Trump Opens Door to Renegotiating Controversial Okinawa Base Deal

June 27, 2019
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

The Okinawa dugong will be evicted from its island home if the deal on a new military base struck by President Obama proceeds as planned. President Trump suggested he wants to renegotiate it.

Bloomberg News reported that President Trump “regards Japan’s repeated efforts to move a large military base in Okinawa as sort of a land grab and has raised the idea of seeking financial compensation.” The New York real estate mogul said the land the United States military is vacating “could be worth about $10 billion.” He feels it belongs to the United States. It doesn’t.

But that’s exactly how the US military feels about its bases in Okinawa. These sentiments are rooted in the brutal battle to take the island at the end of World War II that cost 12,520 American lives. The US military wanted to keep it indefinitely. Japanese public protests led the government in Tokyo to negotiate the return of Okinawa to Japan in 1972.

The base Trump was talking about is in the heart of a densely populated urban area and continuing to operate it is dangerous for US military personnel and the people living near by. But Obama’s Department of Defense would only agree to close the facility if it got a new one in return. The Japanese national government agreed to build a new base in Okinawa’s Henoko village and pay the construction costs. The land under the old facility would be given back to the people who owned it before the US military appropriated the land in 1945 to build the base.

Outsiders might think the people of Okinawa would be happy. They aren’t. If you lived on the island you might see things their way.  The US military occupies about 18% of the land on the islands that make up Okinawa prefecture.  The land mass of Okinawa is only 0.6% of Japan’s total but it accounts for 74% of all the land occupied by US military bases in Japan. Just over half of all US military personnel in Japan are stationed in Okinawa, which bears a disproportionally heavy share of the cost of the US military presence in Japan.

Trump knows real estate. He’s right when he says the land occupied by the military base would be far more valuable in private hands, where it could be used to develop Okinawa’s economy, which is the poorest, by far, of any region of Japan. Military base-related revenue is a paltry 4.9% of the island’s gross income and provides only 1.4% of the island’s jobs.

Okinawans want the dangerous old base in the middle of the city closed and the land returned. They’d be happy to do the same with all the military bases on the island. The inconveniences of living on a tiny island with an enormous military footprint are too numerous to mention but there is one that deserves particular attention. Generations of Okinawan children have grown up hearing and learning impaired from the constant and literally deafening roar of the military aircraft that take off and land at those bases. The horrible sound of it all also depresses tourism—the mainstay of Okinawa’s economy—on what would otherwise be a tropical paradise.

Okinawans are not only unhappy with Obama’s deal but they’re incredibly angry about the way they were treated. Nobody asked them what they thought should be done.  They don’t think it is fair that Okinawans should be forced to accept the construction of a new base on an island already packed with them.  And Obama could not have picked a worse place to build it. The construction of the new base will destroy one of the most beautiful and biodiverse areas of the island, which contains a precious coral reef that is home to a number of beloved and endangered species.

Obama’s team tried to sell the deal to the local population with the fiction they were just moving the old base from a bad spot to a better one. They didn’t buy it. In a recent referendum on the new construction more than 70% voted to stop it. The current governor, the former governor and a majority of the prefecture’ s elected officials have used every legal means at their disposal to try to stop that base from being built. Elderly villagers laid their bodies down in front of enormous earth moving vehicles to slow the construction down.

One hope for the people of Okinawa is for the US Congress to acknowledge their basic human right to have a say in the matter and pull the plug.  Another is for President Trump to sit down with Okinawa’s Governor Denny Tamaki and cut his own deal.  Tamaki may be open to considering the financial compensation Trump wants in exchange for stopping the construction of a new base more than 70% of his constituents don’t want.

Posted in: Japan

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Gregory Kulacki is an expert on cross-cultural communication between the United States and China. Since joining UCS in 2002, he has promoted dialogue between experts from both countries on nuclear arms control and space security.