US Military in Okinawa: Public Interest vs. Rights

Introduction

It is often seen that, in many instances, the areas of public interests in terms of public good, safety and welfare of the masses in economic and societal terms overlaps or transgresses individual rights. Often prefecture governments may take steps that may later be detrimental to the rights and privileges of individual citizens in terms of rights to property and personal safety. What has been going on in Okinawa is a situation is that, in this tiny island (0.6 % of Japan’s land mass) (Pop. 1.3 M), there is a concentration of US troops, constituting nearly 75% of military facilities and 65 % (approx. 29,000) of total 45,000 US troops stationed in Japan. (Inoue).

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It would not be incorrect to state that US hegemony over this island dates back to the aftermath of the Second World War, the war itself having claimed the lives of nearly 150,000 Okinawains, either during the conflict or through state induced suicides to avoid capture at the hands of the victorious Allied Forces. The domination and atrocities on Okinawains by US troops still continues, albeit in a different way.

Why American troops need to be stationed in Okinawa Island

Although transfer of ownership from the US to Japan took place in 1972, the Tokyo government thought it fit and necessary to seek American troops’ presence in the island, apparently due to perceived threats from communist counties like China or North Korea, who may nurse military designs of attacking Japan through this strategically positioned region.

Security in these areas: It is seen that Okhinawa’s strategic importance stems from the fact that it is equidistant (1500 kms radius) from Tampei, Shanghai, Seoul, Manila, Hong Kong, etc. Thus, if US forces need to be aligned to quell conflicts, it could be immediately done by launching counter-offensives from this island. (Military).

Maintenance of peace and stability in the Pacific region

Another aspect that US views with concern is the belligerent relations between China and Taiwan, which may escalate into war. In order to maintain peace, the US, in its role as an international policeman, needs to quickly realign forces to stop hostilities and broker peace settlements among the warring countries.

Thus, one of the main aspects, that benefits from the US military presence in Okinawa could be the maintenance of peace and stability in the Pacific region, and warring nations could be discouraged from mounting any offensive against Japan, for fear of retaliation from US forces stationed in these Japanese islands.

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One of the main reasons for the presence of such overwhelming US soldiers in Okhinawa was ostensibly to maintain the US commitment for peace and stability in this part of the world.

Even Tokyo has silently acquiescenced to the presence of military forces and a large military base in Futenma, which happened to be in a thickly populated residential area, thus contributing to noise pollution, health hazards and aerial pollution in these areas. Besides, a number of accidents have occurred due to crash of fighter aircrafts into buildings causing destruction. “The residents around the bases are always exposed to the danger of a possible disaster. Some schools have conducted fire drills on the assumption of a crash of U.S. planes.” (Problems of U.S. Military Bases in Okinawa, 6).

Yet, it would not be untrue to state that this area is dependent upon American economy to a very large extent for its sustenance. Nearly all public programs are sponsored by Americans as are the need for funding schools, hospitals and health aid centers and needs constant funding for its operations. Thus, it is seen that perhaps without American aid either directly or indirectly the economy and growth of this tiny island may be jeopardized and the American administration in Washington D.C. is not unaware of this truth.

Power Balance in the Pacific

The power balance in these sensitive zones needs to be supervised and overseen on a regular basis, especially in an extremely war prone zone like the Pacific, and the US has, to a very large extent been capable of maintaining peace, albeit at the cost of human fatalities and property losses. It may be genuinely argued that without the US presence, conflicts may arise intermittently and there would be heavy toll of losses, even of civilian lives and enormous damages and threats to property.

But the next question that arises is whether the Tokyo administration, or for that matter, world peacekeeping organizations like UNO, signatories of treaties signed between Japan and the US administration and the fervent pleas of the locals population in Okinawa, reduced to silent spectators to American intervention in the internal affairs of the island, the rape of its women and the apparent undermining of its civil rights and fundamental prerogatives in terms of rights to private property, movement and personal freedom reduced to naught.

Perhaps Tokyo has been over reactive to US military interests in Okinawa arising fundamentally from its own fears of trepidations from communists countries like China or North Korea who could wage war against Japan. In this respect, the US presence has been a strong deterrent to military designs of any of Japan’s adversaries, but whether this is a strong ground for continued occupation of nearly 30,000 troops in the island is food for thought for the Japanese think tank and military strategists in Tokyo.

