Op-Ed: President Obama’s Visit to Japan and the Okinawa Question

Updated 4/29/14, 5/13/14

In an editorial dated 4/29/14, the Ryukyu Shimpo pleaded with President Obama to unconditionally close the Futenma U.S. Marine Corps Air Station and return, to Japan, the land that it now occupies. The current agreement to close it is based on the condition that the base would be relocated in Henoko, in northern Okinawa. (For background on the Futenma-Henoko MCAS issue, click here.)

This issue is complex. It involves pacts between the U.S. and the Japanese government for the military defense of Japan and the surrounding region. Okinawa, where many of the U.S. bases are located, is caught in the middle, between a rock and a hard place. Okinawan government leaders, too, are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Should they support the pacts between the U.S. and their national government, or should they bow to the mandate of the majority of Okinawan citizens who, in their desperate desire to reduce the U.S. military presence in their homeland, refuse to accept the political compromises?

The hearts and emotions of all those, in Okinawa and the world, who value peace and self-determination are with the people of Okinawa who are protesting the continuation of the massive U.S. military presence in Okinawa. The reality, however, involves much more than these ideals, with a dangerous geopolitical standoff at the epicenter.

When all is said and done, the fundamental issue is one of fair play, and the finger points to the Japanese national government as well as to the U.S. military: Why should one small prefecture in Japan carry so much of the military defense burden for the entire region?

If removal of bases is not an option in the foreseeable future, then the two powers need to move in the direction of balance, distributing the bases throughout Japan in a pattern that spreads the load fairly among the different prefectures. 

If dispersion is difficult or impossible, then the alternative is for both powers to compensate the people of the islands in such a way that, from the Okinawan’s perspective, the bases represent an advantage rather than a disadvantage. In this regard, money may be effective.

Simply dumping more money into the economy may not be the answer since the people may not directly benefit from the windfall. One option is to earmark the funds for education and health. For example, in amounts that the citizens consider fair compensation, the money could be used to improve the prefecture’s entire K-12 school system so that it becomes a model for the rest of the country in terms of facilities, resources, curricula, and instruction.

But it shouldn’t stop there. Preschool education should be included in the upgrade. Higher education, too, with Okinawan high school graduates eligible for ample and generous scholarship opportunities for higher education in mainland Japan and the U.S.

The funds could also be used to raise the level of health care for the citizens to the point where it, too, becomes a model for the rest of the country. This service could be made available at low or no cost to the people, and it could include Japan’s best resources for geriatric care at no cost to the elderly.

These compensations, especially if they’re made in sums that could make an appreciable difference in the lives of the ordinary citizens of Okinawa, would go a long way toward ameliorating the conflict.

However, there’s also the very real possibility that the Okinawans won’t settle for anything less than a drastic reduction in U.S. military presence and no amount of monetary compensation would suffice. Whatever the case, President Obama’s visit to Japan represents an opportunity to open a deeper discussion between the two powers re what’s fair for the people of Okinawa.

In the end, the goal of government is justice, for the people, and as it stands, Okinawans have every right to expect it from the most powerful country in the world and from their own national government.

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