Resentment of Military Growing : Japanese Fight U.S. Bases in New Battle of Okinawa

Times Staff Writer

This tiny hamlet of sugar cane farmers, nestled quietly in a thick forest in the north of Okinawa, is waging a symbolic battle that may signal a new era in the military alliance binding the United States and Japan.

The U.S. Marine Corps wants to build a landing pad about a mile away to train Marines in the tactical use of Harrier jets, a combat aircraft that can take off and land vertically.

But the villagers say they are prepared to lie down in front of the bulldozers and shed their own blood, if necessary, to prevent it.

“Politically, I’d say we’re basically conservative around here,” said Mitsutaka Toyama, headman of Aha, which has a population of 280. “We’ve got no particular quarrel with the (U.S.-Japan) security treaty, but we’re absolutely opposed to the noise, the pollution and the danger that will come with that Harrier pad.”


The community’s tenacious, emotional resistance to the small airstrip--which the Marines can lawfully build without local approval in a training zone leased to them under joint security arrangements--tells the story of changing attitudes about the American military presence on Japanese soil.

What was once passive resignation to an unwanted nuisance is being replaced by intolerance and irritability--and a trace of nationalistic pride. Problems are cropping up all across crowded Japan, which is host to 63,460 U.S. military personnel, the largest such deployment in Asia.

Last November, Japanese newspapers published scathing editorials condemning a U.S. Navy ship for endangering the public by firing practice shells in Tokyo Bay, some of which landed about 1,000 feet from a Japanese coast guard vessel.

Citizen groups in the Tokyo suburb of Zushi have been up in arms about a proposal to build a U.S. military housing compound in Ikego Forest, which they say is environmentally sensitive. Incensed residents of Miyake Island, in the Pacific about 115 miles south of Tokyo, have quashed plans to build an airstrip for night landing practice by pilots from U.S. Navy carriers.


‘Keystone of Pacific’

Nowhere is the problem more acute than on Okinawa, the main island of the Ryukyu chain that makes up Japan’s southernmost prefecture, or state.

Occupied by the U.S. military for 27 years after World War II until its reversion to Japanese sovereignty in 1972, Okinawa retains the atmosphere of a military camp. And its geographic location, halfway between Tokyo and Manila, gives it the dubious distinction of being the “Keystone of the Pacific” in the defense strategy of the Western allies.

American military personnel, their dependents and U.S. civilian employees of the Department of Defense account for one of every 22 residents of Okinawa prefecture, which has a population of 1.2 million. U.S. bases and training areas cover one-fifth the surface of Okinawa, including a significant proportion of its densely populated central and southern parts.

Local activists and conservative politicians complain that while Okinawa constitutes about 0.5% of Japan’s land mass, it provides 75% of the land expropriated for U.S. military use under the security treaty. The U.S. bases block economic development, and the disproportionate burden is simply not fair, Okinawans say.

Opposition Gaining Support

The leftist political opposition and militant labor movement have waged a campaign to drive out the bases since reversion. But now their anti-base rhetoric is gaining a sympathetic ear among the generally conservative, pro-American people who reside near the bases--including many who owe their livelihood to the military economy.

Even local leaders of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, ostensibly an unflinching proponent of the U.S.-Japan military alliance, find that they must embrace the populist anti-base cause to ensure their political survival. Conservative Gov. Junji Nishime, who advocates a sharp reduction in U.S. bases here, has visited the Pentagon twice in the past two years to complain about training accidents and lax military discipline.


Nishime, originally a supporter of the Harrier pad in Aha, has bowed to pressure and now opposes the project, which has come to symbolize an intensification of military activity at a time of declining public tolerance.

Stray bullets from firing ranges, the misuse of tear-gas grenades, a fatal helicopter crash and a spate of training-related brush fires over the past two years have also generated considerable outrage, which has been amplified by an activist local press.

Half Want Bases Removed

More than half the population wants the bases removed because they are a “danger” or “not needed,” according to recent surveys. Resentment of the omnipresent American military is clearly growing, despite what U.S. authorities say is an improvement in military-related crime and training accidents.

