Let’s start with the Okinawans first.

First of all, as many have said, the air base really is in the middle of a city. Here’s a look at in Google Maps.

[cetsEmbedGmap src=http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&ll=26.270058,127.758508&spn=0.027092,0.037079&t=h&z=15 width=600 height=600 marginwidth=0 marginheight=0 frameborder=0 scrolling=no]

Zoom in and look around. Take a stroll just outside the airbase in Google Street View. What do you notice? A lot of schools. “ES” means what you think it does–”Elementary School”, and “JHS”, “Junior High School”. Also a lot of residences. In fact, it appears to be mostly residences around Futenma.

I’m not sure what was there first–the air base, or the people. In the United States, the military base tends to come first, with suburbs coming later. In Okinawa…who knows. Was it particularly wise to build so many houses and apartment buildings around Futenma to begin with? I don’t know, but the land does belong to private Japanese citizens, and it’s their country. I also know many of those buildings probably predate the return of Okinawa to Japan, which happened in 1972, so apparently when the Americans were in charge and presumably could have enacted some zoning regulations they didn’t bother to do so, either.

Yes, people have to choose to live near the base. But Okinawa is an island, and when you’re on an island there are only so many places you can go. It’s not like an American city, which is constantly growing, with more and more subdivisions being added to the city limits. If they don’t like living on an island with a major foreign military presence they can always leave, but the mainland is hundreds of miles away, and if your base is causing people to get up and move hundreds of miles just to get away from it you’re defeating the purpose of your base.

Let’s be fair about this–if this were the United States, it would be immediately clear that the base should be moved. Any airport moving that many planes would not be allowed in the middle of an American city. The nuisance factor alone would turn people against it, although they would probably justify their opposition on the grounds of safety. And the base has had accidents, including a 2004 one in which a CH-53 clipped a university building. In summation, any local who wants the base to go would have some perfectly valid concerns that any American living in a similar situation would identify with.

Does the local community rely on the base to add to the local economy? To an extent, I’m sure it does. The base probably does a lot for the local community. But I’m curious how many local shops, restaurants, and department stores actually see an economic benefit from the base. Japanese food and consumer goods are only semi-compatible with American tastes, and I say that as an American. Japanese food can be weird and the clothes don’t fit are but two examples. But it’s also worth keeping in mind that since the base is located in the second largest economy on Earth, folding the base up and moving it somewhere else is not going to leave the Okinawans destitute, either.

I really had no preconceived notions before I started reading about this, but now, having learned more about it, I’m fairly sure that if I lived nearby I would want the base gone. Seventy percent of Okinawans want the base gone, or the U.S. military out of Okinawa entirely. I can’t blame them at all. Once local opinion is that much against the presence of a U.S. military base, it’s time to go.

Coming up: Part Three, and the view from Tokyo.

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A contributor and editor at the blog War Is Boring, Kyle Mizokami started Japan Security Watch in 2010 to further understand Japan's defenses and security policy.
Kyle Mizokami has 596 post(s) on Japan Security Watch