If you speak to certain Japanese security experts (ie Japanese persons), particularly those that are unrepentant supporters of the US-Japan alliance, you will often hear that there are only two options for the resolution of the Futenma impasse – either the Henoko base is built, or all US Marines go home. And of course this is supposedly no choice at all – the marines can’t go home because this would undermine the integrated functionality of the US-Japan alliance as a form of deterrence. If pushed on what specific and practical role the marines are performing  as a part of this deterrence function given China’s military modernization, many will often reply that if nothing else the marines are ‘symbolically’ essential. Since the Seventh Fleet is not exactly chopped liver in this regard, the underlying assumption here is usually that if the US has land forces in Japan, and Okinawa in particular, the US is more likely to come to the aid of Japan if attacked, and may in fact have no choice if ‘real live Americans’ are among the casualties. Needless to say this is all extremely unsatisfying and perhaps shows the superficial depth of the current US-Japan relationship at the political level. This aside, the cost for such a symbolic presence is/has been incredible in political terms, let alone financial terms, especially for past, current and potentially future Japanese governments.

In Peter Ennis’ latest article over at Dispatch Japan, he provides detail on an alternative possibility which satisfies both the operational and tactical necessities of the US-presence-as-deterrence worldview, as well as satisfies the requirements of strategic symbolism that many in the Japanese security community seemingly crave. Ennis argues that:

The 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), which includes 2,500 Marines and is tagged as ‘special forces capable,’ should remain. Those Marines would be available for quick deployments – either humanitarian relief or the securing of North Korean ports in the event of conflict. The MEU operates largely on its own, a component of, but not dependent on the total 18,000-manned 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force. The 31st MEU operates in close coordination with the USS Essex, out of Sasebo, in southern Japan. The helicopter unit, now based at Futenma, could be integrated into the huge Kadena air base that is managed by the US Air Force, or into a new heliport facility at Camp Hansen (US Marine), combined with pre-positioned supplies and equipment jointly maintained offshore on ships by the US and Japan. Regular joint training with Japanese forces — and US access to Japanese facilities in the event of a regional contingency — could be negotiated. All of the rest of the 3rd MEF could be based in Guam, Hawaii, or Camp Pendleton, close to San Diego, which will have plenty of space because of the scheduled reduction in overall Marine Corps ranks.

To soothe any fears of a US weakening its deterrent capability in the region, the US could permanently base an Ohio-class submarine, with 54 Tomahawk missiles (non-nuclear, but very powerful) at Yokosuka, and rotate strategic bombers into Misawa, in the northern part of Japan’s Honshu island.

Over and above this it is nevertheless a trusting and well working US-Japan alliance that is the ultimate strategic asset for both countries. This is a political rather than a military planning or hardware issue, and thus the solutions to this will be political ones. Ennis suggests that the onus may well ironically be on the US to sort itself out politically on this issue, as he believes inter-service rivalry is the main barrier to innovative solutions, especially now that there is a group within the DPJ confident enough to propose the Kadena solution that the Japanese government will not in the meantime go anywhere near. On the broader diplomatic level there clearly needs to be greater understanding from both the US and Japan sides – but what is also crucially required is a better understanding of the political situation in Okinawa, which is often neglected or dealt with in only superficial terms. Thankfully there is also someone thinking about this as well.

Yoshikawa Yukie has published a thoughtful and helpful piece on exactly this issue. It is well worth the time to read in full if you are interested in the Okinawa issue. There are two important takeaways from this article that are usually neglected in both Japanese and English media coverage of the ‘Okinawa problem.’ First, Ms Yoshikawa suggests that among Okinawan politicians there is an tacit understanding that 20% of the population are anti-base in the ideological sense, 20% pro-base due to economic reliance on the US military presence, and that there is a 60% ‘silent majority’ that has mixed feelings for various historical and contemporary reasons. She implicitly argues that it is not impossible for a sustainable US presence to be accepted in Okinawa, but there needs to be much more serious consideration given to what Okinawans really want, something that in her view neither the Japanese or American governments have really tried to do. That is to say the labeling the Okinawans as irremediably anti-American, or as the pitiable bearers of the Japanese security ‘burden,’ and all other manner of things, is not helpful.

Second, Yoshikawa identifies something that is perhaps more crucial and often overlooked, particularly as it applies to understanding the views of the 60% silent majority: that much (but not all – also crucial) of the land that US military bases are on is potentially more economically valuable to Okinawans than the economic benefits the US bases generate. Given the changes in the Okinawa economy over the last 40 years, then we should recognize that the Okinawan desire to rely less on US military economy is real, and legitimate, for reasons that go beyond the difficult and inequitable historical relationship Okinawa has had with the US and mainland Japan.

Having had the pleasure of an extended conversation with Ms Yoshikawa just before she took up her current role I can confirm that her outlook on the issue is indeed a nuanced and neutral one. A Columbia graduate and a researcher in the US at John Hopkins, but familiar with the Japanese domestic political situation (and also an advocate and consultant for cross-cultural communication), she will no doubt make a valuable contribution to this discussion. Thus it is gratifying to see someone taking a responsible and constructive approach to the problem. It is telling however that it is the Okinawa government, rather than the Japanese or American governments, that is taking the initiative in this case.


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Corey Wallace joined Japan Security Watch in 2011. He writes on Japan security-related topics, focusing on issues and stories that may not find their way into the English language media. He also hosts the blog Sigma1 where he writes on Japanese domestic politics and broader issues in international relations. Prior to taking up a PhD Corey was a participant on the JET program (2004-2007) and on returning to New Zealand he worked at the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology from 2007-2010 as a policy adviser. Corey lectures two courses at the University of Auckland. One is on the international relations of the Asia-Pacific, which contains a significant focus on East Asia security issues. The other is a course on China's international relations. His primary academic interests before his current Japan focus were science and technology politics/policy, issues of ethnic identity, and Chinese modern history and politics. He carries over his interest in issues of identity and history into his PhD where he is looking at generationally situated concepts of national identity and their impact on foreign policy ideas in Japan.
Corey Wallace has 256 post(s) on Japan Security Watch