Local news media “intent upon fueling that resentment” are creating the false perception that the situation is getting worse, Karl Spence Richardson, the U.S. consul general in Okinawa, wrote in an unclassified cable to the State Department last month.

“Even though our record, when viewed in context and over a period of years, has improved steadily, we are likely to be dogged by a public perception at odds with these facts,” Richardson wrote.

In Aha, an acrimonious dispute over the airstrip has flared for more than two years now, resulting in two major confrontations at the building site. One confrontation turned violent, with a melee between protesters and military police in January, 1987.

Marines Need Training Site


And tension is building again as the Marines prepare to deploy their first squadron of a dozen AV-8B Harriers in Japan sometime this summer. They desperately need a place to train. The Aha site, a flat area created during construction of a nearby dam, is ideal because it will cost about $130,000 to finish, compared to an estimated $20 million needed to develop other sites.

The central government’s Defense Facilities Administration Agency, which provides the U.S. military with property under the Status of Forces Agreement, has insisted that the Aha site is the only viable choice. The alternative would be to level a hilltop or fill a valley, causing serious environmental damage and further threatening the endangered noguchi gera , a small woodpecker native to the region that the foes of the Harrier pad say they want to protect.

Fearful that opposition will be ignored, Aha villagers and their sympathizers have built a surveillance hut at the entrance to the construction site and have organized a series of demonstrations throughout the island. About 6,000 people attended one rally in central Okinawa at the beginning of March.

Resistance Could Be Violent

“If they go ahead and try to build the Harrier pad by force, there’s going to be bloodshed up there--the old folks are prepared to sacrifice themselves,” said Masahide Nakamatsu, a conservative member of the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly who heads the chamber’s special committee on U.S. bases.

“There’s a rise in the anti-base mood now that’s never existed before,” Nakamatsu warned. “And any attempt to force through the project will have disastrous results. The entire population will rise up and join the struggle against the bases.”

Lt. Col. James L. Vance, public affairs officer for the Marines on Okinawa, said he suspects the protests reflect a “rising nationalism throughout the Pacific Rim,” akin to the mood in South Korea--another U.S. ally where the public is questioning security relations with the United States--and in the Philippines.

Vance said the Marines have renewed efforts to respect the “deeply rooted sensitivities of the Okinawan people” since amphibious training in a drinking water reservoir sparked a barrage of protests last June. The Harrier pad, he said, will be dealt with gingerly.

Want to Avoid Conflict

“We have to have the landing pad, but we’re not going to build it there if it means another confrontation with the people,” Vance said. “Are the Marines going to go up there and thump old ladies and kids? The village idiot knows the answer to that: Hell, no.”

Elsewhere on the island, the Marines are already in retreat. Last December, they were forced to shut down a firing range at Camp Hansen, a large base in the center of the island, after neighboring villagers found spent M-16 bullets in their midst.

The trouble started in October, when Chiyo Yamazato, an employee of a small distillery in Igei Village, said she heard a “ping” outside the workshop where she was washing bottles one morning. She found a bullet on the driveway when she went out to investigate.

“More than 40 years have gone by since the war, and the American soldiers are still here,” complained Mitsuko Sakiyama, owner of the distillery, which makes awamori , a potent local rice whiskey. “They came and apologized every time we found shrapnel on our roof, but nothing has changed. There’s no other country in the world where this is allowed.”

Stray Bullets in Village

An investigation revealed that ricocheting bullets had landed at five other sites in the village, apparently caused when Marines fired their rifles in the wrong direction after outflanking practice targets.

“We’re afraid the next time this happens, someone is going to get killed,” said Masafumi Ikehara, Igei’s headman.

Ikehara estimates that one worker in 10 in Igei has a job at Camp Hansen, and he is quick to point out, as do most Okinawans, that the rising anger is anti-military, not anti-American. Villagers still play softball regularly with Marines from the base.

“We’re friends,” he said. “We’re not against the United States, but we’re opposed to the base, even though we owe a lot to it.”

