Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
On Ie Island you can view the sea from anywhere. Located approximately fifteen kilometers northwest of the Okinawa mainland, a region known for its bonito fishery, it is only accessible by ferry. Tilling the land—an activity Okinawans treasure—is central to life there. Fortunately, the topography of the island makes this possible. Fields stretch from the base of Mount Gusuku to the coast, healthy cattle fill the stockades, and the red earth teems with produce. On the Okinawa mainland, sloping mountains and military bases have made flat, healthy land like this scarce.
The Ryukyu islands were ravaged in World War II during the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, which incinerated nearly the entire landscape of Central and Southern Okinawa, including significant historical records. The best estimates suggest that approximately 120,000 Okinawan civilians perished in the battle, far outnumbering deaths of enlisted soldiers on either side. Japan saw Okinawa, by then a Japanese prefecture, as a sute-ishi (a sacrificial stone in the game go), which could protect Japan’s main islands and their proper Japanese subjects from ground-battle.
After the war ended, the U.S. military stayed. What had been Japan’s sacrificial stone in World War II was now rendered the United States’ “keystone of the pacific” for its proximity to subsequent wars in Korea and Vietnam. Military planners favored Ie Island for its abundance of flat land and because it already boasted two runways that had been captured and refashioned for U.S. use during the Battle of Okinawa. Moreover, Ie was sparsely populated relative to Okinawa Island, where the repatriation of Okinawans from throughout the fallen Japanese Empire had caused overcrowding. So, when the Air Force chose Okinawa to be testing site of a “new bombing technique” in 1954, Ie was elected as ground-zero. U.S. military planners decided that 60 percent of the island would be cleared to be replaced by runways, bombing ranges, and naval moorings.
During this period, Shoko Ahagon, a farmer from Ie Island who was a central force in Okinawa’s nascent peace movement, wrote of U.S. military officials setting Ie farmers’ homes ablaze while families were still inside and offering financial recompense to those escaping in distress. Military governments in Okinawa appealed to these “transactions” as indicating consent to lease land. When the U.S. Department of Defense introduced a “one-time buyout” campaign, Okinawans organized en masse to ensure those with land could secure interminable lease agreements, narrowly avoiding permanent alienation. Today 40 percent of the military base footprint in Okinawa is under private leases held by 45,258 individuals—a residue of the U.S. military’s postwar land-grab.
While removals on Ie were particularly concentrated, they were by no means unique. During the postwar era, waves of land requisitions for base construction washed over Okinawa; by 1956, 41,149 acres of land had already been acquired by U.S. forces and over 80,000 additional acres had been identified as necessary. Having been severed from Japan in the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff extolled the “great advantage” of being able to operate militarily in Okinawa in the absence of a foreign sovereign power. With time, land scarcity and overcrowding became so intense that it spurred emigration campaigns to South America and Canada.
In 1954 John E. Hull, Commander in Chief of the U.S. Army’s Far East Division, wrote to the Secretary of the Army Robert T. Stevens outlining his branch’s outlook on military land holdings in the Ryukyus:
Okinawa is a fortress. It is in an exposed position always open to attack without warning. . . . Under such condition military requirement must take precedence over civilian. When and if this is no longer permitted the island should be abandoned as a fortress.
The question of the duration of the U.S. military’s presence—“when and if”—is as prominent now as it was then. In 1953 the ratification of Ordinance 109 empowered the District Engineer, acting as an extension of the U.S. Forces, to designate Okinawan lands to be requisitioned “for temporary or permanent use,” and to force acquisitions if necessary through Declarations of Takings. The perception of Okinawa as an island fortress to be used and discarded according to the will of the U.S. Forces never abated.
With time the military presence in Okinawa became so concentrated that military planners urged that it be considered a single military compound rather than consisting of several scattered installations. Now the military has effectively settled in Okinawa, having outlasted significant base “draw-downs” in other foreign basing sites such as Germany. It remained in spite of resistance from Okinawans that started almost as soon as U.S. forces arrived.
Indeed, antimilitarism in Okinawa has proceeded apace since the postwar era. In response, the U.S. Department of Defense has been planning to reduce the military footprint in the prefecture by shuttering bases like the gargantuan Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Futenma and redistributing 8,000 Marines to U.S. bases throughout the pacific. Though this redistribution plan has been in the works since 1996, it is only since 2006 that it has most prominently featured a massive relocation of Marines to Guam, 30 percent of which is already occupied by military bases. Best estimates suggest that the total relocation plan will cost U.S. taxpayers at least $13.5 billion. While Japan had initially committed its taxpayers to $3.1 billion for the plan, recent estimates, including expenses related to site security and soft seabed infilling at Henoko, suggest Japan’s contribution will amount to at least $8.5 billion. Directly tied to this effort, eight sections of base land have already been returned to dispossessed landowners, Okinawa Prefecture, and the Japanese Government, and four have yet to be completed, marking a new era of belabored repossession in Okinawa.
