The Other Side of Okinawa

Tom Conway and Kevin Maher

Do you want to start off by speaking a little about yourself, your background, and what exactly qualifies you to speak on the topic?

Kevin Maher: I am  retired from the U.S. Department of State, where I was a Foreign Service Officer for 30 years, 19 of those years I was posted in places around Japan. I made roughly 35 trips to Okinawa over the course of my career, before being commissioned as Consul General in Okinawa from 2006-09. When I retired about a year ago I was the Director of the Office of Japan Affairs at the State Department.  Prior to my assignment to Okinawa I held the post of Director of Political-Military Affairs at the American Embassy in Tokyo.  Much of my career was focused on political-military issues.

Could you talk about the war, specifically the battle of Okinawa?  How do Okinawans feel about it even today and how does it affect the US-Japan-Okinawa relationship?

Kevin Maher: The battle was a very tragic battle, one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific War. Prior to the atomic bomb being dropped it was the last battle and it followed Iwo Jima. When American forces were bombing the island in preparation for the landing, I’m sure it was like hell for the people there. The estimates are that anywhere from a third to fourth of the civilian population was killed. Now the older generation has reached the age that the number of survivors is starting to dwindle but there are still a number of them that you can talk to.  When you talk to those people they’ll tell you that it was a living hell, but what you will also notice is that a lot of the lingering resentment people still have is not so much directed toward Americans as it is toward Tokyo.

That is pretty surprising given that we attacked the island?

Kevin Maher: The reason for that is the history of Okinawa is very complex. Culturally and linguistically it has always been tied to Japan, the original Okinawa language really being based on Japanese. But up until about 400 years ago it was the independent Ryukyu Kingdom before it was brought under Japanese control and it wasn’t until the late 1800s when it became a prefecture. After that, for a long time Okinawa felt discriminated against by mainland Japanese.
Then you have the bloody battle, with estimates of over 100,000 Okinawans killed, and the occupation by the US until 1972. After that there is a triangular relationship that developed, which people have to keep in mind when dealing with the politics there. There is the Okinawa-Japan relationship then US-Japan, and finally US-Okinawa because of our long presence there during occupation and now. One reason it’s complicated is the politicians of Okinawa and the Japanese government don’t have much trust between each other because of the history of Okinawa. There are stories about how in their view they were scarified by mainland Japan in the battle of Okinawa, forced to dig the tunnels by the Japanese army then not being allowed in when the bombardment of artillery was taking place. Their recollection of the battle is that they were sacrificed to slow down the invasion of the mainland and that history is always in the background.

So what do they remember when they look back at the US’s involvement in the battle. Do they remember the Japanese more than the Americans?

Kevin Maher: Obviously they remember the battle itself and if you woke up and saw 100s of American ships off the coast ready to shoot at you that’s something you never forget. But they do have that resentment more toward mainland Japan because of the sacrifice.

Describe politically how the relationship works between Okinawa and Japan.

Kevin Maher:  According to the Meiji and the postwar constitutions it is just like any of the 47 other prefectures. But when you get into dealing with issues like the base issues, such national security issues are handled by the central government, as they should be. But the central government in some cases still needs local agreement or understanding on certain issues and that’s when you get into the very difficult political dynamic between the local governor and the national government. A good example of this is the base alignment plan at Futenma meaning The Marine Corps air station at Futenma in Ginowan city.  There is a plan in place to move it into an existing marine base but it would require some landfill work in the oceans and only the governor has permission to allow that. It has been an effort for years to get them to agree to that and sometimes they say they agree and sometimes they don’t. However, politicians in Okinawa are very adept at using that dynamic to negotiate subsidies from the federal government so there is always that dynamic involved. That and the history make it more difficult to negotiate with Okinawa than most other local governments.

Let’s talk about the base realignment plan you brought up, specifically Marine Corps Base Futenma, which has gotten a great deal of attention lately.

Kevin Maher: Well essentially the original genesis of this plan goes back to a tragic rape case in 1995, involving US soldiers and an Okinawan women. The two governments decided to draw it up to reduce the friction and burden created by the base. Now Futemma is a Marine Corps Air Station on the southern part of the Island.  See when Futemma was built after WW2 it was a farming community. There really wasn’t much around it, but the base is really symbolic of the occupation to many Okinawans because the land was not being used as a base before this air station was built unlike many of our other bases, which were Japanese facilities we took over.  Now over the years urbanization and construction have been allowed to the point where you literally have housing built right up to the fence line.
In 1996 that was when the original SACO (Special Action Committee on Okinawa) agreement was put into place.  Basically you would rebuild the capabilities of Air Station Futenma into Camp Schwab, which is an existing base in a rural area.  But there was landfill involved out on the coast there and protesters physically blocked the environmental impact assessment team and the Japanese were not willing to use the coastguard or police to remove the protesters.