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Compromising on societal rights in this prefecture

The main aspects that need to be taken up are as follows:

  1. Large portions of private land have been taken away for building US air bases. The US has not even fallen short of destroying houses and private properties, dislocating the local population in its efforts to build their military infra-structure.
  2. The over flights of low flying military aircrafts over civilian residential settings are a great threat in terms of accidents that have occurred in the past.
  3. Noise pollution caused by aircrafts is palpable and disturbs the peace and tranquility of civilian lives near the US air force bases in and around Kadena air base.
  4. The building of air bases has severely disrupted civilian lives; it has been built at the cost of relocating private property, rendering large number of civilian population to live in cramped housing in the outskirts of towns, thus adding to the mounting agony of the populace.

For example, Kadena Air Base takes up 83 percent of the land area of Kadena Town, forcing more than ten thousand residents to live in the remaining 17 percent of the land. (Problems of U.S. Military Bases in Okinawa).

Over protests of the population of the various problems caused by US military based in densely civilian dominated areas, it was agreed to shift the Futenama air base to a less populated zone, in Schwab in Nago city. (US to cut Okinawa troop numbers).

The cost of maintaining a large US contingent of troops in terms of sharing joint costs is costing the Japanese administration a tidy sum, which is increasing due to relocations of US troops from one air base to another. It is also seen that the costs would include housing, infra-structure and other needs of the troops stationed there. Perhaps, if the troops numerical are reduced, post Cold War, and finally tapered off, these savings could be more productively used for public welfare.

But it is apparent that Tokyo has no immediate designs for reducing or even halting American troop occupation in Okinawa, perhaps stemming from its own desire for self-preservation in this strategic island that, if falling into enemy hands, could severely hamper Japan’s hegemony in this region. Again, since troop presence is a positive indication of US- Japan solidarity against common adversaries, it would indeed be a long time before American troops would be allowed to leave Okinawaian soil.

Perhaps one of the most distrauting and alarming effects of the US military has been the compromise of civil liberties. During 1995, a Japanese school girl was abducted and raped by three American servicemen, which triggered off a massive protest, demanding withdrawal of US forces from the island. As a sequel to this, the US Japanese Special Action Committee Okinawa (SACO) was signed in which it was envisaged that the Japanese government wished to dramatically and drastically reduce the presence of American troops in the island. The main aspects were as follows :

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  • Return occupied land being used for air bases in various locations.
  • Readjust training and operational strategies and procedures
  • Enforce restrictions on noise alleviation and pollution
  • Improve the status of forces against processes and procedures that may undermine health and lives of civilian populations in Okinawa, especially the populace living near US military bases (The SACO Final Report December 2, 1996).

Another aspect would be with regard to the severe ecological disbalance and environmental issues connected with construction activities of the US forces in Okinawa. The building of bridges and embankments could severely damage ocean life and dugons on the island. There exists a strong nexus between Okinawa’s coastal and reef habitat and Okinawa’s’ cultural identity and the tourism. Thus, local economy and preservation of the marine environment are major issues. More shocking is the environment belief that nearly 75-90% of Okinawa’s reef population is now extinct. (Okinawan’s Women and Environmental Movements).

Need for tightrope balance between military interests and civilian rights

Thus, there are reasons to believe that the holding out of the US military occupation on the grounds of protection of Japanese interests would not be plausible in the long term. This is because the local residents of the prefecture are already up in arms against the various human rights violations and crimes committed by US forces and the various indignities that are heaped on them in the name of protection. While it may be in Tokyo’s political and military intereststo maintain a peace keeping force, it is believed that finally the will of the populace would dominate.

Tokyo’s main aims and objectives are to neutralize the power instincts of either China or North Korea, and the constant fear that hostilities in the Pacific Rim may overlap into Japanese territories and also to preserve the US Japan peace accords. It could also be in terms of seeking other economic interests while providing sanctuary to US forces in its soil.

However, it is necessary that there is fundamental balance between State and individual rights and interests. On the one hand, we have a situation where perhaps Tokyo cannot do without US presence, to protect it from stronger adversaries and, on the other, the presence of large number of unwarranted troops are already causing hardship and sufferings to its people.

It would be necessary to reduce the US troop presence to the minimum and relocate the displaced local inhabitants back to their homes. It would also be necessary for Tokyo to police its own regions without needing foreign assistance in these matters of internal security. Again, it is also necessary that the law and order situation in these tiny islands needs to step up and Tokyo should be able to at least guarantee the safety and welfare of its inhabitants, to a large extent.

SACO needs to be vigorously implemented and all facets need to be enforced for the common good of its people.

Special Action Committee on Okinawa

The Special Action Committee needs to co-ordinate with Washington to ensure that the terms of the report and agreements signed on various issues between Tokyo and Washington are implemented in letter and spirit and such human rights violations that have been going on in the past, with apparent impunity and disregard for maintaining the rights of the local population.

