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Okinawa, Japan

In 1996 the Okinawa Prefectural Government drew up an Action Program for the return of US bases in Okinawa. It called for the return of US bases in 3 stages to achieve an Okinawa free of military bases by the year 2015. In December 1996, after 12 months of study and consultations, the governments in Tokyo and Washington and their representatives on the Special Action Committee on Okinawa produced their final report concerning the return of US military base properties on the island. The United States agreed to return to Japanese control about 21 percent of the land on Okinawa used for US military bases, adjust training and operational procedures, implement noise abatement procedures, and change Status of Forces Agreement procedures.

Often called the “Galapagos of the East”, Okinawa encompasses a vast diversity of life including 400 species of coral and more than 1,000 species of reef fish, marine mammals and sea turtles. The east coast of Okinawa supports approximately 1,205 ha of seagrass in comparison to 125 ha on the west coast. Comprising only 10% of the coastline, these seagrass beds, vital for dugong survival, will be threatened by terrestrial runoff due to military coastal construction. It is estimated that only 50 dugong or less remain in the pristine waters of Henoko Bay, on the northeast coast of Okinawa Island, and less than 100,000 in the South Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Okinawa's proximity to potential regional trouble spots promotes the early arrival of US military forces due to shorter transit times and reduces potential problems that could arise due to late arrival. The cost of this presence is shared by the government of Japan, which provides bases and other infrastructure on Okinawa rent-free and pays part of the annual cost of Okinawa-based Marine Corps forces. The Department of Defense believed that Marine Corps forces along with other US forces on Okinawa satisfied the US national security strategy by visibly demonstrating the US commitment to security in the region. These forces were thought to deter aggression, provide a crisis response capability should deterrence fail, and avoid the risk that US allies might interpret the withdrawal of forces as a lessening of US commitment to peace and stability in the region.

The bases and communities cooperate on issues affecting them both. Military aviation units have adjusted flying hours to reduce aircraft noise over civilian neighborhoods and schools. Okinawan real estate agents go out of their way to help service families find off-base housing near their work place and schools. Both communities, military and civilian, invite each other to participate in festivals and other social events.

The early US explorers labeled Okinawa as the "Keystone of the Pacific" since Taipei, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Seoul, Manila, and Tokyo all lay within a 1,500 kilometer radius of the islands. Okinawa is equidistant from several parts of the Pacific, whether it's Tokyo, Seoul, Taiwan or the Philippines. If there is a trouble spot in the Pacific and the Department of Defense needs to move forces quickly, Okinawa had the facilities to support that response. The forward deployment on Okinawa significantly shortened transit times, thereby promoting early arrival in potential regional trouble spots such as the Korean peninsula and the Taiwan straits, a significant benefit in the initial stages of a conflict. For example, it takes 2 hours to fly to the Korean peninsula from Okinawa, as compared with about 5 hours from Guam, 11 hours from Hawaii, and 16 hours from the continental United States. Similarly, it takes about 1.5 days to make the trip from Okinawa by ship to South Korea, as compared with about 5 days from Guam, 12 days from Hawaii, and 17 days from the continental United States.

Okinawa is the largest of more than 140 islands in Okinawa Prefecture (of which only 47 are populated). Measuring 67 miles long by 2 to 17 miles wide, and covering a total area of 454 square miles, Okinawa's highest point is Mount Yonaha at 1,494 feet. Often referred to as "Japan's Hawaii," Okinawa's average yearly temperature is 72 degrees Fahrenheit, with an average of 82 degrees Fahrenheit in July and 61 degrees Fahrenheit in January. June to October is typhoon season. The rainy season lasts only from May to June. Annual rainfall amounts to 93 inches, however Okinawa topography and lack of natural dams can lead to periodic water rationing.

Okinawa was once an independent nation known as the Kingdom of the Ryukyu Islands. However, in 1609 Okinawa was conquered by force and occupied by the Japanese clan Satsuma. Yet they remained the Kingdom of the Ryukyu Islands until the Meiji Restoration took place and formed the Government of Japan. In 1879 the islands were officially recognized as the Japanese prefecture, Okinawa.

The US military presence in Japan and on Okinawa began at the end of World War II. Although the US occupation in Japan ended in 1952, US administration continued on Okinawa until 1972. In 1951, when the San Francisco Peace Treaty was officially recognized, Okinawa legally became a possession of the United States. In 1972, control of Okinawa was reverted to Japan. The US-Japan security relationship was defined by a number of documents, including the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, which committed both countries to meet common dangers, and a Status of Forces Agreement that governed the legal status of US forces and their dependents stationed in Japan. The US forces on Okinawa occupied about 10 percent of the land in the prefecture. Japan provided part of the cost of the forward deployment of US forces throughout Japan, through an annual burden-sharing payment. This payment was about $4.9 billion in FY97.

