Twenty percent of Okinawa-Hontō and a small number of outer islands are covered by American military bases, employing 27,000 American military personnel. This in itself has fuelled local anger, but what rankles most is that Okinawa makes up less than one percent of the Japanese landmass, yet contains 75 percent of the country’s American bases. The issue is, however, far from black-and-white for the islanders, since the bases provide thousands of jobs and contribute vast sums to the local economy – rather important, given that Okinawa remains the poorest of Japan’s prefectures. In addition, many younger Okinawans relish the peculiar hybrid cultural atmosphere that the large number of foreigners brings to the islands.
Opinion to the bases, both local and national, has yo-yoed in the past couple of decades. A 1995 poll revealed a majority of Okinawans in favour of a continued American presence, but with a more even distribution throughout Japan. At that time, only twenty percent of the population wanted a complete withdrawal, but by 1996 the figure had increased to a convincing ninety percent – partially the result of an unfortunate but highly significant incident between the two polls, in which a twelve-year-old schoolgirl was raped by three American servicemen. Mass protests against American military presence were the inevitable result.
Manoeuvrings since then have been largely political in nature, and focused on Futenma, a large US Marine Corps air base just northeast of Naha. In 1996, the American and Japanese governments announced a joint plan to relocate the base to Henoko, a bay to the north of Okinawa-Hontō. This led to protests from the environmental lobby, aghast that the move would demolish precious coral reef in Henoko, as well as having an injurious effect on the bay’s sea life. eighty-three percent of Okinawans voted against the plan in a referendum. In 2005, the two governments agreed to move the relocation site to Camp Schwab, an existing Marine Corps base, though this will have similar environmental ramifications. In 2009, Yukio Hatoyama was elected Prime Minister on a campaign promise to move the base outside Japan entirely as the first step in a systematic removal of the American military presence. However, torn between Okinawa and Washington, Hatoyama reneged on his promise, and resigned just eight months after taking office. Regardless of what happens with Futenma, the American issue is likely to rumble on for some time.