The Debate Over Marines Based in Okinawa Widens


As a “young devil dog,” Marine Gunnery Sgt. Eric Smith discovered a training paradise on his first visit 13 years ago to this southern Japanese island, where there were thick jungles to patrol, towering cliffs to scale and the freedom to practice firing as much as he wanted.

But on his fourth visit to this balmy site last week from his Twenty-Nine Palms home base, Smith found disconcerting changes. He and his comrades can hardly shoot live ammunition anymore. They can’t be seen on the highway with weapons--forcing them to take a four-hour detour through 11 miles of jungle instead of what normally would be a 30-minute hike down a paved road. Training maneuvers, including firing of weapons, are all but out here.

The restrictions are aimed at what all agree is the worthy goal of lessening the U.S. military’s impact on Okinawa’s long-suffering villagers. But Smith and 1st Sgt. Ralph Hawley worry that the toll on their young charges’ training may be climbing.


“Before you know it, you end up with no training, and that’s what’s happening now,” Smith fretted during a recent break at the thickly forested, 20,000-acre Northern Training Area here. “We don’t want to mess up anything . . . so if we could do the same training in Thailand or Australia and not have to worry about someone stepping out of line or breaking rules we’re not used to, we’d rather do that.”

Brig. Gen. Raymond P. Ayres assured a reporter that, under the current training regime, “I can have the division combat-ready.”

But remarks such as those by his two veterans are being heard more frequently among younger Marines and represent the latest, if unlikely, voices questioning whether Okinawa is the best site for the 17,000 or so U.S. Marines stationed here.

As the Japanese parliament prepares for a contentious debate on a controversial measure to force 3,000 recalcitrant landlords to renew leases for strategic U.S. facilities here, prominent politicians have broached the subject of possible U.S. troop reductions in a desperate search for political compromise.

The conservative Liberal Democrats support efforts to compel the lease renewals. But their liberal coalition partners, the Social Democrats, have balked, leading to a showdown that will test the government and could bring Japan’s political world a step closer to realignment, analysts in this country say.

In an apparent effort to appease his liberal partners, Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto recently signaled Secretary of State Madeleine Albright that Japan wants to discuss U.S. troop deployments in Okinawa--the first time a Japanese leader has asked for such talks.


Tokyo has never before questioned Washington’s judgments on such deployments and, some officials say, has received little explanation about them.

Hashimoto’s remarks, which he reportedly made without consulting military aides, caused instant consternation in U.S.-Japan defense circles. Japanese defense officials rushed to his office the next day to register their concerns, one source says.

But his remarks were soon echoed by others, including former Foreign Ministry official Yukio Okamoto, now the prime minister’s special assistant on Okinawa issues.

New Openness to Discussion

“We’ve come to the phase where it’s fine to discuss the U.S. military strength” in Okinawa, Okamoto told the Japanese media recently in proposing to begin regular U.S.-Japan discussions on the subject.

Keio University professor Haruo Shimada, chairman of the government’s Okinawa Problems Committee, proposes that to study U.S. deployments in Japan, a special commission be set up “where we can freely talk about what we need.”

He said Washington’s assertions that 100,000 troops are needed in Asia have not been adequately explained to the Japanese public, who host 47,000 of them.


“If, by reexamining modern military technology and the international power balance, we can change, why not change? The most important thing is that, being an equal partner, we should have an equal opportunity to discuss these issues,” Shimada said.

Shimada added that many Japanese--shamed by what is an erroneous image of themselves as freeloaders on defense, because Japan pays for the security it receives from U.S. forces--never felt they had the right to question Washington’s military judgments in the past.

But a new self-confidence about their contributions to the security relationship is creating a sense that “we should be able now to proudly say whatever we want to say,” he said.

The recent establishment of the Japan Defense Intelligence Headquarters in Tokyo, giving this nation a more independent capability to conduct military analysis, marks a “major step in making the Japanese a major interlocutor” in security issues, said former Assistant Defense Secretary Richard L. Armitage.

But Washington responded to Hashimoto’s remarks with strong opposition to any discussion of change--a message forcefully delivered by Vice President Al Gore during his recent visit here--and the prime minister has for now backed off.

“We made it clear we believe strongly that the current force levels are important to maintain, especially given the uncertainty on the Korean peninsula,” a U.S. official said.


