Okinawa protest

Okinawa residents participate in a rally this week against the relocation of a US Marine Corps base to the northern part of the island. 

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Sonia Narang/PRI

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with US President-elect Donald Trump in New York last week. Abe was the first foreign leader to meet Trump since the US presidential election, and he conveyed to reporters afterward that he hopes to maintain strong ties with the new administration.

It's unclear whether the US-Japan security alliance came up at their meeting, but, during his campaign, Trump repeatedly said that Japan should pay more for hosting US forces. 

Under a treaty that dates back to the end of World War II, Japan does not use its own Self-Defense Forces to wage war, and relies on US forces to act as a buffer against rival nations.

Right now, the Japanese government is paying Washington $1.8 billion annually for this added security. Okinawa is central to the relationship, since the vast majority of US military bases in Japan are located on the small island. 

Many Okinawans have strong opinions about Trump's remarks that the US could withdraw troops unless Japan pays more money. Some worry that cutting back US troops would pose a major security risk, given rising tensions with China and North Korea.

“There would be a possibility that our rivals could enter Japanese territory,” says Noriko, an Okinawan cafe owner who asked that only her first name be used.

With an estimated 27,000 troops stationed in Okinawa, the American military sees the island as a strategic location to keep other countries in check. According to Marine Corps spokesperson Lt. Martin Harris, US forces are in Okinawa to maintain Asia-Pacific stability, not just Japan’s.

In Okinawa, many think it's unfair to ask Japan to pay more, especially since the country is contributing a much greater percentage of the cost to host US military bases compared to Germany and South Korea.

Yoshio Noda sells pineapples at a covered market in Okinawa's capital city, Naha. He thinks US President-Elect Trump will tone down his stance on withdrawing US troops once he learns how much Japan is paying.

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Sonia Narang/PRI

“I saw on the Sunday TV program that the Japanese government is paying 70 percent of the cost of the US military in Japan, but Mr. Trump doesn’t know about it,” says pineapple salesman Yoshio Noda. “From now on, he’s going to learn, and when he has a deeper understanding, then he’s not going to say such radical things.”

Noda adds, “Mr. Trump’s campaign promises have become more mild, and he’s toned his rhetoric down. We have to see what happens when he really becomes president.”

Noda is hopeful Trump will soon be schooled on Japan’s payments and how they preserve the US-Japan relationship. “When we look at history, Republican US presidents and Japanese prime ministers have gotten along very well in the past, so I personally think there’s nothing to worry about,” he says.

Others say an imminent scaling down of troops is unlikely. “Even if Trump wants to carry this out, it’s other people in his administration who will make military decisions,” says Masayuki Taira, a banker in Okinawa’s capital city of Naha.

“Even if they withdraw US forces, I don’t think they could do it all at once,” Taira adds.

However, there are many in Okinawa who want the US military out. The ongoing controversy surrounding bases on the island has some people hoping that Trump might be the one to shut down the most contentious base at Futenma Marine Corps air station.

Harue Higa owns a flower shop near Futenma, a base that’s a source of bitterness among locals due to loud aircraft noise and safety concerns.  

“I cannot believe that such an outrageous person was even elected,” Higa says, “but, I have a glimmer of hope that Mr. Trump could close down the base, which is something no other president before him could do.”

Kyoko Matayoshi has long called for the closure of Futenma Marine Corps base in her city. The US and Japanese government have plans to shut it down and relocate base operations, but it hasn't happened yet. 

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Sonia Narang/PRI

Kyoko Matayoshi lives near Futenma as well, and she’s part of a women’s group that speaks out against the base. But she’s doubtful the US election will have any impact on the issue.

“Even if the American government changes, if the Japanese government doesn’t change its stance towards closing the base, nothing changes,” Matayoshi says, pointing out that these decisions will come down to Prime Minister Abe.

Up in northern Okinawa, near the quiet fishing village where the US military plans to build aircraft landing strips in the bay, city councilwoman Kumiko Onaga hopes Trump might scrap the entire plan.

City councilwoman Kumiko Onaga opposes the relocation of the Futenma Marine Corps base to the area she represents in northern Okinawa. Years ago, the US and Japanese governments agreed to build US military aircraft runways in her area, but she and her local Mayor are fighting that proposal. 

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Sonia Narang/PRI

“I’m expecting that Mr. Trump will demand a huge amount of money from Japan so that the Japanese government cannot even afford to pay,” she says.

But, then, she adds that Abe's government will try to do everything it can to pay up so it can move ahead with construction of the new base facilities up north. That’s why she plans to keep participating in ongoing protests in front of the base.

Sonia Narang reported in Japan with support from the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ).

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