Apra Harbor
Is the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Doing Enough?
The Status of Fisheries in China: How deep will we have to dive to find the truth?
The Philippines and Spratly Islands: A Losing Battle
The Effects of Climate Change on Coral Reef Health
The Senkaku/Diaoyu Island Dispute in the East China Sea
The UNESCO World Heritage Site Selection Process
Before and After the Storm: The Impacts of Typhoon Bopha on Palauan Reefs
An interconnected environment and economy- Shark tourism in Palau
A Persistent Case of Diabetes Mellitus in Guam
Homo Denisova and Homo Floresiensis in Asia and the South Pacific
Investigating the Effectiveness of Marine Protected Areas in Mexico Using Actam Chuleb as a Primary Example

About the Author: Dr. Jim Haw is Ray R. Irani Professor of Chemistry and director of the Environmental Studies Program in the USC Dana and Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. He is also a scientific, technical and recreational diver.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. SimpleMind 2:47 pm 06/19/2013

    After the political agenda is excised from this piece where do I find the science and/or exploration?

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  2. 2. huntershoptaw 3:15 pm 06/19/2013

    @SimpleMind I agree. This reads more like a college paper than scientific literature. A good paper to be sure, but I don’t see the relevance to anything scientific.

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  3. 3. hobova 3:42 pm 06/19/2013

    Ms. Johnston’s paper is on an important topic and was interesting to read. The U.S. military has played a major role in Okinawa for a long time. The claim that the U.S. maintains chemical and biological weapons on Okinawa for the purposes of storage and testing is very questionable. The U.S. presence on Okinawa is largely painted in a negative light in the blog and the paper might benefit from more research on the positive aspects of the U.S. occupation and then presence, to include employment, public health and reconstruction, especially in the post war years. While many in Okinawa may understandably believe that the U.S. has long overstayed its “welcome,” it would be interesting to see objective polling data on the topic over the past 60 years.

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  4. 4. M Tucker 3:51 pm 06/19/2013

    I do not doubt that noise and environmental pollution are an enormous problem on Okinawa. You cannot have a large US military presence without it. It goes with the territory. With military flights and training the noise and environmental impact would be substantial. I imagine it has had a terrible impact and getting the US military out after all these years will not happen overnight. I seriously doubt that Japan wants an increased US presence as relations over the years have been problematic. It will take time.

    I would like to say that some aspects of our story seem to be purposely inflammatory. I think you have adequately made the case for downsizing or eliminating the US military presence without saying this, “The military bases were (and continue to be) used for testing and storage of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons…” You are saying that nuclear, biological and chemical weapons were TESTED on Okinawa and they continue to be tested there to this very day. For something as alarming as that you need examples. You need proof; otherwise you jeopardize the credibility of this article. I do not doubt the storage of nuclear weapons on Okinawa. I do seriously doubt that chemical weapons are currently being stored on Okinawa. Chemical weapons include a broad category. Perhaps Agent Orange was tested there at one time. But you cannot just make that statement without including more information. If deadly chemical or biological or nuclear weapons are being tested there NOW you need to be able to back that up. Extraordinary claims need extraordinary proof.

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  5. 5. jtdwyer 1:07 am 06/20/2013

    “Noise produced during firing exercises has lead to forest fires, soil erosion and earth tremors on the island (Bugni 1997).”

    I found the article interesting and certainly appreciate the environmental impact that mechanical noise can produce, but surely the above statement demands correction or some extensive additional explanation, despite the reference. Noise causing forest fires?

    Link to this
  6. 6. SimpleMind 2:42 pm 06/20/2013

    Exploring is good. Science is good. Political posturing isn’t. Scientific American debases itself by turning itself into a political action committee.

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