The relocation plan centers discussions of military land “return” and demilitarization. But militarism does not disappear when military bases close. In pacific islands such as Guam and Okinawa, where origin stories link people to the land since time immemorial, “return” never means return. The ongoing Okinawa-Guam relocation is defined by vast new base construction, environmental catastrophe, intensified security regimes, and the continued apprehension of land and sea—in other words, the perpetuation of militarism rather than its abatement and the re-emergence of old land dilemmas. The plan reveals a contemporary mechanism whereby environmental extraction and military colonialism can continue unabated under a veil of efficiency, burden reduction, and return.
While U.S. bureaucrats and forces gather with Japanese officials to celebrate land return in Okinawa, they seem not to notice the overwhelming absence of Okinawan support. Okinawan instruments are played and Okinawan words are uttered amidst boisterous declarations of promises kept. But Okinawans themselves protest elsewhere. An understanding of military base return as a “non-event” provides a suitable heuristic for understanding what “return” has meant on their side of the relocation plan.
From the beginning of the struggles on Ie Island, Okinawans have waged a fight to have their very existence and historic relation to lands recognized. This was exemplified again in 2018, when Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps General Robert B. Neller suggested that the area where MCAS Futenma currently sits was empty prior to being occupied by Marines.
“Well,” Neller said, “Futenma is a very old base. It goes back to World War II, and if you look at pictures of Futenma when it was built, there were no people living within kilometers of the base, now the cities of Futenma are right up to the Fence.” These comments, which work to reverse the chronology of military settlement, reveal how the military understands the relationship between history and land. Today’s residents of the City of Ginowan—Jinōn Magiri, prior to 1908—are described as latecomers to already militarized land, their historical removal erased as officials reimagine the base as having been erected atop vacant space, terra-nullius. In truth, Ginowan Ward and fourteen other communities were displaced in the construction of the base.
In the postwar years, against this backdrop, Shoko Ahagon worked to spread peace throughout the islands. His leadership in the peace movement helped spark the “All-Island Struggle” (shimagurumi-tōsō) against U.S. Department of Defense requisitions. The treatment of Ie Islanders and their influential movement were captured in Ahagon’s photo-series The Island Where People Live. For Ahagon and his companions, so invisible was their presence that recognition of their very existence became the basis of their non-violent movement.
This movement has echoed through Okinawa’s contemporary history. Indeed, in the 1990s a period of re-energized antimilitarism recalled the Ie Islander’s struggles of the ’50s. After the Cold War, the U.S. Department of Defense had shifted investment from large, planted bases, toward scattered formations of small outposts. David Vine has explained this as a “lily pad” approach, where military force can be projected flexibly, as a frog leaps from one lily pad to the next.
It was during this period that Okinawa’s “1995 rape incident” occurred. In September of that year, a twelve-year-old schoolgirl was abducted and raped by U.S. Marines Private Kendrick Ledet and Rodrico Harp, and U.S. Navy Sailor Marcus Gill. Pursuant to the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) outlining the conditions of the U.S. forces stationing in Japan, the three assailants were held on base prior to being handed over to Japanese custody. Further enraging the public, U.S. Navy top-brass Admiral Richard C. Macke declared openly that the servicemen’s logic was flawed; they could have “had a girl” for the price of the rental car they used in the crime.
The sexual assault spurred action on multiple fronts. 85,000 people gathered in Ginowan to voice their opposition to the continuation of U.S. bases. In addition, thirty-five antiwar landowners refused to renew their military leases, up for renewal that year. While the move was backed by then Governor Masahide Ota, the leases were eventually forced through in a supreme court ruling under Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama. This brought about new federal legislation permitting the forced compliance of leaseholders in such cases. In response, Governor Ota formed the Base Return Action Plan, which called for complete demilitarization by 2015.
Under global pressure, yet still acting within an ongoing movement toward a more scattered foreign base formation, the U.S. Department of Defense and the Japanese Ministry of Defense formed the Special Action Committee on Okinawa (SACO). SACO’s stated purpose was to develop measures to reduce the human insecurities affecting Okinawans due to their proximity to war-training sites. The SACO Final Report, released in December 1996, outlined eleven sections of base-land for return.
