The Japanese island’s new governor wants American forces to leave. It’s time for Washington and Tokyo to find a compromise.
For years, Japan has tried to get Okinawans to agree to a big new seaside base for American Marines to replace an old one in a crowded urban area. The national government has tried carrots, like supporting construction of a Disney resort on the island; it has tried sticks, going to court to overrule local resistance to the base; it has thrown its weight behind candidates who favor the new base. But again and again, Okinawans have responded that they don’t want the new base. They believe they’re already carrying far more than their share of the American military.
The message sounded with special clarity when Denny Tamaki was elected governor on Sunday. Like most other elections on the island, this one was at least partly a referendum on the American bases. Mr. Tamaki represented an anti-base coalition; his pro-base opponent was heavily supported by Japan’s governing Liberal Democratic Party. What made the choice especially noteworthy is that Mr. Tamaki, 58, is the son of a Japanese mother and an American Marine father, who left the island before he was born.
The decision before Prime Minister Shinzo Abe now is either to barrel on — getting Japan’s Supreme Court to overrule any legal objections Mr. Tamaki throws in the way of the new base — or to do what should have been done a long time ago: accept that Okinawa does have a legitimate gripe, and search for less onerous ways of sharing the burden of the American security umbrella.
Most Japanese support their alliance with the United States, especially now that China is flexing its muscles in the region. The problem is the hugely disproportionate burden placed on Okinawa, the poorest of Japan’s prefectures. Okinawa was the site of an enormously bloody battle in the closing months of World War II; today it still hosts 33 American installations and half the 50,000 American troops in the country. The concentration of military gear and troops has created noise, pollution, deadly accidents and a history of assaults — most notably the rape of a 12-year-old girl by three servicemen in 1995.
It was after that episode that the United States and Japan agreed to relocate the big Marine air base clogging the center of the city of Ginowan to a less crowded area and to shift some troops to Guam and Hawaii. But nothing has moved. Local resistance has blocked construction of the new base, partly because of the environmental damage that would come from building a runway in the relatively unspoiled Henoko Bay.
The United States military argues that scattering Okinawa’s logistical, air and ground forces to other sites in Japan will degrade their ability to respond quickly in the East China Sea. But the security this brings to Japan and the region cannot come at the expense of an unfair, unwanted and often dangerous burden on Japan’s poorest citizens. Prime Minister Abe and American military commanders should join them with an equal willingness to find equitable solutions.