On Mabuni Hill, next to quiet cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, there were 119 memorial monuments. The memorials were in honor of the men who lost their lives during the Pacific Islands campaign of World War II. The cliffs were known to some Americans as "Suicide Cliffs," because Lieutenant General Mitsuru Ushijima, the Commanding General of the 32nd Imperial Japanese Army, performed seppuku, or "hara-kiri," there. The other reason for the name was that it was believed that some of General Ushijima's men jumped from these 500-foot cliffs when the Japanese were defeated. Okinawa's Peace Memorial Hall was just north of the cliffs. The hall housed the Peace Buddha Statue.

After the end of World War II, US forces had mounted major operations from Japan when needed. Among the most important of these operations was the initial defense of South Korea in the Korean War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953, when Eighth US Army units left occupation duties in Japan to help defend South Korea. The United States again used its bases in Japan and on Okinawa to fight the Vietnam War. Finally, elements of the III Marine Expeditionary Force deployed from their bases on Okinawa to the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s.

The Korea Conflict of 1950 emphasized the need for maintaining a naval presence in Okinawa. On 15 February 1951, the US Naval Facility, Naha, was activated and later became commissioned on 18 April 1951. Commander Fleet Activities, Ryukyus was commissioned on 8 March 1957. On 15 May 1972, upon reversion of Okinawa to Japanese administration, the 2 organizations were combined to form Commander Fleet Activities, Okinawa. With the relocations of Commander Fleet Activities, Okinawa to Kadena Air Base on 7 May 1975, the title then became Commander Fleet Activities, Okinawa/US Naval Air Facility, Kadena.

For the most part, service members on Okinawa hold down a typical stateside work schedule. The island's strategic location comes into play during contingencies and exercises, however. The USS Independence carrier battle group took on equipment and supplies at White Beach during the 1996 dispute between China and Taiwan. During the multinational exercise Tandem Thrust, III Marine Expeditionary Force loaded troops, supplies and equipment onto waiting ships at White Beach.

Much news has focused over the years on complaints of a group of Okinawan landowners who protest US use of their property for military operations. According to the US military, less than 1 percent of the 32,000 owners objected to military use of the land, which fell under the US-Japan security agreement. Some Okinawans objected to the noise generated by US operations, especially around the Air Force's Kadena Air Base and Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, both of which were located in the middle of urban areas, and risks to civilians from serious military accidents, including crashes of aircraft. However, there was no consensus among Okinawans on the bases. Since the employment of Okinawans on US bases was not inconsequential, there was even a sizable though silent constituency in favor of the status quo.

Still, discontent among the people of Okinawa regarding the US military presence and its impacts had been rising for years. Their chief complaint was that the Okinawa prefecture hosted over half of the US forces in Japan and that about 75 percent of the land US forces occupy in Japan was on Okinawa. They also believed the US presence had hampered economic development. The abduction and rape of an Okinawan schoolgirl in September 1995 by 3 US servicemembers prompted the US and Japanese governments to establish the Special Action Committee on Okinawa (SACO) in November 1995. To reduce the impact of the US military presence on the people of Okinawa, the SACO developed recommendations to realign, consolidate, and reduce US facilities and adjust operational procedures.

Land to be Returned to Japan Under SACO Recommendations
Land Return Planned Return Date Replacement Facility
MCAS Futenma Between 2001 and 2003 Sea-based facility
About 9,900 acres of the North Training Area March 2003 Remaining Northern Training Area plus new acreage to be added by March 1998
Aha Training Area March 1998 Acreage added to the Northern Training Area
Gimbaru Training Area March 1998 Kin Blue Beach Training Area and Camp Hansen
Sobe Communications Site March 2001 Camp Hansen
Yomitan Auxiliary Airfield March 2001 Ie Jima Auxiliary Airfield
Most of Camp Kuwae March 2008 Camp Zuckeran and other facilities
Senaha Communications Station March 2001 Torii Communications Station
Small portion of the Makiminato Service Area Between 1998 and 2001 Remaining Makiminato Service Area and Kadena Air Base
Naha Port No Date Urasoe pier area to be established
Housing consolidation on Camps Kuwae and Zuckeran March 2008 Remaining Portions of of Camps Kuwae and Zuckeran

Long-range plans called for construction of new family housing that would increase the number of units available by several hundred. Meanwhile, single-member dorms were going up across the island. Schools were not a problem on Okinawa, where Department of Defense Dependent Schools operated modern facilities in or near family housing. Child care facilities were still catching up, particularly at Kadena, where more than 4,000 military families from all service branches resided. In November 1996, Kadena opened an $11 million child development center, its second, cutting the waiting list in half. A third center was to open in 1998, almost eliminating the waiting list.

