Governor of Okinawa Calls for Solutions That Address U.S. Operational Impacts
The southern islands of Japan face a large share of the consequences of U.S. military activities, and its leader is seeking appropriate resolutions from U.S. officials. The Prefecture of Okinawa, which includes 32 inhabited islands and 1.5 million people, is witnessing geopolitics and military issues at its shores in ways not seen since World War II.
The island of Okinawa, the largest archipelago in the prefecture’s string, is host to 50,000 U.S. service members, civilians and their families. Moreover, 73% of U.S. military facilities in the country of Japan are located in Okinawa, an undue burden to the small islands, explained Denny Tamaki, governor of Okinawa Prefecture, speaking to reporters of the Defense Writers Group during a visit to Washington, D.C., on March 8.
The heavy concentration of U.S. bases in Okinawa has greatly impacted the island’s residents, with heinous crimes committed by U.S. service members—murder, rape and robbery—as well as dangerous military accidents—aircraft crashes, including into an elementary school—range fires, environmental spills, water and noise pollution, Governor Tamaki said, speaking through interpreter Hiroko Tamaki.
In addition, the island of Okinawa is facing water contamination, with even the U.S. service members and their families having to use purified water. And while Japanese officials have been trying to investigate the source of the pollution and have requested access to the related U.S. base, it has not been granted.
“I do understand the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance,” he stated. “The people of Okinawa have a desire to be alleviated of the anxiety coming from the overburden of hosting the United States military bases. I believe it is important that Japan and the United States implement measures to reduce the burden of Okinawa in a visible manner, including to reduce incidents, accidents and [address] the water contamination.”
The United States and Japan also agreed to the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station from Ginowan to Henoko, both located within the prefecture, without considering Okinawa’s local residents, who, along with the governor, oppose the move.
“The will or opinion of Okinawans is against the Futenma relocation to Henoko,” Tamaki stated. “Oura Bay in Henoko has extremely high biodiversity. In this area, there are more than 5,300 identified species, including 262 endangered species, such as dugong, which is designated as a nationally protected animal... [At the planned construction site of] Oura Bay there is a soft, mayonnaise-like seabed substance that spans 163 acres, so the feasibility of successful construction is very much in doubt.”
Given Okinawa’s proximity to Taiwan, the governor and its residents are concerned about the possible escalation of geopolitics. The Japanese government has shifted its policy, committing to an enhanced deterrence stance with the United States, and Tamaki is concerned that heightened deterrence may affect the region’s military and economic balance. Instead, he urged the priority be peace-building.
“In December last year, the lawmakers of Japan agreed on the three key defense documents, and the Japanese government announced a major shift of its defense policy, which drastically changed from the conventional policy that is in line with the National Constitution of Japan,” he noted. “When we think about the relations between the United States, China and Japan, we have to think about the high dependency amongst each other. These countries are highly dependent on each other economically. The Japanese government has announced that they are committed to enhanced deterrence. However, there is a concern that heightening the deterrence may cause the loss of the balance of the economy.”
In fact, the governor continued, the United States itself had a record high level of trade with China at $690.5 billion last year.
“Considering the tension between China and the U.S. over Taiwan, if anything happens, that is going to have a negative impact to all the players,” Tamaki stressed. “So, I believe engaging in peaceful diplomacy is the way to maintain the status quo or this balance.”
During his visit, the Okinawan governor is meeting with U.S. officials at the Department of Defense and Department of State in charge of Japanese affairs, as well as national security, economic and policy experts. Tamaki shared that he would be discussing Okinawa’s perspective of the relationships between Japan, China, Taiwan and the United States. “I want to send the message about the current situation we see in Okinawa,” he said. “It also is my mission to convey the message to the American people that we should not allow the situation to happen where that contingency [war] actually happens.”
Moreover, he said, the Japanese government’s shift in defense policy to allow the country to have a long-range standoff missile as part of a counterattack capability has led to a greater fear from some of its population. “There is a concern amongst the Japanese people that means Japan will have a capability that can be used as a pre-emptive strike,” he shared.
I believe it is important that Japan and the United States implement measures to reduce the burden of Okinawa in a visible manner.
On the chance that China does invade Taiwan, Japan has citizen protection laws that provide for the division of responsibilities among its cities and municipalities to protect or evacuate its populations under threat, and while a basic scheme is being planned, Tamaki said, more details, including funding, have yet to be determined by the Japanese government.
“In case there is any war….then the prefecture government or municipal governments have to have plans in place to evacuate its citizens by using private transportation as well—ships, buses, aircraft—there have to be agreements with those private entities in place. However, the discussions have not been done yet regarding the budget allocations. We believe that the national government has to make it clear what the roles and responsibilities are.”
That evacuation plan by the Okinawa Prefecture may potentially be a real need, with Taketomi, Japan’s southernmost island, only 150 miles from Taiwan. The leader of the U.S. Pacific Air Forces (PACAF), Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, USAF, in a call with reporters from the Air and Space Forces Association meeting in Colorado on March 8, noted that during a visit to Taiwan by the previous U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, China flooded the eastern Taiwanese coast with part of its naval fleet.
“You saw when Speaker Pelosi went to Taiwan, what China did with their ships,” Gen. Wilsbach said. “They put them on the east side of Taiwan, as a sort of blockade and those ships can put up an anti-access area denial engagement zone, that comes from their surface-to-air missiles that they can shoot from the ships. And so, in order for us to get past those, we got to sink the ships. Sinking ships is a main objective of not only PACAF, but really anyone that is going to be involved in a [potential] conflict like this, you're going to have to sink ships. That's going to be one of the first things you're going to have to do.”
Notably, the Okinawan leader cited two factors that could increase China’s propensity to invade Taiwan.
“There are two elements that can increase the possibility,” Tamaki said. “One is if Taiwan declares independence with a specific date and time. And another is if the U.S. denies the ‘One China’ policy. If those [elements] happen, there is a possibility that China will exert its military power [over Taiwan].”
Governor Tamaki emphasized that many Okinawans still remember the great cost of war, with 200,000 military and civilian lives lost during the Battle of Okinawa in World War II. “Some Okinawans do understand the deployment of Japan's Self-Defense Force in Okinawa by the Japanese government,” the governor said. “However, now because of this tension over Taiwan, many Okinawans think that we should never let Okinawa be a battlefield again.”
“We believe that deterrence is the most valuable outcome of the friction that we could have over Taiwan, and we would encourage the Chinese not to attempt to take that island by force,” Gen. Wilsbach stated. “It's not in their interest, it's not in the world's interest, it is not in the region’s interest, and certainly it is not in Taiwan's interest. So, we would say don't take that island out by force. And we hope to deter them. But if deterrence fails, one of the first things, from a PACAF standpoint, the first target that we're going to have to deal with is the ships.”