The 2005 agreement was actually a much larger realignment plan that was agreed upon during the 2 + 2 meeting between the two Secretaries of State and two Defense Ministers (US and Japanese).   The agreement issued in October 2005 was called the “US-Japan Alliance:  Transformation and Realignment for the Future”. It had two objectives: first was to reduce the burden on the local base hosting communities and second was to increase deterrent capabilities of US and Japanese forces under the alliance framework. To do this a three-part plan was developed. The first part of this was to relocate Futenma to Camp Schwab, which is in the northern, less populated area, and this would require some landfill, but you would basically be building a shorter runway within an existing base. The second part of this would be done through moving 8,000 Marines to Guam leaving 10,000 Marines in Okinawa. Once those two parts of the plan were completed you would be able to carry out a large-scale consolidation and return of US military facilities, in the southern part of the island where most of the population is, to Okinawa. This would include the return of Air Station Futemna. Overall, bases would be consolidated into existing bases in rural areas. A misconception by opponents leads to them saying they’re against the building of the new bases but there are no new bases, that was never part of the plan by either government. It is building within existing bases. 

What do you think is going to happen with regard to the realignment plan?

Kevin Maher: I think MCAS Futenma is probably going to stay where it is. The reason I say that is because both governments and even the current, Democratic Party of Japan-led, government recognize as well that you need to maintain the deterrent compatibility of the forces in Okinawa. The reason for that is they are very concerned about the rise of China, which has been very provocative in the region in the last few years.
They (China) have expanded their blue water naval capability and increased their defense spending, rapidly.  Their strategic plan is what they call the First Island Chain Defense and if there was ever a conflict they would look to control the first chain of islands off the coast of China and that includes the Ryukyu Islands, the Okinawa islands. Their basic air/naval strategy is what they call Area Access /Area Denial and that is the denial of access to the East China Sea and the South China Sea.
Back in 2010 in September there was a dispute over the Senkaku Islands, between Japan and China. The US was very clear the US-Japan Security Treaty covers those islands. After that you saw demonstrations in China of people saying they need to take the Ryukyu (Okinawa) islands back. These islands, the southwest islands, are in a very strategic location.

There are no other American territories in the area where we could move a base like Futemma? Is it possible for the deterrent to come from elsewhere, outside of Okinawa?

Kevin Maher: In that context, the specific answer as to  why you can’t locate Marine Corps Air Station Futemma outside of Okinawa is that the marines are the only mobile ground forces we have in the western Pacific. The US Army elements in Korea are heavy units, not mobile units like the Marine Corps. The Marines are a rapid response force and they have to train regularly because they never know when they are going to be deployed.
Now that training is what generally causes the friction in these urbanized areas because the Marines have to fly their helicopters to go up to the training ranges in the northern part of the island and the helicopters often have to fly into Futenma at night because they have a lot of nighttime training. So those are the complaints you get of helicopters flying in after 10 at night. People new to the discussion on the Japanese and American side often say well why can’t we just move the helicopters off the island and bring them back when we need to. That doesn’t work because the Marines are an integrated force, meaning they have their own air support. They have to have air, ground  and support units all located close to the training range.  If the helicopter units were to be relocated outside of Okinawa, they would lose their ability to do integrated training.  The bottom line is if they don’t train they die in battle.  The Marines never know when they are going to be deployed, so they must be ready at all times, and must train regularly.  We cannot sacrifice the lives of young Marines for the sake of local politics.

If the bases cannot be moved off Okinawa, why can’t they be relocated on the island like the plan proposes?

Kevin Maher: I just don’t think the Japanese government has the political will to try to force the Okinawa governor to agree to it. Landfills, which are a key part of the plan, require the local governor’s consent. Problem is, the governor used to support the plan and then he ran for reelection.  Prior to that, Yukio Hatoyama, who became the Prime Minister of Japan starting in early September 2009, came out with a policy, without really understanding the issues, and promised to move Futemna out of Okinawa. Only 8 months later he realized that wasn’t possible and changed his position.  In the meantime the governor had changed his position as well in line with what the Prime Minister had originally said so when he ran for reelection part of his platform was that Futemna needed to be moved outside of Okinawa as opposed to relocated to Camp Scwab.  So I am not optimistic that plan can be implemented. It is very disappointing from the perspective of the people living in Okinawa that the Japanese Government and politicians in Okinawa aren’t able to show the leadership needed to push this forward.

