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The Strategic Relevance of Okinawa

Dr. Rajesh Kapoor is Associate Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.
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  • June 10, 2010

    The debate over the necessity of US troops and bases in Okinawa Prefecture has created several political ripples within Japan. However the Japanese government has always given preference to the US-Japan Security Alliance over domestic politics citing national security requirements. The relocation of US bases and troops outside Okinawa could have dampened the future of the US-Japan Security Alliance, which remains indispensable for both the US and Japan. Notwithstanding popular sentiments, the Japanese government has agreed to a “mutually viable solution” – relocation of Futenma air base within Okinawa probably off the coast of Henoko, Nago City in Okinawa Prefecture. Why is Okinawa so important for the US? Why do Japanese governments place so much importance on the US-Japan security alliance, while the people-centric issues are put on the back burner?

    In the post-Occupation period, US troops and military bases in Japan have been instrumental in ensuring peace and stability within Japan as well as in East Asia. The geo-strategic location of Okinawa makes it the preferred site for hosting US military bases both in terms of securing Japan as well as for US force projection in the Far East. Okinawa’s distance from the rest of Japan and from other countries of East Asia makes it an ideal location to host military bases and thus extend US military outreach considerably. In the case of an eventuality, it is easier for the US marines, who act as first responders to exigencies, to take appropriate action well before the rest of Japan is affected. In addition, Japan cannot ignore the potential threat it faces from its nuclear neighbours including China, North Korea and Russia. The Russian and Chinese threats, as of now, can be ruled out. However, the North Korean threat is very much real and Japan has been building up its Ballistic Missile Defence system in collaboration with the US to cater for it.

    Okinawa Prefecture includes a chain of hundreds of small islands. The midpoint of this chain is almost equidistance from Taiwan and Japan’s Kyushu Island. During the Vietnam War, the USFJ military bases particularly in Okinawa were among the most important strategic and logistic bases. In addition, strategists in Japan note that despite the country’s three non-nuclear principles, some bases in Okinawa were used for stockpiling nuclear weapons during the Cold War. Even today, US nuclear-armed submarines and destroyers operate in the vicinity of Japan, facilitated by a secret deal between the governments of the US and Japan. Moreover, having military bases in Japan also helps the US to have easy access to the strategically important five seas –the Bering Sea, the Sea of Okhotsk, the Japan Sea, the East China Sea and the South China Sea.1

    The USFJ are stationed in Japan under the terms of the US-Japan Security Alliance of 1960. In May 1972, the US returned Okinawa to Japan. But in the same year, under the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), US forces gained facilities in Okinawa. USFJ facilities and areas located within Okinawa Prefecture include airfields, manoeuvre areas and logistics support facilities. Currently, Okinawa, which makes up 0.6 per cent of Japan’s land area, accommodates 74 per cent of US bases in Japan including the Marine Air Station in Futenma which hosts Marine Air Group 36 of the US Marine Corps.2 The United States Forces Japan (USFJ) consists of US Army, US Marine Corps, US Navy, and US Air Force elements. There are approximately 36,000 military personnel, 43,000 dependents, 5,000 Department of Defence civilian employees, and 25,000 Japanese workers working in different parts of Japan.3

    During the first few years after the occupation period, USFJ was one of the biggest employers in Japan employing nearly 200,000 Japanese. However, presently, this figure is only around 25,000. As Japan progressed economically, it started sharing part of the expenses. Presently Japan pays approximately US$ 2 billion as host nation support to the US. The presence of US troops has also adversely impacted on the lives of the people living around these bases. The people of Japan, particularly in Okinawa, are weary of the problems that they have been subjected to because of the presence of US troops in their territories including noise pollution, crime and other problems.

    Notwithstanding popular criticism and opposition, the US-Japan security alliance and the presence of USFJ remain vital to Japanese foreign and security policies. The relocation of USFJ facilities and troops outside Japan may create an imbalance between the two countries over sharing responsibilities under the terms of the security treaty. It is an obligation for the US to defend Japan under Article 5 of the Japan-US Security Treaty, while Japan is obliged to provide the use of facilities and areas in Japan under Article 6 of the treaty. This treaty is quite unlike the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which provides only for shared defence by the contracting states. USFJ also acts as an “effective deterrent” against any armed aggression. In case attack takes place, the US is bound to protect Japan and even send reinforcements for which the bases are extremely important. In a nutshell, the USFJ is essential for the security of Japan and the presence of US troops in Japan has ensured peace and stability in the region.

    USFJ in Okinawa might not be welcomed by the people of Okinawa, but Okinawa will remain strategically important for the US. Given the covert security threat from China and overtly manifested threat from North Korea, Japan will always choose in favour of hosting US bases in Okinawa.

    • 1. Yoko Kato, “As China Flexes Muscles, Japan Shouldn't Rush to Make Decision on Futenma Relocation,” Mainichi Shimbun, 22 May 2010.
    • 2. For details, see Government of Japan, Ministry of Defence, Defence of Japan 2009.
    • 3. For details, see