Don't abandon Okinawa


POSTED: Saturday, February 06, 2010

Last month's election of an Okinawa mayor who wants to keep American troops from being relocated to his backyard threatens to complicate implementation of a move that has been years in the making. More diplomacy, not demands, from both sides will be needed to resolve opposition to the U.S. presence and follow through on the basic elements of the realignment agreement.

Nearly half of the 47,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan are in the southern prefecture of Okinawa, where residents have long complained about noise, pollution and crime around the bases. The Clinton administration agreed to reduce the troop numbers, and the Bush administra-tion negotiated a deal in 2006 to move a Marine helicopter base from Futenma, an urban area along the northern coast, to nearby the small town of Nago to the south, where voters elected a base opponent in last month's election.

The election came five months after Japan's Democratic Party, led by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, ended a half-century of Liberal Democratic Party rule. Hatoyama had called for moving the U.S. military rule out of Okinawa. Under the 2006 pact, the U.S. agreed to move 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam, but Hatoyama called for moving all U.S. bases off Okinawa or out of Japan. Susumu Inamine, the new Nago, Okinawa, mayor, echoes that.

The home-rule opposition is unwelcome but understandable. High-profile cases of rape by American troops, for instance, have occurred. It is imperative that the U.S. military take forceful steps to prevent such crimes. But the reality is that, on a global and longterm scale, the futures of America and Japan—forged by post-WWII interests—are now fused by mutual geopolitical interests.

Adm. Robert Willard, the top U.S. commander in the Pacific, said in a news conference in Honolulu last week that he does not regard the Nago election as a setback. However, he added, “;I think we have a good amount of work to do to reinforce to the Japanese people, to the extent we can, why we are there.”;

The U.S. governed Okinawa after World War II until returning it to Japan in 1972. Under a 1960 treaty, the U.S. has been allowed military use of Japanese land to provide protection of the country.

After meeting with Hatoyama during his Asian trip in November, President Barack Obama said, “;Our alliance will endure. ... It's essential for the United States, it's essential for Japan and it's essential for the Asia-Pacific region.”;

The U.S. military presence in Japan, including Okinawa, has been a vital stabilizing influence in the past 50 years, remaining necessary because of the rise of China and the continuing threat from North Korea. Hatoyama has pledged that he will decide by May how to go forward with the U.S. alliance and its military components.

Both sides should seek a compromise that would maintain a U.S. military presence in Okinawa that is less intrusive to its citizens. John Roughs, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, was right in a speech in Tokyo in which he assessed Okinawa as “;becoming not less but more important for defense of Japan and maintaining peace in this region.”;