These returns varied in nature. Four consisted of only sections of bases. The largest selection, nearly four-thousand hectares (approximately half) of the Northern Training Area, had been sorely under-used and consisted largely of national land. The report’s flagship proposal was for the return of the entirety of MCAS Futenma, which occupies 24.3 percent of the city of Ginowan, whose population density is comparable to cities such as Boston, Rio de Janeiro, and Vancouver. The base is lore to have been described by the late former U.S. Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld as the “most dangerous base in the world” because of its location in the city’s center.
A decade after the release of the SACO Final Report, the U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee released a new plan to relocate troops and training activities, the United States-Japan Roadmap for Realignment Implementation. Along with the move of the U.S. Marines III Expeditionary Force to new Department of Defense facilities in Guam, the runway functions served by MCAS’s Futenma were to find a new home in Oura Bay, off the coast of Henoko Village in Nago City. Base construction began in Guam in 2010 and is scheduled to be completed in 2028.
But since its announcement, new base construction in Henoko has been stalled by environmental obstacles and vehement opposition backed by two successive governors. In a 2019 prefecture-wide referendum over 50 percent of eligible voters expressed 72 percent opposition to the plan. Because of this opposition, in 2012 the United States opted to “de-link” base build-up in Guam from closure in Okinawa, while scaling down the number of Marines slated to move.
According to the adjusted relocation plan, the U.S. Department of the Navy now anticipates moving 5,000 Marines, accompanied by 1,300 family members and a population of off-island workers and their families. Still, the move will amount to a population increase of over 4 percent on Guam, and the desecration of swaths of CHamoru sacred land at Ritidian.
This is not return but restructuring, and the same logic has guided other base closures linked to the SACO Final Report. In 2016 half of the U.S. Marines Northern Training Area (NTA) in Higashi and Kushi Villages in the northern Yanbaru region were returned. As the largest return since Okinawa’s 1972 reversion to Japan, U.S.-Japan delegates celebrated the move boisterously. In an apparent gesture of good faith, U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy offered greetings at the return ceremony in Uchināguchi in one of seven Ryukyuan languages indigenous to the Ryukyu archipelago. Beloved then Governor Takeshi Onaga chose to rebuke the return ceremony. Instead of attending, he was arm-in-arm with 4,200 protestors in Nago City, calling attention to the recent emergency landing of an MV-22 Osprey helicopter and the construction of new defense infrastructure already underway.
A year later, at the landowners’ repossession ceremony for the NTA, Chief of Takae Ward Kumiko Nakamine stated, “I want them to think about the fact that even as the [militarized] area decreases, the burden for us in this area continues to increase. Flights over our community, night-time training. It’s all increasing.” In fact, while the “return” occurred, the Japanese Ministry of Defense, through its regional Okinawa Defense Bureau, was constructing new landing pads for Osprey helicopters—behemoth war machines costing $71 million U.S. tax dollars apiece. This had been the target of Okinawan protest since villagers learned of construction activities beginning in 2007.
Of the seven helipads that had existed on the returned portion of the NTA, six of these were reconstructed after the return on the remaining base land. This represents densification, not demilitarization. When landing and taking off, “rotorwash” (the wind emitted from rotors, thrusting down then outwards) of the curiously named Osprey is so powerful that it can disturb nearly two acres of forest canopy.
While new land is being remilitarized, the land being returned does not at all resemble the state in which it was taken. The current policy regime severely constrains environmental restoration in the base return process. The U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement, a boiler-plate legal convention outlining the terms of the U.S. forces’ presence in any foreign country, relieves the United States of any and all remediation responsibilities. Article IV of the U.S.-Japan SOFA states:
The United States is not obliged, when it returns facilities and areas to Japan on the expiration of this Agreement or at an earlier date, to restore the facilities and areas to the condition in which they were at the time they became available to the United States armed forces, or to compensate Japan in lieu of such restoration.
Because of this agreement, the Japanese Ministry of Defense conducts remediation with scant oversight wherever there lacks a large and well-organized association of landowners, as is the case at the NTA.
In 2019 the Japanese Ministry of Defense claimed that the returned portion of the NTA was found “free from soil contamination and water pollution.” To the contrary, the Okinawa-based Informed Public Project retorted that the statement was “grossly misleading,” and concluded that “many parts of the returned land are still littered with bullet shells, blanks, unexploded ordinance, and other discarded military materials, including toxic chemicals.”
In the absence of government environmental protections, Okinawans working on the ground toward real demilitarization are subject to intensifying securitization. For example, a researcher who spends her days documenting the deleterious condition of returned NTA land had her Higashi Village home raided and her electronics confiscated by Okinawa prefectural police in early June. And this is not a new phenomenon. Six years ago Hiroji Yamashiro, an icon in the contemporary anti-base movement, was arrested and held for five months with hard labor in a Naha City jail (his three-year sentence for minor offenses related to protest activities was then suspended).
