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The Daily Need

The view from Okinawa, where the U.S. is on shaky ground

Airman 1st Class Michael Bagley and Staff Sgt. Ryan Miller from the 18th Civil Engineer Squadron go over a checklist to ensure they have all of their equipment on March 12 at Kadena Air Base. More than 50 members of the 18th CES deployed to Misawa Air Base in northern Japan to help restore power and basic services there. Photo: U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Lakisha Croley

OKINAWA, Japan – This is my first trip to Japan; what a time to visit.

Everywhere, televisions are tuned to local news stations broadcasting endless images of toppled buildings, submerged cars and now, a seriously damaged nuclear power plant. At the bottom of each screen is a map of Japan, much of its coastline an urgent red, indicating places still at risk of a tsunami. Phone lines are down in the waterlogged north, so people here in the south have been unable to reach family and friends there. The Okinawa airport is clogged with tired travelers waiting to get out.

It’s a scenario I could not have imagined when I arrived six days ago for a journalism fellowship with the East-West Center to learn about the U.S.-Japan alliance — an increasingly significant relationship as China transforms itself into the dominant regional power, roaring past Japan to become the world’s second largest economy.

But yesterday, the tectonic plates shifted and so did everyone’s focus. We were in Okinawa, home to the largest U.S. military installation in the Asia-Pacific region, when the quake hit. Officers at Kadena Air Base continued with their planned briefing on military strategy in the region but we could hear staff just outside the room making calls to put a state of emergency plan in place: Tsunami warnings meant all beaches needed to be cleared.

Today, military representatives here say their focus is on getting supplies to the hardest hit areas in the north. According to Major Randall Bocaru, the marines plan to send helicopters from Kadena, but with damage to infrastructure there, they have been delayed as have Japanese defense forces.

Even with their help in responding to this disaster, the U.S. military’s presence in Okinawa remains controversial. American officials say keeping troops here is necessary to maintaining stability in the region, but an increasing number of Okinawans want the base gone. The town’s mayor was recently elected on a platform of curbing U.S.  military operations here.

Activists stage daily sit-ins on the beach where the military is now building an additional airplane runway. But today, for the first time since last year’s typhoon, they were not there. The beach had been evacuated and they had moved to higher ground.

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  • Irene Camagni

    Oh why, oh why, oh why, must we always be up against each other !
    Uccia, an Italian girl who thanks God that there was an Allied invasion in ITALY during WWII.

  • Jenny

    What beach were these activists on?

  • Jenny

    What beach were these activists on?

  • Jenny

    What beach were these activists on?

  • Hilary

    It would be less inflammatory if the reporter had mentioned that some of the objection to the U.S. presence in Okinawa has to do with the actual location of the runway that is being built, the location of the bases – which conduct things like live fire exercises – near densely populated areas, and the high concentration of U.S. bases and troops within this relatively small prefecture.

  • pat england

    we as human beings need to be concerned with preservation of life and health not building facilities that are not urgent to the welfare of the natives.
    look to the impoverished and leave the politics in the past.Move on

  • Sadlyhuman

    It’s nice to see native Okinawans receiving international press concerning their opposition of US occupation. When I was stationed at Kadena some 16 years ago, the socially destructive effects of US military occupation seemed to be at a head after Marines gang-raped an eight year old Okinawan girl.

    It’s more than time that the US is pushed from Okinawa.

  • C

    if memory serves me correctly, there is 1 Air Force base, 3 naval Stations, 5 to 6 Marine Installations, and 2 army bases. I know Awase has since been returned to the Japanese. In case people forgot, Japan tried to take over the US in the 40′s. The bases are there as a result. How quickly people forget. Whether or not they are still a necessity…well Not all countries in the Pacific are OK with Japan being left to their own devices. The US presence keeps tensions between those nations low. Hands around Kadena has been around for at least since 84 when I first went there. No matter what your opinion, someone will be there to protest it.

  • Marinejyking

    You obviously know nothing about which you are talking about. We are limited in our live fire ranges. (only rifles and pistols and small demolition) which is conducted on the northern part of the island which is uninhabited. Most of the Okinawans don’t want us to leave. We are important to there economy. Many of the protesters that are on island are Japanese students transported to Oki. The only reason the population has grown is because of the economic opportunity that the US military provides. So instead of blaming the US military for any and every problem maybe you should look at the facts.