Still, U.S. officials say the Japanese public appetite for information about the Marines and security issues in general has grown in the last 18 months. The increased interest began with the end of the Cold War but accelerated, officials say, after the 1995 rape of an Okinawan schoolgirl involving three U.S. servicemen touched off widespread protests, the continuing struggle over land lease renewals and demands to help the impoverished island wean itself from a military-dependent economy.

Over the past several months, Brig. Gen. J. Michael Hayes has hosted visits by Japanese parliament members nearly every week to tour U.S. military facilities in Okinawa. He has fielded questions like this from a recent visiting politician: “Why can’t you cut the troops from 18,000 to 9,000?”

Hayes says he tries to explain that he can’t impose a political solution on a military issue and that the Marines work as an inseparable part of U.S. land, air and support forces here. Cutting their number would be as untenable as chopping a naval vessel in half, he and Ayres said in a joint interview.

Some U.S. and Japanese officials express dismay that vital security issues are now being exploited for domestic political purposes.

Such concerns--and the complexities of public attitudes toward the American presence overall--are strikingly apparent in the wind-swept northern region of Okinawa, the poorest area of Japan’s poorest prefecture. In Nago--a sleepy coastal town of 54,000 people, weather-beaten buildings and a fading commercial center--military, political and economic interests are clashing.

Nago Mayor Tetsuya Higa still pours forth emotional memories of a land bereft of oil and gas, able to produce little but a subsistence diet of sweet potatoes, and stripped of its water and other resources by the rapacious south.


Chance to Reap Rich Rewards

But now the impoverished region has a chance to reap rich rewards. The catch: It must agree to accept a planned heliport for Marine choppers, which would be relocated from Futenma Air Station in heavily populated central Okinawa.

Futenma’s relocation was the most celebrated item in a package unveiled last year in which American officials agreed to return 21% of the land used by U.S. military forces, restrict live-firing and take other measures to reduce the effect of American troops on Okinawan lives.

Residents say relations with the Marines at nearby Camp Schwab have always been cordial. Restaurant owner Yoshimasa Shiroma, for one, says he depends on the troops for 80% of his business--a reliance apparent from his menu in English, prices in dollars, and dishes, such as sukiyaki, that are distinctly Americanized.

Others, like anti-heliport activist Seijun Higa, 57, say the Marines have built goodwill by rarely causing trouble and participating in such local events as tugs of war and athletic meets. Noting that the base provides badly needed jobs and income to the city, even Higa does not support immediate troop reductions.

But the activist, like many others here, says enough is enough.

Disagreement Over Heliport

“We can live with the current base, but we can’t endure anything beyond that,” Higa said, worrying that the proposed sea-based heliport would bring added pollution, noise and disruption. He claims that only “five out of 100” residents support the project. But business leaders claim that a silent majority fears voicing a politically incorrect position; these residents, the businesspeople say, secretly want the heliport, seeing it as a way to revitalize the struggling town.

No one knows where Nago really stands, because the mayor won’t voice a position and the city has not taken a public poll--in part, one prominent business leader here said, to keep Tokyo guessing in hopes of getting officials of the central government to offer an even better deal.


Indeed, the Okinawa Times reported last month that Tokyo now is proposing to build a $246-million vocational high school in the region in what is widely viewed, if officially denied, as a lure to get locals to accept the heliport.

Fishermen and business leaders hint that they might support the project if they could make money from it. In particular, local builders will back the heliport if it uses landfill construction, which they can handle, and if the site is not a high-tech floating platform, which is beyond their technological ken.

Meanwhile, progress on the heliport is also being slowed by a deadlock between local and prefectural officials over who should take responsibility for accepting the controversial project. Such tussles are growing more common across Japan, as officials doggedly search for other communities willing to accept some U.S. military facilities--and, in the future, possibly some troops--to ease Okinawa’s burdens.

Communities are demanding a laundry list of projects in exchange. Nago leaders, for example, speak with zeal of getting the central government or the Americans to build port facilities, more educational institutions and a domed arena for concerts, conventions and sporting events.

“Everyone wants to take this opportunity to maximize their political and economic gains,” Shimada said.

But even misplaced interest in U.S.-Japan security affairs is, he and others say, better than the former status quo of little public interest.


“Okinawans have wanted to get things discussed for the past 50 years, but the Japanese didn’t care, didn’t think about it,” Shimada said. “To lose the habit of thinking about the most important public issues of the day is a serious mental disease.”

Chiaki Kitada of The Times’ Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.