The anti-U.S. military base sentiment that is so often highlighted in Okinawa, Japan — known as the “keystone of the Pacific” for its strategic importance — may be less resonant with a younger generation of Okinawans, a new study by the East-West Center in Honolulu found.
Seventy-four years after the end of World War II, Okinawa remains home to the largest foreign U.S. base complex in the world outside an active combat zone, according to the center.
Approximately 54,000 U.S. personnel are stationed in Japan, with about half of those on Okinawa, 950 miles southwest of Tokyo.
The island, which is 80% the size of Oahu, has another unique characteristic: Of the many U.S. bases around the globe, only in Okinawa are there regular protests against both existing facilities and new construction, the East-West Center noted.
With that in mind, and with most of the protesters on the advanced end of the age scale, the center undertook a survey of “millennials plus” — those in the 20 to 45 age bracket, who represent 40% of eligible voters, to gauge their views about the often contentious American presence.
Charles Morrison, a past president of the East-West Center and one of the new study’s authors, said when he first started going to Okinawa years ago, he was always struck by how militant some of the older residents were compared to younger people.
“I do not know of an equivalent study of post- reversion-aged (1972 turnover of Okinawa to Japan) Okinawan attitudes on the bases,” Morrison said in an email.
Among the findings released last week is that there is a “major opportunity” to strengthen U.S. military- Okinawan relations by partnering with younger residents on a more cooperative basis.
The study found:
>> One half of the survey respondents and many of the interviewees could not say whether they were “for” or “against” the base presence, with many stating they had not thought seriously about the issue. More of those who did have positions opposed or strongly opposed the U.S. presence.
>> A majority of participants favored the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, but there was the strong belief that Okinawa hosts far more than its fair share of U.S. forces. “This belief is combined with resentment against the central Japanese government for allowing this situation and not giving Okinawa an effective seat at the table on base issues,” the report states.
>> The vast majority of those interviewed and surveyed had never been involved in protests against the U.S. presence — typically saying they were too busy or disagreed with the position or behavior of protesters.
>> Most respondents had a positive view of U.S. personnel, saying they are “friendly,” or “helpful.” Crime, accidents, noise, environmental issues and traffic were base problems that should be “fixed.”
>> There was “very broad support” for enhanced contact between the bases and Okinawan communities for mutual benefit.
The study was conducted in the first half of 2018, a period when no major crimes or accidents involving U.S. personnel occurred. Criminal behavior periodically works against the U.S. cause on Okinawa, as was the case on April 13 , when a U.S. sailor fatally stabbed a Japanese woman and then killed himself, according to Japan’s Foreign Ministry.
Underwritten with funding from the United States-Japan Foundation, the study involved “in-depth” interviews with 60 Okinawans, an online survey with 199 respondents, and several group sessions, according to the East-West Center, located adjacent to the University of Hawaii.
Thirty-two U.S. bases occupy about 15% of the land of Okinawa, compared to 21% of Oahu land, the center said.
But it’s the ongoing effort to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from crowded Ginowan to a land-reclamation site 25 miles away in Henoko that has generated major controversy. Okinawa hosts more than 18,000 Marines, sailors and their families.
The prefecture’s governor, Denny Tamaki, was elected last September on a platform opposing construction of the new base.
In December, Rob Kajiwara, who is from Hawaii, launched a “We the People” petition seeking a White House stop to the landfill work at Henoko/Oura Bay until a referendum could be held.
“The bay is a crucial part of the Okinawan ecosystem,” states the petition, which had garnered more than 211,000 signatures. In a blog post, Kajiwara said 19,000 of those individuals were Hawaii residents.
Environmentalists say coral and the manatee-like dugong will be impacted by the land reclamation.
A referendum was held in Okinawa in February, with 72% of voters siding against the plan to relocate the air station to Henoko.
However, the referendum was advisory, and the central government is going ahead with the effort that is now projected to cost $22 billion and will still take 13 more years.
As part of the relocation, and to reduce the Marine Corps presence on Okinawa, the United States plans to move 4,100 Marines to Guam, 2,700 to Hawaii, 800 to the mainland and 1,300 to Australia on a rotational basis.