Global Politics

After years of protests by locals, the US is moving its Okinawa military base


Credit: Sonia Narang

A US military aircraft prepares to land on a runway at the Futenma military base, adjacent to a densely populated city on Okinawa island.

After 17 years of delays, Okinawa's governor has signed off on a plan to move the US Futenma Marine Corps Air Station to a coastal area in the northern part of Okinawa island, Japan.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

Since US servicemen were convicted of raping a Japanese schoolgirl in 1996, the base has long incited controversy on the island. In recent years, residents of the densely-populated city adjacent to Futenma base have continued to push for its closure due to noise and pollution concerns. In 2006, the US and Japan agreed to close the base, as long as Okinawa agreed to move the base elsewhere on the island.

I reported in Okinawa for several weeks in 2010 and 2011. While there, I interviewed local residents and US military personnel all over Okinawa island about the base.

Many Okinawans said they want the base completely off the island. People don't like the fact that it's in a densely populated area, near schools and homes. However, with this week's decision, the base will not move off the island, but just further north to a more remote area. There's still a lot of vocal dissent against the base.

During my visits to Okinawa, I saw the site for the relocated base. I saw a tent sit-in across from where US military aircraft runways are slated to be built. Locals, including a group of senior citizens, have been sitting there daily for several years in protest.

I also met the mayor of the town near the proposed base. He told me how Okinawa has to host the majority of US military installations in Japan, and yet it has less than 1 percent of the nation's land mass.

However, Okinawa has received huge economic stimulus in return for the base. With this agreement, the Japanese government has promised to pay Okinawa 340 billion yen ($3.2 billion US) in 2014, and set aside at least 300 billion yen ($2.85 billion US) per year until 2021. This is a much-needed source of income for Okinawa, which doesn't have many other sources of revenue.

For the Japanese government, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Okinawa is the best location for a strong military force. By helping broker this agreement with Okinawa's governor, Abe has not only bolstered ties with Washington, but also beefed up Japan's defense systems.

For the US, Okinawa is perhaps one of the most strategic locations in the Pacific. It's situated near China and North Korea, which are growing threats for Japan and the US.

The shift of Futenma's operations will also result in a reduced military footprint on Okinawa. With the construction of the new base, the US plans to move marines from Okinawa to Guam, Hawaii, and Australia. This agreement is one big step in that process.

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    Credit: Sonia Narang

    The US Marine Corps bases on Okinawa island are clearly labeled with signs like this one.

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    Credit: Sonia Narang

    A group of elderly residents who live near the area of the base relocation have held a tent sit-in for several years across the site from the proposed military aircraft runways.

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    Credit: Sonia Narang

    US Marines return to Okinawa after a mission to the tsunami-ravaged disaster zone in northeast Japan in 2011.

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    Credit: Sonia Narang

    The new base is slated for construction near the small Marine Corps installation Camp Schwab in the northern part of Okinawa.

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    Credit: Sonia Narang

    Japanese schoolchildren visit a tent set up by local Henoko residents opposed to the base relocation.

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    Credit: Sonia Narang

    The Okinawa governor approved landfill work to build new aircraft runways along this coastal area near US military base Camp Schwab on the northern part of the island.

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    Credit: Sonia Narang

    Local residents in Henoko, the site where the base will relocate, gathered with candles every Saturday evening in 2011 to protest the move.

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    Credit: Sonia Narang

    In this photo from 2011, protesters rally outside Okinawa's prefectural government office against the US military presence on the island.

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    Credit: Sonia Narang

    A US military aircraft prepares to land on a runway at the Futenma military base, adjacent to a densely populated city on Okinawa island.