  • Hilary


    I was not necessarily blaming the military, but trying to say that there are more sides to the story, and suggesting that the reporter speak to all of the facts before making statements that aroused the passions and prejudices of people who have very little familiarity with US-Japan relations (as several of the comments in this thread illustrate) at a time when diplomacy is really the better route. It seems to me that for the most part, the people of Japan are grateful to the American military and American people, and the article above gives a very different impression.

    Furthermore, the people of Okinawa have legitimate concerns about the imapct of so many bases. I don’t think the prefectural governor is “a Japanese student transported to Oki,” (as you suggest the protestors are) and he was elected (by the people of Okinawa) because of their concerns about the military presence on the island.
    Actually I have followed the situation regarding the air strip on Okinawa and its impact on US-Japanese relations for quite some time, along with other issues like murders and rapes that have occurred there involving American citizens as perpetrators.
    Japan is a sovereign nation, and in spite of our good intentions, we do not have the right to steamroll them (as you tried to steamroll me with your dismissive remarks.)
    Our military provides protection for Japan and stability for the region, but as a result of its presence, there are also thousands of restless young men on on Okinawa who get into fights, sometimes harass women and young girls, and sometimes commit crimes. The planes make noise; exercises can be disruptive, and private land remains under the control of the US military, even though Okinawa reverted to Japan back in 1973. Even if the military provides economic opportunity and many Okinawans like Americans – the situation is not without flaws that place stress on the relationship that the US has with Japan. The causes of the protests are multifaceted, and the Japanese are not the sort of people who will only welcome US troops now that there is a crisis.

  • AKC05444

    A little over a year ago, all military and associates were not allowed to do business off base, we even had to get permission to go pay our bills off base. The Americans on SOFA status,caught doing business that were unauthorized, risked being sent back to the U.S. This was called a time of “reflection”. Business suffered tremendously here in Okinawa, some went bankrupt. Lessons learned, economically speaking, Okinawa cannot afford for the bases to close and Americans to go home. Landowners, and business men all know this. Many dirt farmers have turned vacant lots into apt. blds. the newest ones asking 5 thou. and up per unit. You do the math!

  • AKC05444

    My dear , this is hardly a crises, nor is it new. Twenty years ago, they were doing “hands around Kadena” it was an annual event. Yet when the highrisers went up at Kinser, the natives got restless because they realized that as the units filled up one base, there would be less money made in rent off base. Well by the time the first highrisers were completed on Foster, off base landlords protested. Update, they now can’t build American style apt. fast enough. Yes there are problems with crime, vandalism etc. the protesters magnify and use each incident to plea their case but these protesters are not members of the local chamber of commerce. They are attempting to deal with these problems as they crop up and to appease the protesters fewer troops are sent to Okinawa. However,, after Japan’s latest disasters it was comforting to us all that American military sat WAITING within the country and just off shore with aid and manpower to help in the rescue, as was done in the Kobe earthquake.

  • Anonymous

    As an American, this is fine with me. It’s also fine with me if trouble happens in the future, we don’t lift a finger to help Okinawa.

  • Taiho66

    Same problems go around and around. In the 70′s violent protesters in Okinawa. They all wanted the same thing…Americans to leave Okinawa….of course they had very short vision. In the 90′s I managed a section at Kadena. in 93 I had 6 military and 31 Okinawans in my section. When I left in 97 there were 9 military and 46 Okinawans in my section. We had added 15 local families to our section and to the payrolls that were paid by the Japanese government. Those families were very happy to be working for me and the Air Force….They represented the vast majority of Okinawans who knew that our presents and firepower let their enemies in China and N. Korea know we stood ready to support our allies. What the press failed to tell you about the rapes/crimes committed by the marines on the island were vastly outnumbered by the rapes/crimes committed by the Okinawans on their own people. These crimes were not made known to the outside world but the Okinawans knew! The protesters merely took advantage of the American errors to advance their desire to get us out.