This hyper-securitization of Okinawa is legitimated by the iron-clad Japan-U.S. Security Alliance, which both nations treat with sanctity. Yoshihide Suga, who was previously the “Minister in Charge of Alleviating the Burden of the Bases in Okinawa” under former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, was elected Prime Minister on September 16, 2020. Only four days following his inauguration, Suga held his first meeting with a foreign head of state: Donald Trump. Trump reportedly maintained the steadfastness of the alliance, claiming that Suga could “call him at any time.”
Okinawa offers the Japan-U.S. partnership geopolitical value as a staging location where the two nations can maintain a balance of power against shared regional adversaries in North Korea, Russia, and an increasingly antagonistic China. This arrangement is particularly important to Japan, which was formally demilitarized following WWII. However, we should recall the total devastation of the Battle of Okinawa, which took between 25 to 33 percent of all Okinawan lives. This informs a widespread ideological commitment to peaceful resistance over the ability to “deter aggression with lethality.”
Beyond this ideological friction is the unconscionable unevenness in the distribution of Japan-stationed U.S. forces, which disadvantages Okinawa at a ratio of 7:3 on 0.6 percent of the national land-base. In analyses of this problem, Okinawa’s interests tend to be collapsed into those of Japan. But this fails to account for a history of Okinawan political consciousness that exceeds the Japanese nation-state, and therefore understands itself as an unwilling third party to Japan’s contracts with the United States. Under these conditions, maintaining Okinawa as a defense stronghold has thus required both a slippery application of democracy, evinced in the Japanese government’s failure to recognize organized expressions of popular will against new base construction, as well as more direct forms of suppression by the U.S.-Japan alliance.
The most recent example of policies directed at disciplining Okinawans is the Law for the Regulated Investigation of Significant Lands (Jyūyō Tochi nado Chōsa Kisei Hōan), passed by the National Diet on June 16, 2021. The law aims to increase investigation powers of private properties and landowners within one kilometer of lands deemed “important” to national security, such as military construction sites and nuclear plants. Due to the preponderance of bases in Okinawa, and the delays that the peace movement has caused to the construction of the new base at Henoko, Okinawans, who have already expressed staunch opposition to the legislation, have good reason to believe it specifically targets them. In addition, progressives throughout Japan, including the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, have condemned the legislation in past weeks.
Militarism is constructed on a vertical logic. Hierarchical relations of power pervade military relations from above, mirroring and mingling with the ranking orders of racial capitalism, homophobia, and patriarchy. This verticality recalls older impositions of Japanese colonialism that affixed Okinawans to lower rungs of Japanese monarchy and orders of citizenship.
An Okinawan spatiality refuses this vertical rationality in favor of a horizontal perspective. Our history of diplomacy and trade with myriad distant islands reveals a long-standing belief that our ocean is neither a wall nor a launching pad for tomorrow’s war, but a connecting force to be maintained at all costs.
Horizontality also imbues Okinawan spatiality with a deep-seated respect for the natural world, a reverence for the inherent treasure of life—Nuchi du Takara, as was proclaimed by the deposed last king of the Ryukyu Kingdom, Shō Tai. This reverence for life is counterpoised to the extractive hierarchies of militarism which feed on the land. It cries blasphemy at the Japanese Government’s plans to utilize earth concentrated with the remains of war-dead in Okinawa for marine base construction, and at the construction of runways over CHamoru burial sites.
When Julian Aguon, speaking on the Department of Defense’s relocation plan, exclaimed in these pages last month that “indignation is not nearly enough to build a bridge,” we were similarly inspired to begin refocusing on regenerative spatial alternatives to militarism. This is both a new and an old project: new, because challenging the relentless and banal advance of military construction requires constant vigilance, grassroots political analysis, and bodies on the line; old, because Okinawan geographies have never stopped pulsing in these islands, between shell-ginger leaves, in our red earth, upon our reefs, and down old village paths sheltered by the fukugi tree.
The author wishes to thank Wesley Ueunten and Shinako Oyakawa, with whom conversations during the writing of this essay were invaluable.
Daniel Akihiro Iwama is a PhD Candidate in UCLA’s Department of Urban Planning in the Luskin School of Public Affairs. His doctoral research investigates conjunctures of planning and indigenous repossession in militarized Okinawa.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.
Support us with a donation this giving season.
Robin D. G. Kelley on the midterm elections.