For several months, the Japanese Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, has been seeking a solution to the uneasy co-existence of 47,000 US Marines with the local Japanese population of a small island in the Pacific.
Citing criminal behaviour, pollution and air craft crashes, Okinawa prefecture has called for help from the Japanese government in phasing out the huge US military presence on the island.
The previous Liberal Democrat government had agreed a deal with the US which would see some marines move off the island, but others stay. Hatoyama campaigned for last year’s election with a promise of shifting the entire base off Okinawa.
The first efforts at easing relations on Okinawa were made in 1995 after three US soldiers were found guilty of kidnapping and raping a 12 year old local school girl. Agreements were then made to return over 5,000 hectares of land to the islanders and relocation of live-fire artillery training over Prefectural Route 104 to mainland Japan and relocation of parachute drop training exercises at Yomitan Auxiliary Airfield to Ie jima Auxiliary Air field.
The Japanese Prime Minister promised to find a solution for Okinawans by May 31st 2010. That deadline now looms large over negotiations with the US.
On April 28th 2010, Kurt Campbell, the US Assistant Secretary for Asia and Pacific Affairs, met at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with Minister Umemoto, the director general of the North American Affairs Bureau, and Mr. Takamizawa, the director general for the Defense Policy Bureau at the Ministry of Defense. They discussed U.S. security cooperation, and Futenma was part of that discussion.
Philip J Crowley, the Assistant Secretary said at a daily press briefing on the same day that he didn’t think the two sides were coming closer together.
Over 90,000 Okinawans protested in April over the US base and all residents of other islands cited as possible alternative venues have also rallied against the homing of US troops on their territory.
The sheer size of US operations on Okinawa island hinders development of commerce, logistics and housing for the local population. Bush fires are caused by live-fire exercises and aircraft crashes also concern local residents.
In July 1998, a U.S. Marine UH-1N helicopter crashed within Camp Hansen. In April 1999, a CH-53E helicopter crashed in the waters off the Northern Training Area killing the four crew members on board. In addition, in June of the same year, an AV-8 Harrier crashed on the runway at Kadena Air Base.
According to Okinawa prefecture, there have been 5,076 cases of crime caused by SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) people since the reversion of Okinawa to mainland Japan in 1972, after 27 years of US rule. This includes 955 cases of assaults. (These figures are only to 2003).
There are also a number of unexploded shells at Camp Hansen which will take time and money to clear, should the land be returned to Okinawa.
There are 50,000 US soldiers on Okinawa, but taken together with civilian employees, dependents and other associated SOFA status people, the number is closer to 100,000 next to a population of 1.3 million locals. That means around one in 13 people on the island is connected to the US military.
Okinawa is a strategic base for protecting Taiwan and launching potential action against China. US nuclear weapons have been stationed on Okinawa and Shanghai is just one and half hours away by airplane. Under these circumstances it is unlikely that the US will be willing to scale down its operations.