The long struggle of the United States and Japan to resolve the tangled issue of US military forces posted on the island of Okinawa has had more ups and downs than a roller coaster at Disneyland.

The latest came last week when officials from Washington and Tokyo said they had forged a new agreement under which 9,000 Marines would relocate from Okinawa to Hawaii, Guam, possibly the U.S. mainland and, on rotation, to Australia. Although key issues, like the fate of an airfield in Futenma, were left unsettled, it was a start.

Hardly had the officials uttered their agreement, however, when three powerful U.S. senators, two Democrats and one Republican, bellowed: “NO.” That stopped the new pact in its tracks and left President Obama and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda with serious losses of face before their meeting scheduled for Monday in Washington.

Sen. Carl Levin, Democratic chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Sen. John McCain, ranking minority member of that committee, and Sen. Jim Webb, Democratic chairman of the Foreign Relations subcommittee on East Asia, told Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta that the agreement was “premature.”

Those senators, in positions to demand answers to a raft of questions and, more important, to say yea or nay to providing funds for changes, asserted in a letter to Panetta: “No new basing proposal can be considered final until it has the support of Congress, which has important oversight and funding responsibilities.”

The issue of Okinawa goes back to 1945, late in World War II, when Americans and Japanese fought a horrendous battle for the island in southwestern Japan. In 82 days, 65,000 Americans and allies were casualties as were 100,000 Japanese and uncounted tens of thousands of Okinawan civilians.

The U.S. occupied the island until 1972 when control reverted to Japan in response to a revival of Japanese nationalism and recovery from wartime devastation. The U.S. and Japan agreed, however, that US forces could retain bases there. Today about 18,000 Marines are posted there and the Air Force maintains a huge airbase at Kadena.

Those forces are considered vital to the projection of U.S. power into the Western Pacific, to the defense of Japan, to reinforce U.S. troops in the event of hostilities in Korea, and to support humanitarian missions. But they occupy valuable land on a crowded island, make noise and cause congestion, and are guilty of occasional crimes.

In this snarled web are at least four Japanese and four American groups of contestants, each with their own demands:

  • Activists and politicians in Okinawa who seek to drive the U.S. completely out and are impervious to arguments that U.S. forces help to defend Japan.
  • Small business owners and those with jobs at the American bases who want the Americans to stay but perhaps to move to less crowded places on the island.
  • Politicians in the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) who, in Japan’s parliamentary system, have only recently come to power and lack experience in governing. So far, the DPJ, which is suspicious of U.S. power, if not anti-American, has been inept in dealing with the Okinawa issue.
  • Politicians in the Liberal Democratic Party who ruled Japan for most of the postwar years and tended to rely on the U.S. for Japan’s defense. They reached an agreement on Okinawa in 2006 after more than 10 years of negotiation but the DPJ reneged on it after they came to office.
  • Pentagon officials and military officers have long contended that Okinawa was essential to U.S. operations in East Asia. Conservatives generally agree.
  • Liberals and neo-isolationists have advocated a withdrawal, or at least a great reduction, of U.S. military deployments abroad, including those on Okinawa.
  • The Obama White House has shown no particular interest in the Okinawa issue other than to reiterate its belief that Japan is an important ally in Asia.
  • Congress has weighed in most recently with the swift blocks thrown by Senators Levin, McCain, and Webb. Not for the first time, the Obama Administration has failed to take the Congress into account on a sensitive issue.

In the end, a ray of hope for an equitable settlement may come from the optimism of the Okinawans. In the movie, “The Teahouse of the August Moon,” the main Okinawan character, Sakini, points to Okinawan history to make a point to the American rather blimpish colonel.

“We survived the invasion of the Chinese and we survived the Japanese,” Sakini says. “And we will survive you.”

About the Author

  • Richard Halloran
    Richard Halloran, who writes the weekly column called “The Rising East,” contributes articles on Asia and US relations with Asia to publications in America and Asia. His career can be divided into thirds: One third studying and reporting on Asia, another third writing about national security, and the last third on investigative reporting or general assignment. He did three tours in Asia as a correspondent, for Business Week, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, and was a military correspondent for The New York Times for ten years. He is the author of Japan: Images and Realities and To Arm a Nation: Rebuilding America’s Endangered Defenses, and four other books. As a paratrooper, Halloran served in the US, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam. He has been awarded the George Polk Award for National Reporting, the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense, the U.S. Army’s Outstanding Civilian Service Medal, and Japan’s Order of the Sacred Treasure. He holds an AB from Dartmouth