With all eyes on the Middle East over the past month, little journalistic attention has been paid to the controversy U.S. actions have spurred in other regions of the world.
Recent protests opposing the U.S. military decision to deploy a consignment of its MV-22 Osprey aircraft in Okinawa and Japan came to a head last week, with demonstrators forcibly removed by Japanese police on Monday, October 1. The strength of these protests, which organizers claim reached over 100,000 participants, was magnified by decades-old opposition to the presence of U.S. military bases in the region, particularly at Futenma, which the U.S. has promised to re-locate elsewhere on the island.
- Okinawa, a small island less than five hundred miles south of Japan, is known to most U.S. citizens for its role in the Second World War, where it served as a vital staging ground for U.S. forces after the protracted and bloody Battle of Okinawa in early 1945. Although Okinawa was formally returned to Japanese control in 1972, the U.S. has maintained a military presence on the island ever since. Forty years later, U.S. forces can be found in 32 different military bases on Okinawa. The presence of these bases has been a source of resentment for Okinawans for decades, and sympathy from mainland Japan has increased sharply over the past few years, The Japan Times reports. Many citizens continue to question what strategic purpose could require the U.S. to have such a large number of bases on an island roughly one third the size of the state of Rhode Island. Many Okinawans who were previously inclined to oppose U.S. military presence now view the number of bases relative to the size of the island as confirmation of a belief that the presence of the United States is less about military strategy than about empire.
- The first signs of large-scale opposition to U.S. military presence on Okinawa came in 1995, after three U.S. servicemen attacked and raped a twelve-year-old schoolgirl. In many host countries around the globe, the U.S. claims extraterritoriality, or exemption from local law, and the accused are tried in U.S. military courts. This extraterritoriality is granted through a Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA.
- As of 2001, the U.S. government admitted to having explicit SOFAs with 93 nations. In a report published March of this year, Congressional Research Service Attorney R. Chuck Mason argued that SOFAs and similar agreements totaled more than 100. Although the 1995 rape was one of the most publicized, sexual abuses of civilians by U.S. military personnel is an ongoing problem. In most of these cases, the U.S. relies upon SOFAs to keep the accused out of host nations’ courts; in 1995, however, the U.S. government agreed to have the servicemen tried in Japanese courts, which many viewed as a crucial step forward in diplomatic relations with Japan and, more specifically, Okinawa.
- As with the current protests, outrage at the rape soon expanded to include other criticisms of U.S. military bases on Okinawa. Many argued that the bases were situated on the most habitable regions of the island, damaging the Okinawan economy. Former president of the Japan Policy Research Institute Chalmers Johnson argued that the U.S. invaded “the choicest 20% of the island,” both in his book The Sorrows of Empire and in a 2004 interview online. Indeed, in the wake of the 1995 rape, the U.S. negotiated with the Japanese government to reduce the amount of land under U.S. control.
- All of this brings us back to Futenma, a base the U.S. and Japanese governments agreed to re-locate as part of this 1996 agreement to reduce the land used for U.S. military bases. Sixteen years later, the base is still open; furthermore, in 2009, then-Prime Minister of Japan Yukio Hatoyama promised to move the base not just to another region of Okinawa, but off the island entirely. As the New York Times reports, Hatoyama backed away from this promise after facing pressure from within his government and from the U.S., weakening his support among voters while deepening resentment at what many Okinawans and mainland Japanese view as excessive U.S. influence.
The explicit motivation behind the current wave of protests in Okinawa is the deployment of the MV-22 Osprey, a roto-tiller aircraft with vertical takeoff capabilities. Protestors cite the aircraft’s history of crash risks as reason not to allow the U.S. to deploy it at bases on Okinawa. But it’s clear that the massive opposition to the deployment of the Osprey goes deeper than safety concerns.
Although left-leaning activist organizations have a long history of protesting U.S. military actions on Okinawa, more conservative groups, historically in favor of the U.S.-Japan military alliance, also oppose deploying the Osprey at Futenma. Takeshi Onaga, mayor of the Okinawan capital Naha, argues that the aircraft could be the final straw for many citizens of Okinawa, inciting unprecedented opposition to U.S. military bases on the island. Many of the demonstrators appear to agree, according to a New York Times report.
Despite these concerns, the United States has gone ahead with the deployment, and the first six Osprey aircraft arrived at Futenma on Monday, October 01, with at least another half-dozen en route.