The announcement by the Marines on Dec. 23 that they would respond to local concerns by closing the firing range where the mishap occurred--while keeping three nearby ranges open--was overshadowed the following day by another sensational incident. On Christmas Eve, an unidentified man described as a tall foreigner detonated a military tear-gas grenade inside a crowded disco in Okinawa City. About 25 people were injured in the ensuing panic.

A Love-Hate Relationship

The love-hate relationship with the American military is legendary on Okinawa, the only place in Japan where fighting raged in World War II. Many people here harbor deep bitterness toward the imperial Japanese army for committing atrocities during the Battle of Okinawa, a holocaust that took the lives of 150,000 civilians and Okinawans in uniform--about a third of the population at the time, according to historian Masahide Ota of the University of the Ryukyus.

While ritual protests against the military continue, local merchants do a booming business selling military surplus items to tourists from the main Japanese islands. On neon-lit Kokusai Dori, the main street in the prefectural capital of Naha, one can buy genuine U.S. Army boots or T-shirts emblazoned with an eagle on an American flag and the caption, “Live Free or Die.”

Yet, economic dependence on the U.S. bases has declined drastically since the heyday of the Vietnam War, when Okinawa was a major staging area and equipment-repair center. The U.S. military employed about 30,000 Okinawans in the late 1960s, but now has about 7,000 civilians on its payroll, the majority of whom belong to a socialist-affiliated union that advocates the removal of the bases.

“We often get told that working at the bases and protesting at the same time is like sticking our own necks in a noose,” said Misao Kamiyama, chairman of the Okinawa Prefectural Labor Union Council. “Certainly there’s a contradiction. But if the Americans want to train for war, why can’t they do it in their own country? Okinawa says no.”

A Boost to Economy

Not all Okinawa is saying no these days, however. Rents paid by the central Japanese government for land appropriated from local owners for the bases total $310 million a year and provide a significant boost to the economy in Japan’s poorest prefecture. Although pork-barrel public works and even tourism have surpassed military-related income since reversion, the U.S. bases still account for about 9% of Okinawa’s economy, officials say.

“You can still earn a lot more renting to the U.S. military than growing sugar cane,” said Moriteru Arasaki, president of Okinawa University and a leader of a dwindling movement of landlords in favor of the bases.

The central government, meanwhile, remains an accommodating host to the American occupying army that stayed on in remote Okinawa, out of sight and mind for most Japanese. It has enthusiastically embraced the concept of “burden sharing,” providing about $45,000 a year in subsidies for each U.S. serviceman and woman stationed in Japan in a program to help offset the weakened dollar.

Support No Longer Certain

Despite central government good will, the United States can no longer count on unconditional support from the Japanese public. This is a crucial lesson because the bases in Okinawa and elsewhere in Japan would take on increased strategic importance should the U.S. military be forced to phase out its presence in the Philippines or reduce deployment on the Korean Peninsula, where north-south reconciliation may someday require a lower posture.

As tension and mistrust builds, however, critics say little or nothing is being done to address the heart of the issue, that the troops are here to stay, so long as Japan honors its treaty commitments.

“Until the government shows a willingness to resolve the problem, we’re in a stalemate,” said Ryoichi Toyohira, managing editor of the Okinawa Times, one of two leading Japanese-language dailies on the island. “It’s inevitable that we’ll have the U.S. military here as long as we have the security treaty. And we can’t solve anything by making them move to the main islands. We’re all Japanese, and we don’t want to dump our nuisance on someone else.”

Uneasy Neighbors

The island of Okinawa, the only place in Japan where fighting raged during World War II, is today the most dramatic illustration of changing attitudes about the American military presence on Japanese soil.

The U.S. military community accounts for 1 in every 22 residents of Okinawa Prefecture, which has a population of 1.2 million, and U.S. military land covers one-fifth of Okinawa.

Sparked by stray bullets from firing ranges, misuse of tear-gas grenades and a fatal helicopter crash, Okinawa’s leftist political opposition and militant labor movement are campaigning to drive out the bases, and surveys show that more than half the population wants the bases removed.