Sunday’s election of a ‘pro-base’ mayor – Taketoyo Toguchi – in Nago City, Okinawa, surprised many observers, but it shouldn’t have. The only surprise was that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) successfully marshaled the widespread support for (or perhaps tolerance of) US military bases that has long existed on Okinawa.

Press reports over the last couple of decades give the impression Okinawa seethes with opposition to the US military presence – and that all residents agree on this point. Not exactly.

Okinawa is as complex as any society. Conservative, pro-base candidates have performed well in elections for years. Why isn’t this better known?

Western reporters visiting Okinawa often follow the same itinerary: parachute in for a few days, speak with Okinawa Prefectural Government (OPG) officials (who tend to be anti-military), speak with a few of the small number of protesters outside a US Marine base, quote a couple of anti-base academics, speak with a taxi driver, and disregard the US military’s input.

Japanese reporters aren’t much better. A few years back, a reporter for a Japanese weekly magazine actually went to Henoko village, adjacent to the new US Marine airfield. Two typical replies from the locals – who generally support the Marines’ presence – were: “Why don’t you people (reporters) ever come to talk to us?” and “What do those people ‘over the mountain’ (in Nago City) know about what we think?” And the protesters? “They’re paid to come here. And they’re not even from
here.”

The Okinawan media is slavishly anti-base, however. Also, the prefectural bureaucracy is reflexively on the ‘anti’ side of the issue.

Okinawa is an insular island society. Speak up on behalf of the US bases and you will get verbally savaged and ostracized. It’s sort of like wearing a Make America Great Again cap. Thus, the tendency is for those of a pro-base tendency – including politicians and officials – to clam up until election time, or work quietly behind the scenes.

A U.S. Air Force's F-22 Raptor jet takes off at Kadena U.S. Air Force Base on Japan's southwestern island of Okinawa June 15, 2009. Reuters/Yuriko Nakao
A US Air Force F-22 Raptor jet takes off at the Kadena US Air Force Base on Okinawa. Photo: Reuters / Yuriko Nakao

Another underreported aspect of the problem is the financial angle. Money may not be the only motivator on Okinawa – but it’s a big one. Okinawa receives about US$3 billion in annual ‘support payments’ from the central government, on top of other assistance. That’s a lot of money for an island prefecture with only 1.4 million people. Adjust for population size, and in the US it’s equivalent to an annual US$1 trillion ‘stimulus package.’

To receive the money, all the OPG has to do is complain about the bases. Nothing more. Not surprisingly, the pro-base faction is also glad to have this money. To spend it requires the OPG to think up a US$8 million project every day of the year – weekends and holidays included.

Japan’s other cash-strapped and fading prefectures would be delighted to bear such a burden. Nobody tends to ask where the money goes and what’s to show for it. The central government sending auditors to ensure Japanese taxpayers know they are getting their money’s worth would likely be unwelcome.

This largesse has created something of a ‘cargo cult’ that keeps the Okinawan government from developing a diversified economy that’s not dependent on handouts and tourism. As a result, many young Okinawans leave for opportunities elsewhere.

Taketoyo Toguchi (center) is surrounded by supporters in Nago, Okinawa prefecture, on February 4, 2018. Photo: AFP / Jiji Press / Japan Out
Taketoyo Toguchi (center) is surrounded by supporters in Nago, Okinawa prefecture, on February 4, 2018. Photo: AFP / Jiji Press / Japan Out

Curiously, Japan’s central government seldom uses its financial leverage. It has also tended to be ineffective at mobilizing local support. Instead, it’s intimidated by Okinawan complaints and uses the US military – marines in particular – as a buffer, while pouring money into the prefecture in the hope of buying cooperation. Not exactly a sound strategy.

Opposition to American bases elsewhere in Japan is not as strident. This partly owes to ethnic differences between Okinawans and mainland Japanese and perceived unfair treatment. But more fault lies with central government policies, and even US military and US Government missteps. And in recent years, Chinese political warfare has stirred the pot, with Beijing supporting anti-base groups (and even, allegedly, funneling cash to them). The Japanese government frets but does little.

But even if there is support for US bases, it’s important to restate why they are needed. Time and distance matter. Until Okinawa floats eastward into the Pacific Ocean a few thousand miles, it’s in a very strategic location.

But isn’t warfare now a high-tech business involving smart bombs, stealth aircraft, submarines, and cruise missiles? Not really. Military operations must still combine air, sea, and ground forces to be effective. And that’s equally true for the disaster-relief operations that Okinawa-based Marines conduct regionally several times a year.

Misreadings of Okinawan society have led to years of distraction, with efforts being diverted away from upgrading JSDF capabilities and from Japanese and American forces co-operating

To do things ashore, ground troops are indispensable. The Okinawa Marines are the only immediately deployable US ground forces in an area stretching from Korea to India.

For many years, it was believed – erroneously – that Marines on Okinawa were only useful for contingencies beyond Japan. The Chinese are proving otherwise. The PRC has claimed the Senkaku islands, at the southern end of the Ryukyu chain, and it is tightening the noose. In fact, it has also challenged Japanese sovereignty over the entire chain, including Okinawa. Japan’s military (JSDF) would be hard-pressed to defend against Chinese encroachment without US support.

The JSDF is standing up its own amphibious brigade next month for the purposes of “island retaking.” But, ironically, the importance of US bases on Okinawa and an amphibious capability in the Ryukyus are best understood in Beijing. The PLA has worked feverishly to build its own amphibious forces with the East China Sea and the Ryukyus in mind.

Ultimately, misreadings of Okinawan society have led to years of distraction, with efforts being diverted away from upgrading JSDF capabilities and from Japanese and American forces co-operating.

The Nago election isn’t the end of anything. Prime Minister Abe still needs to make the case on Okinawa and throughout Japan for the US bases – and why they are necessary. But it’s time a handsomely-compensated, noisy opposition in a prefecture representing about 1% of Japan’s population was stopped from leading Japan’s national security around by the nose.