By Zofia Reych
Amid heavy protests, the Japanese government has revealed plans to conduct major maintenance work at the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on the southern island of Okinawa.
The initial government plan to relocate Futenma to a less prominent location within the island has ground to a halt due to local opposition, and the repair work is seen as necessary to keep the base operational.
Local authorities, backed by the majority of Okinawan population, resist the refurbishment of the base and are lobbying for the complete closure of the facility.
The semi-tropical prefecture of Okinawa, with its pristine beaches and primordial jungles, is a popular tourist destination for both domestic and international visitors, with tourism accounting for almost a fifth of the island’s annual income.
Until the early 17th century, Okinawa was independent from Japan, and after World War II it remained under the American occupation for two decades longer than the rest of the country. Its history, as well as the climate, contribute to a sense of otherness. For many, life here is slower than in mainland Japan and the inhabitants pride themselves on their unique customs.
Yet these are not the only differences between the Okinawans and the rest of the country, as many of the island’s inhabitants believe that the Japanese constitution does not protect their rights.
The presence of the US military causes problems ranging from ecological impact to road accidents involving drunk American soldiers. The latest case, a fatal stabbing of a 20-year old local woman and the subsequent arrest of a US serviceman, outraged the local community and added to the already strong anti-American sentiment. Up to 65 000 people took to the streets.
“We thought that the constitution would protect our rights. But the situation hasn’t really changed very much because of the Status of Forces Agreement – which is above all Japanese law. Our human rights have repeatedly been violated. This is not Japan,” said one of the protesters to Al Jazeera.
The US-Japan Status of Forces Agreement, known as SOFA, is part of the Security Treaty initially signed in 1952. Under terms of the Treaty, the US is responsible for Japan’s security in case of a foreign military attack, while Japan has to support American presence in the region to ensure peace and stability in the Far East.
In accordance with SOFA, Japanese law doesn’t protect Japanese citizens against accidents and crimes involving US soldiers.Instead, American criminal law applies.
Some argue that the Security Treaty allows for the suspension of constitutional provisions. “[The] Treaty privileges the US military in Japan, so that Japanese sovereignty is compromised,” claims Dr Kenichi Yamaguchi from the Department of Sociology at the University of Saskatchewan.
The real cost
“We don’t know when another military aircraft might accidentally fall from the skies, or when a US soldier might kill someone or rape someone, or when the life of one of our children might be taken in an auto accident,” said another protester, referring to past incidents involving American soldiers and servicemen.
The US Army responded by stating that crime levels among its staff are lower than among local civilians, but there is much more to the impact of American presence on the island.
Over 70% of US Army bases in Japan are located in Okinawa, occupying 18% of the main island’s area. 33% of Ginowan city is under American army use and in the village of Yomitan it is nearly half. In both instances, civilian infrastructure has to bypass the army facilities.
However, possibly the most alarming are allegations of military related contamination. During the Vietnam War, the US Army used so-called Agent Orange to destroy enemy crops and defoliate supply routes. Although the Department of Defence denies it, an investigation by renowned journalist Jon Mitchell provides evidence that Agent Orange, as well as other toxins, were stored and disposed of in Okinawa.
Japanese officials admit that barrels of Army defoliant were unearthed on the island. According to an official announcement, their dioxin levels exceed environmental standards by more than 600 times.
In Vietnam, The Ministry of Health lists 17 conditions related to dioxin, a chemical present in Agent Orange. Some illnesses affect reproductive health resulting in genetic defects in the children and grandchildren of those exposed to dioxin. The Vietnamese Red Cross estimates that there are around 3 million victims.
Despite Japan’s high technological expertise and strict health and safety regulations, public awareness of the risk of further dioxin contamination in Okinawa is limited.. However, if the issue receives more media attention, we can expect more rallies by the local population against the US military presence on the island.
For now, local governor Takeshi Onaga has not approved of the relocation of the Futenma air base and has halted the construction of new facilities. However, Japan’s Minister of Defence, General Nakatani, deemed Onaga’s decision illegal. The conflict between central government and Okinawa will be resolved in court.
Jon Mitchell, “What Lessons Can Vietnam teach Okinawa about U.S. Military Dioxin?”, The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 14, Issue 3, No. 2, February 1, 2016;
Kenichi Yamaguchi, “Post-World War Governance in Okinawa: Normalizing U.S. Military Exceptionalism”, University of Saskatchewan, November, 2014