In this context, it is also to be seen that there needs to be contractual agreements to the effect that military bases and camps need to be built and maintained outside civilian limits, thus avoiding a lot of aircraft accidents, noise and aerial pollution and other detriments caused by over flights.

Kadera Air base

Even in the case of Kadera air base, it is seen that a plethora of air accidents where aircrafts have crashed into civilian buildings and constructions causing loss of life and damages to property has been reported. Low flying aircrafts over civilian territories are capable for causing noise and distractions and the risks of pilot error while negotiating high rise buildings are very much real.

Added to this is the fact that there have been instance of US soldiers not respecting the lives and culture of the Japanese people living in the island, in terms of major human rights violations, crimes, drinking accidents and road and aircraft mishaps that has severely undermined their credibility, thus demanding that the US occupation be withdrawn and forces sent back.

If such incidents were to continue, it would not be too long before international agencies like UN, NATO would be called to address human rights violations in the island and even the US Japan accords would need to be reviewed, over time.

Conclusion

Whatever be the justifications in terms of internal security of the island and its future, it is seen that the US presence would need to be reduced if peace is to reign supreme in this island. This is because the overwhelming presence of foreign troops in a proud and self honoring country would be not be allowed to stay longer than absolutely necessary and the US services have not really conducted themselves in a demeanor that could permit, if not encourage its continued presence in the island.

Post Cold war era, and the threats posed by Russian now a distinct non-entity, international Japan watchers and even the intelligentsia and think tank have begun to raise questions regarding continued presence of 30,000 strong US troops in a tiny island of just over a million inhabitants. Many feel that as long as US forces continue to occupy Okinawa, in whatever pretext they feel, the lives and welfare of the locals would remain endangered and there would be serious compromise to their privacy and human rights.

With American hegemony dictating the way of life in this island, it would not be surprising if public dissent gives way to a strong action and enforcement, either for self- governance for the Okinawaian people, breaking away from the mainland Japan, or serious thoughts in terms of reasserting their own rights, by displacing the present governance system and enforcing some other kind of local administration. This would not be difficult in the face of mass movements or dissensions against the present prefecture rule, which perhaps, is incapable of solving their problems or offering them protection and security in their own homes against foreign forces.

It would not be long before the Tokyo administration would need to address the Osama administration and, in no unequivocal terms, draw its attention to the goings on in US administered Okinawa with the intent of seeking to augur peace and security for its people and also institute a different kind of rule or administrative set up that could resolve long pending human and individual rights issues in this island and, if necessary, abrogate the present treaty system to a more equally balanced and equitable power sharing ratios.

This could also be in terms keeping the best interests of the Okhniwaian people in mind while addressing key issues affecting them and the future of coming generations to broker a better deal in terms of their quality of their lives in terms of economic prospects, reign of peace and security and reestablishment of a more peaceful and stress free lives for the populace in future.

For achieving this end, it is also necessary to seek the goodwill and sincere co-operation of the Obama government. It could also be seen in terms of seeking better US Japan relationships, not only considering its economic context, but also in terms of the betterment of its people, and nurturing a closer bond of affinity between the military command and the civil administration in Japan.

Aftermath

The success of the US in maintaining peace and harmony in the island would, to a very large extent, depend upon how Washington views the current scenario in the island and its perceptions of what could transpire in future in terms of its continued presence on the island, in terms of popular sentiments and the need to preserve human rights and civil administration in the island. It could also be seen in terms of the economic burdens caused in maintaining 30,000 troops in the island on a continued basis and the benefits that are derived from such investments.

Washington think tanks need to confer with the President and the Department of Defense in seeking to reduce troop build up, its implication on the security in the Pacific rim and ways and means by which American and Japanese interests could be maintained and nurtured, without compromising on the ideals and sentiments of the Okhinawanian people.

This is a serious issue, involving a tightrope balancing of various need aspects and the critical aspect of maintaining the security and welfare of the people in this region.

Works Cited

Inoue, Masamichi S. Okinawa and the U.S. military. Columbia University press. 2007. Web.

Military: Okinawa, Japan. Global Security. 2009. Web.

Okinawan’s Women and Environmental Movements. The U.S. Military Occupation in Okinawa. 2009. Web.

Problems of U.S. Military Bases in Okinawa. 2000. Web.

Problems of U.S. Military Bases in Okinawa. Consequences of the U.S. Military Bases in Okinawa. 2000. Web.

The SACO Final Report. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan. 2009. Web.

US to cut Okinawa troop numbers. BBC News. 2005. Web.

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