Being a hegemonic global power, the United States has a large presence on all the world’s continents. Although the majority of media attention has focused on the US military presence in the Middle East, the United States also holds a strong presence in East Asia centered on the bases in Okinawa, Japan. From the US defense point of view, the bases serve as an important strategic check on nearby countries such as China and North Korea. Despite the strategic importance of the bases on the international level, the foreign US military presence has spurred strong local opposition in the Okinawa prefecture. This special arrangement in Okinawa draws in issues ranging from major international security interests between the United States and Japan to the systemic local impact on the lifestyle in the islands.
The Okinawa prefecture consists of a chain of islands extending from the southwestern-most main island of Japan down toward Taiwan. During World War II, US forces launched a famous massive amphibious assault on the Okinawa islands, resulting in a bloody battle with an estimated 75,000 military casualties and 150,000 civilian deaths. The Allied forces emerged as the victors and planned to stage an invasion of the Japanese mainland from the Okinawa islands. However, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki drew Japan to surrender, removing the need for a mainland invasion.
The Treaty of Peace with Japan, which officially ended World War II, left the Okinawa islands under US administration. However, the continued postwar presence of US troops in Okinawa began building local resentment against the foreign occupation.
In November 1964, Eisaku Sato became the Japanese Prime Minister, and pledged to return Okinawa back to Japanese control. Gradually, the United States began making arrangements with Japan concerning the reversion of Okinawa. As the Vietnam War progressed in the 1960s, the United States began to favor a less interventionist strategy in Asia. On July 25, 1969, President Nixon issued the Nixon Doctrine, which expected US security allies to handle their own military defense, promising aid only when necessary.
The reversion of Okinawa fit perfectly with the overall philosophy of the Nixon Doctrine, and Nixon and Sato continued dialogue over the state of the Okinawa islands. Finally, on November 21, 1969, Sato and Nixon issued a joint communiqué to conclude the reversion affair; the actual reversion took place officially on May 15, 1972. Although the Japanese government received administrative control over the Okinawa islands, the United States still stationed troops in various naval, land, and air bases, as promised in the negotiations.
Indeed, the US military bases in Okinawa serve as a linchpin for the US-Japanese military alliance. Firstly, the postwar Japanese constitution forbids the creation of a full-blown Japanese military, instead constraining Japan to maintain forces for purely defensive purposes.
Consequently, Japan relies on the US military presence in Okinawa as a deterrent against neighboring states like China and North Korea. Additionally, the nuclear threats of China, Japan, and Russia further encourage Japan, a non-nuclear state, to accept the extended deterrence provided by the United States.
Therefore, since the United States maintains the troops stationed in Okinawa, Japan spends less than 1 percent of its GDP maintaining its purely defensive Japan Self-Defense Forces.
Despite the strategic benefits of extended deterrence that Japan enjoys on the national level, the same cannot be said for the systemic impact of a foreign military presence on the local community in Okinawa. The ongoing presence of the US military bases has created reports of excessive noise, environmental pollution, and crime, prompting local opposition. These issues escalated with the September 1995 rape of a twelve-year-old Japanese schoolgirl by three US servicemen, which created waves of opposition to the US military presence in Okinawa, along with a challenge by the former prefectural governor against the central Japanese government.
Although that crisis was surmounted, tensions related to the base have not desisted. Today, it remains a point of contention between the United States and Japan—and one that will come under increased scrutiny with the new “pivot” of the United States to Asia.