Okinawa and Japan's national security NIMBYism
Prime Minister Kishida Fumio was in Okinawa over the weekend as Japan and the prefecture commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the reversion of Okinawa from the United States to Japan in 1972. It was Kishida’s first visit to the prefecture since becoming prime minister last year, and he marked the occasion with a visit to Okinawa’s Peace Memorial Park and a ceremony and participation in a ceremony on 15 May to commemorate the reversion.
Both Kishida and Okinawa Governor Tamaki Denny, a former opposition lawmaker who is a fierce opponent of the longstanding plan to close and replace the Futenma Marine Corps air station with a new air base on landfill in Henoko Bay, used the occasion to make their cases for changes to the status quo. Kishida touted efforts to “consolidate, integrate, and downsize” U.S. military facilities and free up land for economic development. Tamaki noted progress in narrowing the economic development gap between Okinawa and the mainland since reversion, but also stressed that ambitions to make Okinawa “an island of peace” have been frustrated.
The reasons for Tamaki’s – and many Okinawans’ – disappointment are easy to diagnose. Fifty years after reversion, Okinawa still hosts an overwhelming concentration of U.S. forces in Japan. According to Japanese government statistics, 31 of 76 facilities used exclusively by the USFJ are in the prefecture. In terms of area, USFJ facilities in Okinawa occupy 70.3% of the total area occupied by USFJ facilities in Japan as a whole, sitting on 8% of the prefecture’s land. The problem, of course, is not just land use, but also the negative externalities of hosting a disproportionate share of U.S. military personnel and their dependents:
• High levels of noise pollution from U.S. aircraft, which recently led an Okinawan court to order the Japanese government to pay damages to local residents;
• Periodic accidents involving U.S. aircraft on the island;
But as onerous as these burdens may be, the persistence of the Okinawan opposition to the bases may stem more from the sense that they have never had a say in whether to give over a sizable portion of their prefecture’s land to the U.S. military. During the 27 years of U.S. colonial rule, when U.S. authorities picked local leaders and otherwise interfered in local politics, Okinawans of course had no veto over how the U.S. military used Okinawan land. Meanwhile, the reversion agreement was negotiated by a national government more interest in regaining lost territory than fulfilling the aspirations of the prefecture’s people, and thus, to overcome the U.S. military’s opposition to reversion, accepted formal provisions guaranteeing continuing U.S. access to facilities in the prefecture and also a secret agreement that would enable the U.S. to reintroduce nuclear weapons to the prefecture in the event of a crisis.
After reversion, the national government has never been particularly eager to wage battles with local officials on the four main islands to help reduce the over-concentration of U.S. forces in Okinawa by hosting U.S. forces themselves. Japan was able to reassert its sovereignty over its prodigal prefecture, but its people have had limited recourse to make right the injustices that resulted from Okinawa’s victimization at the hands of the Imperial Japanese military during the Battle of Okinawa or U.S. military and civil authorities after the war. Okinawans, in short, have been the victims of path dependence and national security NIMBYism on the part of mainland Japanese. The bases were already there, far from core population centers, enabling Japan to continue to rely on the U.S. military for deterrence without attracting the highly visible anti-base mobilization of the 1950s and 1960s. It has been all too easy for most Japanese not to think about the price Okinawans have paid for hosting U.S. forces. (In a poll of Okinawans conducted by the Asahi Shimbun with the Okinawa Times and Ryukyu Shimpo on the occasion of the reversion anniversary, only 14% said that they thought mainland Japanese understand Okinawan matters.)
This arrangement may finally be coming to an end, not least for strategic reasons. While Okinawa’s proximity to Taiwan makes it an especially attractive site for U.S. and Japanese military assets, that same proximity would make it an attractive target for Chinese missiles in the event of war. Tanner Greer argued convincingly in Foreign Policy in 2019 that the over-concentration of U.S. forces in Okinawa and a handful of bases on the four main islands is a strategic vulnerability that should be rectified as soon as possible. But as Greer noted, it will require the exercise of political will – and quite likely the generous infusion of central government subsidies – to convince local governments to allow the U.S. military to use their airfields and other facilities, let alone to host missile defense systems or U.S. intermediate-range missiles.
Of course, thus far Japanese authorities have struggled to overcome national security NIMBYism. While there were multiple reasons for the cancellation of Japan’s acquisition to the Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense system in 2020, local opposition to hosting components of the system was clearly a factor. Meanwhile, a new RAND report by my former SPFUSA colleague Jeffrey Hornung convincingly shows that local opposition could similarly frustrate U.S. efforts to base as-yet-nonexistent U.S. intermediate-range missiles at Japanese facilities.
In the short life of this blog, I have already written extensively on how the politics of Japan’s national security are changing. In this new era, Japanese leaders must be more forthright about the threats facing Japan and how they propose to meet those threats in order to win support from local communities and the public at large. In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it has become increasingly common to see Japanese elites refer to Japan as a “frontline” (最前線) country. They need to be honest about what this means for the Japanese public, what roles Japan could be called upon to play in East Asian wars, and what impact those wars could have on the Japanese people. And they – as well as U.S. officials – need to prioritize democratic legitimacy for Japan’s national security policies. The public discussions needed to secure public consent for new policies and new deployments will not be easy, and could complicate how the bilateral alliance prepares for conflicts. But as Japan changes how it defends itself, for strategic and moral reasons, it is no longer sustainable to burden Okinawans disproportionately. After fifty years, it is time for Japan’s governments to invest in ensuring that all Japanese share the risks and costs of defending Japan.
Abe’s new cause (jp)? Relaxing Japan’s remaining pandemic control restrictions…Speculation continues (jp) about a possible resurrection of the old LDP mainstream, as Asō, Motegi, and Kishida have talked…Semiconductor production likely to be on the agenda (en) when Kishida and Biden meet this month…The U.S. nuclear umbrella will be as well (jp)…The two leaders could be (jp) dining together at Happo-en, an extensive garden in Shirokane-dai in Tokyo…Kishida explicitly calls (jp) for restarting offline nuclear reactors…Meanwhile, LDP Secretary-General Motegi attacks opposition parties for “unrealistic” stance towards nuclear energy…Scandals (jp) involving CDP lawmakers aren’t doing the party any favors ahead of the upper house elections…Seko Hiroshige, secretary-general of the LDP’s upper house caucus, noted (jp) that the government could have some difficulty passing all of its agenda before the legislative session ends on 15 June as it prepares to submit a supplement budget.
Check out this thread from Joe McReynolds on the legal framework that enables small businesses in Japan’s urban neighborhoods to thrive. I’m looking forward to reading his new book, Emergent Tokyo.
Paprika Girl @PaprikaGirl_JPToday on my morning walk to get fresh bread for breakfast, I passed a very tiny home bakery near my house. I love these tiny businesses in the suburbs that people run from their living rooms! I’ll be coming again. (The lemon pie is divine!) https://t.co/rX36M6pbCo