Recreational facilities added to the list of quality of life improvements at Kadena Air Base and throughout Okinawa. With the higher cost of living off base, the military has a responsibility to provide quality on-base eating and recreational facilities. Kadena renovated its 4 restaurants and all clubs during the 1990s , while all the services were improving facilities at their posts and the Okuma joint recreation center on the northwest shore of Okinawa. Several American chains also operate restaurants on the island. Service morale, welfare, and recreation programs catered to all age groups. As this was an isolated, overseas location, the services placed more emphasis on recreational outlets. Unaccompanied Marines and others on rotational deployments relied heavily on military shuttle buses, which provided transportation between bases, and on commercial taxis.

There was also a shuttle bus on days of liberty to the various camps on the island. It ran every 2 hours and rotated between Camp Shields, Camp Hansen, Kadena, and Camp Foster. Also, they offered a bus to White Beach, which left in the morning and arrived back at Camp Shields in the evening. Taxis were another source of reliable public transportation. One advantage taxis had over buses was that most would accept Japanese or American currency. They usually carried a currency exchange rate chart with them, so it was not necessary to know Japanese.

Owning a car made it a lot easier to get to some of the more remote recreation centers, as well as anywhere off base. Not many service members ship vehicles to Okinawa, but they could buy good cars and insurance for under $2,000. Okinawa definitely offered a distinct driving experience. Unlike the United States, people drive on the left side of the road, which required some getting used to. The slow lane was on the left, and the fast lane was on the right, although there usually was not a significant difference between either. All speed limits were marked in kilometers per hour and, except for the Okinawa Expressway, there was no authorized speed zone beyond 60 kilometers per hour, or about 37 mph. In addition, all traffic signs conformed to international standards. Many roads were much narrower than standard American roads, traffic congestion was more the rule than the exception, and coral dust-laden roads could get slick fast after it rained. Needless to say, careful, defensive driving was an absolute necessity. Drinking and driving and illegal drugs were dealt with very severely by both Japanese and Military authorities.

The Okinawa Exchange served more than 24,000 military members and Defense Department civilians, as well as over 31,000 other authorized customers on the small island. The number of Exchange Facilities in the 1990s was equally impressive, with more than 31 retail facilities, such as shoppettes and main stores, 7 theaters, 160 concessionaires, 8 service stations, over 92 food facilities and 5 Military Clothing Sales Stores. The Kadena Base Exchange and the Camp Foster Post Exchange were the 2 biggest main store operations on the island.

The honors for the largest post exchange in the Pacific belonged to Kadena Base Exchange. While a lot was going inside the store, it was only the hub of a vast shopping area that offered a wide variety of goods and services. Customers could find out about Internet access through AT&T, New Car Sales, hairstyling for the family, some of the best island craftsmanships by the concessionaires, and even a large assortment of merchandise for active outdoor lifestyles and hobbies. Food was available at Anthony's Pizza, Frank's Franks, Baskin Robbins, and the Burger King Express located conveniently within.

The Foster Post Exchange similarly formed the hub for a complex includes a mall packed full of concessions PowerZone, BookMark, a major theater, a service station, and food facilities that included Burger King, Charley's Steakery, Pretzel Mania, RobinHood deli, Anthony's Pizza, all combined to make this one of the best places to shop on Okinawa.

Taking leave from Okinawa was easy for those heading to another location in the Pacific, but a little harder to return to the United States. There were no direct flights from Okinawa to the US. Instead, commercial flights departed Naha International Airport for Nagoya, Osaka, or Tokyo, where connecting flights were available. Depending on destination, round-trip airfare could run several thousand dollars, prohibitive costs that added to the sense of isolation many Americans on Okinawa felt. Special leave programs made some space available on military airlift and contract flights. However, it was imperative to good morale that the services provide a full agenda of off-duty activities.

Each service conducted special programs for single members. For example, the Navy's Single Sailor Program sponsored community relations projects and orphanage visits. Chapels conducted similar programs for singles and families, while recreation centers and youth centers hosted trips to recreational parks and tourist attractions on and off island. Every base also provided high school equivalency, continuing education, and college degree programs, conducting courses at lunch, after work and on weekends.

On 15 October 2001, Marine Corps Base Camp Butler began to operate no-fee bus service to meet the transportation needs of the Marine Corps Community on Okinawa using modern, efficient Coaches. In its first 18 months of service, The Green Line grew from 10 signature coaches to 37 signature coaches and was to soon thereafter reach the one millionth passenger mark.