Frankly, does it matter to the United States where the bases are in Okinawa?

Kevin Maher: If the realignment cannot be implemented it is not a crisis for the alliance because the current situation operationally works just fine. Operationally it does not really matter. I think our position should be as long as the operational capability is maintained it should be up to the Japanese side to decide if it stays at Futemna or moves up to Camp Schwab, either works. Personally, I think it would be much better to implement the plan because it really is a large-scale reduction of the irritants, the friction, and ultimately the burden of the bases. The US has long recognized that our presence there is very heavy but people just have to understand that the capability needs to be maintained in order for the U.S. to meet its commitments for the defense of Japan and to maintain peace and stability within the region.

Are the bases, as currently set up, dangerous?

Kevin Maher: The opponents of the base presence will always say it (Futenma) is the most dangerous airfield in the world, which it’s not by any means. There’s this mythology that even Secretary Rumsfeld, when he visited Okinawa several years ago, had said, “this is the most dangerous airfield in the world,” which he never said but that’s the mythology. There are many commercial airports in Japan that have much more risk in terms of flight volume and frequency, and much higher population density around the airfields.  Using objective measures such as this to determine risk, Futemna is simply not the most dangerous.  When I was Consul General in Okinawa every time I would point that out I’d have protests outside my office the next day.  But I, and the US government, recognize the seriousness of local concerns about safety and local concerns about noise.  So it would be best to relocate MCAS Futenma to Camp Schwab, where the airfield would be on a peninsula and most flights would be over water, reducing local concerns about safety and noise.

What about the interactions between those on the base and Okinawan civilians? Is crime a problem?

Kevin Maher: Obviously any crime committed by a US military member or their family is one too many, and should be treated very strictly.  But the reality is, on a per capita basis, the crime rate of the military people on Okinawa is much less than that of the local population. This doesn’t excuse anything but this notion that the US military is there committing all these crimes running amok all over the people of Okinawa just isn’t reality. Any group of 25,000 people will have some crime but the standards of the US military are very high. You can look at the Japanese police statistics. The crime rate in Japan is very low, it is a very safe country, and the US military crime rate in Okinawa is even lower than that. I understand the local reaction because, like the police, the military is here to protect and it is held to a higher standard, as it should be. It also is important to note that the idea the Status of Forces Agreement protecting military personnel from being subject to Japanese law isn’t true. Criminal acts committed by a military member off base or on base, if committed against a Japanese national, are subject to the primary jurisdiction of the Japanese, not the United States. Only if the Japanese waive or don’t exercise primary jurisdiction does the US then have secondary jurisdiction to prosecute, which has happened, but it is up to the Japanese authorities to first decide. There is one exception for acts during official duty but those are very rare cases.

Why is the United States responsible for maintaining peace and stability in the region?

Kevin Maher: This is one of our responsibilities we assumed under the US-Japan Security Treaty. Some people in Okinawa criticize our base presence and point out that the Marines aren’t really there for the defense of Japan but are there for regional issues. Well that’s true, they are not there just for the defense of Japan. Article 5 and Article 6 of the Security Treaty lay out each government’s responsibilities under the alliance framework and it’s relatively simple. Article 5 says that an attack in areas under the administration of Japan is subject to the treaty and we would defend Japan. Article 6 says that the US responsibility is to contribute to the defense of Japan and to the maintenance of peace and stability in the Far East. Article 6 also lays out Japanese responsibility, which is simply to provide facilities and areas to US forces. This asymmetrical security relationship reflects Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which states Japan will not maintain military forces.  This is why Japan only has “Self-Defense Forces”. 

I really don’t understand why the governor would continue to oppose the plan when it seems like it would benefit the people in such a large way?

Kevin Maher: I agree he should support it, and he used to support it in principle before he ran for re-election.  The politics behind it are very complex. Maybe a third of Okinawans, just for ideological reasons oppose any military presence, many of them being very sincere. They truly believe if there were no military the world would be at peace. I find that to be a very naïve view of the world. When meeting with those groups when I was Consul General, I would explain to them that we really have the same objective—you want to maintain peace and the US wants to keep peace, we just have a very different view on how you do that. History unfortunately teaches us that being unarmed doesn’t mean you can avoid conflict but often invites conflict. The way you prevent conflict is to have sufficient deterrent capabilities so a potential adversary is very much aware it’s not a good idea to attack, and that’s the fundamental rule of deterrence.
Further complicating the issue is another group of people that understand the importance of the US-Japan alliance and support it but aren’t very vocal about it for their own local political reasons. Lately, elections in Okinawa haven’t focused on the bases. Primary issues have been the economy, pensions, healthcare, and jobs.  But after the fact no matter which side wins the election, be it pro alliance or anti alliance they tend to say that the election was about the base issues when opinion polls prior to the election show otherwise.
Another complicating factor is the long history of using opposition to the base presence to negotiate with the central government for compensation or subsidies. Okinawa gets a tremendous amount of subsidies from the central government, some officially related to the base presence, others not officially related. The reality is that they are nearly all related to the base presence at least indirectly. Unfortunately, there are some people in the Okinawan political world who frankly don’t want the friction with the base issues to be resolved because they will lose their negotiating position. It is very regrettable. I don’t think most people in Okinawa are served well by that kind of politics.

