COURTESY OF OKINAWA PREFECTURAL GOVERNMENT
Marine Corps heavy-lift helicopters and KC-130 cargo planes line up on the runway at Futenma Marine Corps Air Station on Okinawa. CLICK FOR LARGE
Okinawa a hazardous occupation
Unease lingers over the continued use and operations of a U.S. base in Okinawa
NAHA, Okinawa » Although Okinawa accounts for only 0.6 percent of Japan's total land area, it nevertheless is the home for nearly 75 percent of U.S. forces stationed in Japan.
For the past half-century, it has been a staging area for wars the United States has fought on the Korean Peninsula, in Vietnam and in Iraq. Marines from Kaneohe Bay routinely train here and Lt. Gen. John Goodman, stationed at Camp Smith in Hawaii, commands the nearly 14,000 Marines stationed in Okinawa.
AT A GLANCE
Independent kingdom until 1879, when it was taken over by Japan. One of 47 prefectures (states) of Japan.
Where: 160 islands, located 940 miles southwest of Tokyo
Total land area: 2,271 square miles
Population: 1.3 million
World War II: Turned into a fortress by the Japanese. Scene of the bloodiest battle on Japanese soil in 1945. More than 200,000 people died here -- 12,520 Americans, 94,136 Japanese soldiers, and 94,000 Okinawan civilians, about one-quarter of the prewar population.
U.S. influence: Control reverted back to Japan in 1972 after 27 years of American control. Today, Okinawa still hosts 75 percent of all U.S. military personnel in Japan. Nearly 50,000 U.S. military personnel, civilian employees and dependents live on Okinawa.
Returning to Japanese control: Futenma Marine Corps Air Station, Camp Kuwae, Makiminato Service Area, Naha Port and parts of Camp Zukeran
Sources: Okinawan government & Japanese Foreign Ministry
But the face of Okinawa, which until 1972 was under U.S. control, is changing, triggered in part by the 1995 rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl by three U.S. servicemen. That international incident led to the April 1996 promise by then-President Bill Clinton to close Futenma Marine Corps Air Station and replace it with a facility built by the Japanese government. Under a mutual security pact, the U.S. maintains about 50,000 troops in Japan.
The clash between U.S. military and the local Okinawan community is now best illustrated by the ongoing controversy over the continued use and operations of Futenma, home of Marine Aircraft Group 36 under the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing of the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force. It hosts nearly six dozen aircraft, mainly helicopters and KC-130 cargo planes.
In the central part of Okinawa's main island, Futenma sits in the heart of Ginowan City, hemmed in by homes, schools, universities and businesses. Since 1972, when the United States returned control of Okinawa to Japan, the city of Ginowan reports that there have been 39 crashes by helicopters stationed there. The latest occurred three years ago when a CH53-D Sea Stallion from Kaneohe Bay went down on Aug. 13, 2004, near Okinawa International University. Helicopter crew members were injured.
Many local residents say they like Americans, but not as occupiers.
"They did many good things," said Kiyoshi Sawada, principal of the Sawada English Academy. "But Okinawan people are peace-seeking and peace-loving people. We did not invite the American people here. They came here during the war against Japan. Okinawa had been an independent country which the Japanese government confiscated before the war. The United States took advantage of that situation after World War II and occupied Okinawa without our consent."
Sawada, who spent several years studying political science at the University of Hawaii, advocates for U.S. bases here to be converted into a U.N. Asian headquarters. "We did not invite military bases. We did not vote for their deployment and stationing here."
Sawada's sentiments are reflected in newspaper polls conducted during last year's gubernatorial elections in which nearly 90 percent of the respondents said they want the United States to reduce the number of bases it occupies on Okinawa.
Reiji Fumoto, who for 10 years has been dealing with the base issue for the governor's office, estimates that about a third of Okinawa's assembly favors the ouster of the U.S. military.
Last September, on the second anniversary of the crash, Ginowan City Mayor Yoichi Iha wrote to Goodman, commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces in the Pacific, expressing "dismay that U.S. forces continue to consider it acceptable to conduct training flights as though nothing had happened."
Iha told the Star-Bulletin that there was "a temporary respite" when the 3rd Expeditionary Forces and its helicopters deployed to Iraq in late 2004. "However, when the Marines and the helicopters returned in April 2005, flights resumed over surrounding communities in Ginowan."
Sitting in his Ginowan office, Iha pointed to the ceiling and added that at times he can see the helicopters flying overhead. Marine helicopter flights continue late at night, after the agreed-upon 10 p.m. curfew, he said.
"There are 300 to 250 flights in a day," Iha said through a translator, "once every two minutes." He also alleged that the Marine Corps is violating its own safety standards, which in the United States call for the establishment of a 2-mile buffer zone around its flight line.
Goodman, in his Dec. 6 response, said: "Like many airports and military installations in the United States and around the world that were originally built in less populated areas, development and population growth near Futenma Air Station has increased to the point where normal flight operations are challenging."
Saying that the Marine Corps is "extremely sensitive to the concerns of our neighbors in our local community," Goodman added that "our entry and exit routes from the helicopter pattern at Futenma are specifically designed to avoid over-flying the local schools and some cultural areas when possible."
Iha said he finds Goodman's response unacceptable: "If the Marine Corps withdraws, that would drastically reduce the burden on Okinawa."
At Camp Smith, Joe Sampson, head of the policy and international affairs branch for the Marine Corps in the Pacific, said this month that "these flight paths are continually reviewed for noise and safety concerns. However, we must still operate in the field until a replacement facility has been constructed."
Hirokazu Nakaima, a business executive who was elected governor in November, also supports any move to close Futenma. Because Futenma is built in a residential area with so many homes so close to the flights, "once any accident happens it can be rather dangerous," Nakaima said in a Star-Bulletin interview.
Having just taken office, Nakaima said he cannot say whether the realignment of U.S. forces on Okinawa has been taking too long. But many others on Okinawa, including Sawada, note that for eight years after Clinton's 1996 pledge, nothing has been done.
Sawada and others, including University of Ryukyus professor Tsuneo Oshiro, said that dependence of the Okinawan economy on U.S. bases has been dwindling. "At the time of Okinawa's revision in 1972," Oshiro said, "15 percent of Okinawa's gross national product came from U.S. base-related businesses. That has been reduced to 5.4 percent in 2004."