By 2003, the US was considering moving most of the 20,000 Marines on Okinawa to new bases that would be established in Australia; increasing the presence of US troops in Singapore and Malaysia; and seeking agreements to base Navy ships in Vietnamese waters and ground troops in the Philippines. For the Marines based on Okinawa, most for months without their families, the US was considering a major shift. Under plans on the table, all but about 5,000 of the Marines would move, possibly to Australia.

During 2004, Japan and the United States continued discussions on plans to scale back the US military presence in the country. Tokyo would ask Washington to move some Marines now on the southern island of Okinawa outside the country. There was no doubt some changes would be made to the Okinawa forces. The US Marines were a tremendous burden in Okinawa, particularly the infantry and the training needs of the infantry in Okinawa could not really be met on the island, given the sensitivities there. Okinawa accounted for less than one percent of Japan's land, but hosted about two-thirds of the 40,000 American forces in the country. In recent years, Okinawans had grown increasingly angry about the military presence, because of land disputes and highly publicized violent crimes committed by a few US troops. In return for moving troops outside the country, Japan would provide pre-positioning facilities for weapons, fuel and other equipment for the US military.

Consolidation Plan

On 26 April 2012, US and Japanese officials announced the 2 nations had agreed on a plan to relocate US Marines from Okinawa to Guam. The joint statement was the latest result of negotiations between the 2 countries dating to the 2006 Realignment Roadmap and the 2009 Guam International Agreement. Under the plan about 9,000 Marines would relocate from Okinawa, with about 5,000 moving to Guam and the rest transferring to other locations in the Pacific such as Hawaii and Australia. About 10,000 Marines would remain on Okinawa when the relocation was completed. The Japanese government was to determine the timeline for the Futenma move. As part of the agreement, Japan also agreed to pay $3.1 billion of the overall $8.6 billion estimated cost associated with the move. The agreement also involved possible development of joint training ranges in Guam and the commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands as shared-use facilities for US and Japanese forces.

In a SCC Joint Statement on 27 April 2012, the US and Japanese Governments confirmed that the total or partial return of the 6 facilities and areas designated in the Realignment Roadmap remained unchanged and that the land of aforementioned facilities and areas utilized by US forces were eligible for return under the Consolidation Plan in 3 categories: 1) Areas eligible for immediate return upon completion of necessary procedures; 2) Areas eligible for return once the replacement facilities in Okinawa were provided; and, 3) Areas eligible for return as US Marine Corps forces relocate from Okinawa to locations outside of Japan. Category 1 included portions of Camp Kinser and Camp Foster. Category 2 included MCAS Futenma, Camp Lester, Naha Port, Army Petroleum, Oil, and Lubricant Depot Kuwae Tank Farm No. 1, and portions of Camp Kinser and Camp Foster. Category 3 included additional portions of Camp Kinser and Camp Foster.

On 5 April 2013, the US Department of Defense released a Consolidation Plan for Facilities and Areas in Okinawa. The realignment described in the plan, including consolidation, of U.S. forces within Okinawa was a significant effort by the U.S. and Japanese Governments, which recognized the importance of enhancing Japanese and US public support for the security alliance, which contributed to a sustainable presence of US forces at facilities and areas in Japan as stated in "U.S.-Japan Alliance: Transformation and Realignment for the Future," a document of the Security Consultative Committee (SCC), dated 29 October 2005. When implemented, the realignment would ensure a life-of-the-Alliance presence for US forces in Japan as stated in "United States-Japan Roadmap for Realignment Implementation," also known as the Realignment Roadmap, another SCC document, dated 1 May 2006. The realignment would also maintain deterrence and mitigate the impact of US forces on local communities. In order to realize the realignment, the US and Japanese Governments developed and would implement the consolidation plan.

On 3 October 2013, a Joint Statement by the US-Japan Security Consultative Committee confirmed that agreements on realignment of US forces in Japan should be implemented as soon as possible while ensuring operational capability, including training capability, throughout the process. US and Japanese ministers reaffirmed their commitment to ensure the return of the facilities and areas as described in the April 2013 Consolidation Plan for Facilities and Areas in Okinawa. The Ministers reaffirmed that approximately 9,000 US Marines were to be relocated from Okinawa to locations outside of Japan.

The US and Japan held a ceremony on 21 December 2016 marking the US military’s return of nearly 10,000 acres (4,046 hectares) of land on Okinawa island to the Japanese government, the largest transfer since 1972. Resentment on the southern island has simmered for years among residents opposed to the US Marines’ Futenma air base there. They want the base moved off the island but the central government aims to relocate it to a less-populated part of Okinawa. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the US ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, attended the ceremony in Tokyo, with another event on Okinawa. The US military said Japan had made sufficient progress in building helipads and access roads to consolidate military training in other areas and allow for the return of the 9,909 acres.

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Page last modified: 07-09-2018 07:18:24 ZULU