Plan to move US Marine base highlights rifts on Okinawa, reveals fault lines in Asia strategy

For 10 years, Hiroshi Ashitomi has been coming to the beach near his Okinawa home every day to sit. He loves nothing more than the sea around the island, the rare sightings of dugongs and sea turtles, the tan sand and the crags out by the breakwater. He believes the sea is the greatest gift of his ancestors and he wants to pass it on to future generations.

So he sits. In protest.

Like many Okinawans, including leading politicians and media, Ashitomi opposes a plan to move a controversial Marine base to a less crowded part of the southern Japanese island. The proposed location for the new airstrip — Ashitomi's favorite beach — is the epicenter of the opposition.

The U.S. and Japan reached the relocation agreement after nearly two decades of talks and protests. Ironically, it was partially intended to placate Okinawan anger over the huge U.S. military presence near urban areas.

Okinawa is the most important forward operations location the United States military has in Asia. Nearly 20,000 Marines are based there, along with one of the U.S. Air Force's largest overseas airfields.

Both governments say the multibillion-dollar deal to move Marine Corps Air Station Futenma will strengthen Washington's keystone alliance in Asia. But it also has reopened frustrations that underscore on-the-ground opposition to how the U.S. is positioning its troops in the region in its much-touted rebalance in the Pacific. It also highlights difficulties for ally Japan, which must deal with an increasing challenge from China for superiority in the Western Pacific.

Okinawan public opinion is strongly against increases in the U.S. military presence. The Pentagon plans to eventually move some troops away, but many Okinawans see the relocation plan as one of many signs that Tokyo and Washington do not respect their desire to reduce the U.S. military footprint on the island.

"We Okinawans are not particularly anti-American," Ashitomi, a retired welfare case worker, said from inside a weather-beaten tent covered with protest banners and anti-base posters. "But we can't allow the politicians to betray us like they have. It will be difficult, but we must go back to the roots of democracy and get a mass movement to force them to resign."

The battle over Futenma is a mixture of historical animosity, political maneuvering and not-in-my-backyard grassroots opposition.

Once an independent kingdom, Okinawa was formally assimilated by Japan in the late 1800s. It was one of the bloodiest battlefields of World War II and the only heavily populated part of Japan to suffer invasion and extended on-the-ground fighting. After Japan's surrender, it was left under the administration of the United States until 1972, 20 years after the occupation of Japan had ended.

Though it makes up less than 1 percent of Japan's total land, the tiny, crowded island hosts more than half of the U.S. troops based in the country. Okinawa's government has long demanded that the burden be more equitably shared across the nation.

The Futenma Marine base was built when Okinawa was under U.S. jurisdiction, and initially was surrounded by sugar cane fields and the ruins of war. Now it is surrounded on all sides by dense urban growth. It became symbolic of the deep resentment and anger among Okinawans who feel that their safety and quality of life has been sacrificed to U.S. military objectives.

The decision to shut down Futenma came amid a massive uproar over the 1995 rape of a schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen — another major sore nerve between the military and its neighbors. Though initially seen as a breakthrough for Okinawans who oppose the military presence, it came with the condition that a replacement facility be constructed.

That touched off a nearly 20-year standoff. Okinawan leaders demanded the new facility be built somewhere else. Tokyo balked, because no other Japanese communities — whose votes are more important to national leaders — wanted to take it on.

Col. Eric Mellinger, the chief of staff for the Okinawa-based III Marine Expeditionary Forces, said issues between Okinawa and the central government have complicated the Futenma relocation.

"I hate to say we are the ball in the middle of the two rackets, but often I do think the U.S. military is used that way because it highlights other tensions that have absolutely nothing to do with the U.S. military," he said in a recent interview.

Mellinger also said Okinawans' concerns about noise, crowding and crime are shared by people elsewhere who live near military bases. "I don't think what the Okinawan people have as far as feelings is all that much different from what Americans have," he said.

The U.S. has maintained all along that it has no intention to leave Okinawa, and says the Marines' air and ground units need to be based near each other.

Washington has since agreed to move some troops elsewhere — including Guam and Hawaii — as part of a larger restructuring across Asia. But the U.S. had closely linked the deployment of thousands of troops to Guam, an American territory, to developments in Okinawa, and now those plans are well behind schedule. In part because of the lack of progress on Okinawa, Washington has decided to unlink the two issues so it can move forward with its plans for Guam.

Construction of the airstrips on Okinawa has yet to begin. Under the latest agreement, reached just two months ago, the replacement facility for Futenma will be built in the relatively pristine and out-of-the-way waters of Henoko, off an existing Marine base, Camp Schwab.

The idea is to fill in part of the coastline to build two airstrips in a V shape that can be used by the Marines for air operations. They would mostly use helicopters and the new MV-22 Osprey, a hybrid aircraft that can fly like either a helicopter or a conventional airplane and has been used extensively in combat and humanitarian missions.

Col. James Flynn, Futenma's commanding officer, said Okinawa is crucial to American military planners. Marines there were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Flynn said that over the past decade they have been involved in 15 major operations, including the relief effort after the recent typhoon in the Philippines.

"The importance of this capability on Okinawa is that it is really a central point in the Pacific area," he said.

Many Okinawans understand — and some even support — that position, but they want their voices to be heard.

The mayor of the city nearest Futenma said after the agreement was announced that he felt Tokyo was trying to force the decision down Okinawa's throat, and demanded more time to discuss how it will proceed before any dirt is moved. At the very least, local authorities could delay or complicate the process with protests or paperwork.

Ashitomi, meanwhile, said support for his sit-in has risen considerably since the agreement was announced. He plans to organize further protests and possibly a referendum against the new facility.

"If it goes forward, the construction will dramatically change our sea," said Ashitomi. "Our position has gotten a lot harder, but we can't let that happen. We can't let this beautiful sea that we have inherited from our ancestors does not die. We want our island to be a beacon of peace."