Are the people becoming more cognizant of the growing presence of China and looking at the bases and finding themselves comforted?

Kevin Maher: I think the people in Okinawa are more aware of it, particularly the last few years because of the conflict over the Senkaku Islands and increasing incursions of Chinese submarines coming very close to Japanese waters with their ships, and aircraft as well. I think the political world in Okinawa probably is cognizant as well but they aren’t following the lead of the people. I think the people are probably ahead of the politicians in Okinawa in terms of responding to the increasing threat of China. Having said that you still have that large group of people ideologically opposed to the military who believe if there was no US or Japanese military presence no one would threaten Okinawa because it would not be a threat to anyone else. That is naïve, especially when you look at a map. I often brief people by showing a map turned sideways and show how Japan’s island chain looks as viewed from China. It really puts it in perspective how geographically and strategically important the Okinawa Islands are. I think the public in general is getting more realistic about the necessity of a robust deterrent capability, particularly with respect to China, but they are also concerned about North Korea, and Russia has recently again become more active in the region.
But the politics hasn’t come to grips with that. Okinawa politicians still fall into this reflexive position on base issues that no matter what happens, say a new type of aircraft comes in to replace an old one, they automatically oppose it because it “increases the burden” and “makes the bases permanent.” Those are the catch phrases they use and it’s a very difficult dynamic for the Japanese government to deal with.  It’s important to note the Japanese government has the real responsibility to deal with the politics of Okinawa, and the United States only deals directly with the Japanese government.

If Okinawans were able to vote on the future of the bases, a strictly popular vote, what do you think the outcome would be?

Kevin Maher: I think it would depend on how you asked the question. If asked would you rather have all the bases gone or not, I think it would be pretty interesting and I think you would have a close vote. If you just asked do you want Marine Corps Air Station Futenma moved off the island you would get an overwhelming response saying yes.  Shaping the question in terms of if moving Futemna out of Okinawa means all the bases move out of Okinawa, meaning all of the military presence out, I don’t think you would get a majority vote. Economics is also a factor that impacts people’s thinking. The bases are large employers. Working on one is considered a very good job. If you are a base employee you get paid as if you were a national (Japanese) government employee, which is higher pay given that the wages in Okinawa are lower than Japan. That impacts people’s thinking but I don’t think that’s a main factor. Fact is, the people who don’t live very close to the bases, who don’t hear the helicopters, particularly those born after WWII, don’t think that much about the bases. I think probably the majority understands that if you moved all of the bases out it would put Okinawa in a very precarious position strategically. If the question were put in the simple way, would it be better if there was no bases, most would say yes.   Even I would say yes if we lived in the kind of world in which no threats existed.  But that’s no the real world.  If you framed the question with respect to the threat from China it would be a much different answer.

As Americans looking over at the base situations in Okinawa, should we view our presence there as something that affects us in a positive way? Do the bases directly benefit Americans?

Kevin Maher: I think absolutely. Our fundamental strategy for years has been to maintain a forward deployed presence. I think one of the lessons of the 20th century unfortunately has been if the US withdraws the world becomes very dangerous and we end up having to get involved anyway. Particularly in the Pacific it is important to maintain forward presence because it is a long way away and we need to maintain that presence to deter certain contingency situations from occurring. Japan is fundamental to that. It is a good deal for the US too in terms of the sharing of responsibility and cost of maintaining that forward presence because of the host nation support agreements we have with the Japanese government. The Japanese provide a substantial amount of financial support as its contribution to the alliance, things like the wages of Japanese employees on the bases, utilities, and a majority of construction on base as well. It is a very good relationship because the responsibility is shared. Japan provides more host-nation support than any other ally. I think if we were to pull these forces out of Japan, East Asia would become a very dangerous place. A power vacuum would occur and probably an arms race as well. It is much safer to maintain the presence here, maintain the stability of the region, and deter potential aggressors from starting trouble. One of the lessons of history is that at some point someone is going to do something stupid and its better to be in place and try to deter that, and to maintain the capability to respond to it if needed.