Can Okinawa Live Without The U.S.?

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PATRICK SMITH OkinawaFor Okinawans, Yuki Uema's tragic death had a chilling familiarity. The 18-year-old was riding her motorcycle home at 4:30 one morning last month when she was knocked down by a hit-and-run driver outside Camp Zukeran, a U.S. military base north of Naha, Okinawa's capital. Her alleged assailant was Randall Eskridge, a 23-year-old Marine corporal who had been drinking with friends at a bar near the base. As Uema lay in a coma, there were scattered protests by Okinawans demanding justice. In Tokyo, U.S. Ambassador Thomas Foley tried to assuage tempers with a swift and very public apology. But when Uema died a week later from a brain contusion, there was little more to do than put Eskridge on trial for drunk driving and hit-and-run.In fact, the real defendant in Okinawa is not the soldier but the forces he represents. Ever since the waning days of World War II, when U.S. troops occupied the island about 1,000 km south of Tokyo, the American military presence has been a focus of dispute. Tensions increased dramatically following the 1995 rape of a 12-year-old girl by three American servicemen. Since that crime, which sparked months of huge demonstrations, a question keeps resurfacing: Why, in a post-cold war world, is it necessary to keep 27,000 U.S. troops on Okinawa? And that question leads to another: If it's possible to get rid of these bases, we'd all like to, says Mikio Higa, a business executive in Naha. But we've suddenly got to ask ourselves, 'What's next?'That dilemma promises to be the key issue when Okinawans go to the polls on Nov. 15 to elect a new governor. Eight years ago, voters chose Masahide Ota, a worldly, U.S.-trained scholar, mainly because of his firm stand against American bases. He has pledged to rid the prefecture of all such facilities by 2015. But as Japan struggles with an economic recession, that promise may prove tough to keep. Tourism, Okinawa's No. 1 industry, is vulnerable to Japan's prolonged economic drought--and can't pull the prefecture through on its own. Young Okinawans are having trouble finding work in mainland Japan. Unemployment on Okinawa now exceeds 9%--more than twice the national average--and in the island's cramped cities, local officials say, it approaches 12%.Still, last month's hit-and-run incident underscored Okinawans' discontent at the presence of so many uniformed Yanks in their midst. Tour the main island's cities and villages, the mountains and ribbons of coastline, and it's easy to understand why. Okinawa doesn't host the U.S. bases, local folk like to say--it is a U.S. base. Okinawa represents only 0.6% of the nation's land, yet three-quarters of the U.S. facilities in Japan--39 sites--are found here, covering one-fifth of the island and causing every manner of economic, environmental and social problem.Along the once-pristine coast in the north of Okinawa, 60% of the town of Kin is taken up by Camp Hansen, where artillery units have shelled the surrounding hills into a moonscape. To the south, Futenma Air Station occupies a third of Ginowan city. Apart from the usual litany of accidents over the years involving their American neighbors, Ginowan residents say they can't hear themselves think because of the noise from Futenma's aircraft, which routinely disrupt sleep, classroom instruction and ordinary conversation.When the Americans built these bases, they were located mostly in small towns and villages. But as populations have grown, a base such as Futenma now sits squarely in the center of a city of 84,000--almost as if a runway ran across the Ginza. Outside the gate at Kadena Air Force Base is a congested, tumbledown city of bars and shabby shophouses. Walk past the guards and you find yourself at the edge of a well-groomed golf course. In these and other cities, the larger problem is evident: after half a century hosting bases, urban Okinawa is running out of room to grow. As long as Futenma sits in the middle of our city, says Ginowan Mayor Seiko Higa, it's impossible for me to imagine the future.PAGE 1  |  
The 1995 rape incident prompted negotiations between Washington and Tokyo to remove Futenma. In December 1996, the two sides agreed to build a heliport off the little fishing town of Nago on Okinawa's eastern shore to replace the U.S. Marine base. Impossible, says Ota, who, at 73, remains youthfully energetic well into the Naha night. We can't move Futenma any place else in Okinawa--it simply has to go. The stalemate has become a key issue in this month's election: Ota's opponent, businessman Keiichi Inamine, is arguing that a heliport would be acceptable--not at Nago but somewhere in northern Okinawa--as long as the facility is converted to civilian use after a maximum lease of 15 years. Inamine argues that building another base would at least provide jobs. It would also represent an assuaging compromise, which is a big part of Inamine's stance.If the U.S. were to relocate even a portion of its forces, what would fill the economic gap? Mayor Higa points to a nearby locale called Hanby Town, once an American airfield. Today it is filled with shops, fast-food restaurants, first-run movie theaters and the kinds of residential streets much favored among Okinawans. Its businesses have an annual turnover of $670 million and employ nearly 1,200 people. There's only one problem, concedes Mayor Higa in his cramped office high above Ginowan's sprawl. The Americans gave up Hanby in 1981. It's taken 17 years to make something of it. Elsewhere on Okinawa, some of the land surrendered by the U.S. has been reduced to weed-filled tracts, fought over by petty landlords and indecisive local officials.Is Okinawa simply hooked on the Americans? The U.S. bases account for less than 5% of economic activity on Okinawa, down from nearly one-fifth 25 years ago. But Tokyo provides enormous subsidies to the cities and towns hosting bases, and no one knows how to replace those handouts--not yet, anyway. Tourism is certain to be part of any mix. Okinawan officials also want to turn the sleepy, semitropical island into a bustling entrepot--as it was for centuries before Japan made the Kingdom of the Ryukyus, as the Okinawan chain was once known, a prefecture in 1879. Last spring, Tokyo passed legislation allowing Naha to designate part of its port a free-trade zone. And there has been intense interest in Okinawa as both an investment site and a transshipment point from officials and business executives in Taiwan. They are eager to continue their brisk commerce with the mainland, even if changing political winds again force them to trade indirectly. Taipei has already said it is willing to help develop Naha's port, although it worries that the prefecture itself has so far invested too little money.None of these ideas has seen much action, however. And Okinawa's drawbacks are daunting--too little infrastructure for some investors, too few natural resources for others. After depending so long on the bases and Tokyo's handouts, the business community is unable to imagine its own future--to say nothing of pursuing it. In some ways these bases have destroyed the local economy, says Hiromori Maedomari, an economics reporter at Ryukyu Shimpo, Naha's leading daily. They've left us too dependent upon them to say 'No' as abruptly as we'd like.Just how Okinawans view their future may become clearer this month, when voters will either re-elect their charismatic governor--or retire him. Until recently, Ota's victory had seemed a forgone conclusion. Local commentators still give him the edge, but it is now a much closer call. Inamine, a former oil executive popular with the business community--and, reportedly, with the Liberal Democratic Party in Tokyo--is playing to the pragmatists. Okinawans who fear that Ota's hard line could cost the prefecture some of Tokyo's economic aid are attracted by Inamine's willingness to negotiate with the central government. In short, Governor Ota gave Okinawans a say in the base issue for the first time. Now, despite the furor over yet another casualty of the American presence, the sound of their own voice has begun to make them nervous.Patrick Smith is the author of Japan: A Reinterpretation.  |  2