Mike Mochizuki on U.S. Military in Okinawa

Mike M. Mochizuki holds the Japan-U.S. Relations Chair in Memory of Gaston Sigur at the Elliott School of International Affairs in George Washington University.  Professor Mochizuki was associate dean for academic programs at the Elliott School from 2010 to 2014 and director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies from 2001 to 2005.  He co-directs the “Rising Powers Initiative” and the “Memory and Reconciliation in the Asia-Pacific” research and policy project of the Sigur Center. His recent books include Memory, Identity, and Commemorations of World War II: Anniversary Politics in the Asia Pacific and Beyond (co-editor and co-author, 2018); Energy Security in Asia and Eurasia (co-editor and co-author, 2017); Nuclear Debates in Asia: The Role of Geopolitics and Domestic Processes (co-editor and author, 2016); The Okinawa Question: Futenma, the US-Japan Alliance, and Regional Security (co-editor and author, 2013); and China’s Military and the U.S.-Japan Alliance in 2030: A Strategic Net Assessment (co-author, 2013). He spoke to Ellie Wainstein CMC ‘19 on October 17, 2018.


Biography and Photograph courtesy of Mike Mochizuki.

The Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan grants the United States the right to a continued presence of military bases in Japan in exchange for a U.S. pledge to defend Japan in the event of an attack. This treaty has lasted longer than any other alliance between these two countries since the 1648 Peace of Westphalia. Can you please discuss why this long-standing treaty has been so successful? What are the historical and continued benefits of the treaty for each country?

The treaty serves the security interest of both countries, and it is built on a foundation of common values and economic interests. The original 1951 security treaty was linked to the peace settlement between the United States and Japan that incorporated Japan into the U.S. Cold War strategy to deal with the Soviet threat and the rise of Communism in Asia. Because of this treaty, the U.S. believed that it was in America's strategic interest to help Japan’s economy. With U.S. assistance, Japan reconstructed its economy after World War II and eventually became the second-largest economy in the world. The Japanese saw that, despite the issues associated with the U.S. military presence, the net effect of the relationship was positive. The United States also benefited because it was able to have Japan as an ally in the Cold War and received access to military bases. In 1960, the bilateral security treaty was revised to make more explicit the U.S. defense commitment to Japan and to remove the clause in the 1951 treaty that alluded to a possible role for the U.S. military to deal with domestic disturbances in Japan. 

The real question is not why the alliance continued during the Cold War, but why it continued after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Japan was initially concerned that the United States might withdraw its military forces from Japan and weaken its security commitment. Therefore, in reaffirming the alliance after the original geo-political rationale disappeared with the end of the Cold War, Japanese leaders worked with their U.S. counterparts to reframe the alliance in terms of a commitment to common values. This value-based redefinition of the alliance resonated with U.S. policymakers because Japan was indeed the most successful democratic country in East Asia. Not long after the end of the Cold War, however, new security threats began to emerge. The first was North Korea's nuclear program, which became the initial motivation for strengthening the alliance. The second motivation was the rise of China and the possibility that there might be some military conflict over Taiwan. This dynamic is very similar to why NATO has continued even after the end of the Cold War—to counter the emergence of new threats.


One of the highly-debated issues over the U.S. military presence in Japan revolves around Okinawa. While Okinawa makes up less than one percent of Japan’s landmass, it accounts for approximately 70 percent of the land space used for U.S. military facilities in the country. Why has the burden of U.S. bases been put on such a small part of the country? Is it strategic or simply a result of historical circumstances?

The Okinawa islands are strategically quite important because they are located near Taiwan and can potentially serve as a staging area for military operations in a second Korean War. These islands can also play a significant role for U.S. military activities in Southeast Asia, especially after the U.S. lost its important military bases in the Philippines. But the strategic location of Okinawa cannot fully explain why there is such a large U.S. military presence in this small Japanese prefecture.  Bases in other parts of Japan can also contribute to the operational requirements of the U.S. military to address potential security contingencies in the region.

The large burden that Okinawa now bears for hosting U.S. military forces in Japan resulted because of politics.  During the 1950s and 1960s, strong anti-base movements compelled the United States to reduce its military presence in the main islands of Japan.  Because Okinawa was still under the control of the United States during this period, U.S. defense planners opted to sustain and even augment American military bases on Okinawa while reducing them dramatically in the rest of Japan. When Okinawa reverted back to Japanese control in the early 1970s, Okinawans hoped that the U.S. military presence in their prefecture would be reduced substantially like in the rest of Japan, but that did not happen. In short, political calculations were probably decisive in determining the amount of military bases in Okinawa.


Denny Tamaki, the new Governor of Okinawa, campaigned by criticizing the American military presence on Okinawa. Tamaki, an Amerasian and son of a U.S. Marine, has vowed to carry on the legacy of Takeshi Onaga, his predecessor, in opposing the Japanese government’s effort to build a new military base. Can you speak on the actions taken by Onaga to halt the construction of the new military base? Was he successful at all? Why does Tamaki think he can succeed where Onaga failed?

Governor Onaga tried to convince the central government in Japan and the U.S. government to re-evaluate and revise the current base realignment plan and stop the construction of a new landfill U.S. Marine Corps air facility at Henoko, which is located in the northern part of the main island of Okinawa prefecture. Onaga was unsuccessful in convincing either the Japanese government or the U.S. government. Both Japanese and U.S. officials insisted that the best and only way to implement the 1996 American promise to close down and return the U.S. Marine Air Station at Futenma, which dangerously located in the middle of a densely populated urban area, is to construct the replacement facility at Henoko.

When Governor Onaga went to the Japanese government, the response was that this is an agreement with United States and the Japanese government cannot renege on it. When Onaga went to the United States and talked to American officials, they responded that this is an agreement with Japan so he should talk to the Japanese government. This circular situation was very frustrating for Onaga.

Governor Onaga attempted to utilize a variety of legal means to stop the construction in Henoko. First, he declared that the approval of the landfill project by his predecessor was invalid. This declaration led to a legal battle that the Japanese government eventually won. After Governor Onaga became ill, just before he passed away, he decided to revoke the approval. Then, he passed away and Tamaki ran on the platform that he would stop the Henoko construction. In response, the Japanese government filed a legal case against the Okinawa government to make the revoking of the approval legally invalid. This has led to another round of legal conflict. The Japanese central government will utilize various laws and regulations to overrule local government. The legal cards are stacked against the Okinawa government. Despite this, Governor Tamaki will do everything he can to stop this legally, but he will have difficulty. At the end of the day, it really becomes a political issue.

Tamaki will have to convince the United States to respect the will of the Okinawa people. Most likely, in the early part of next year, there will be a prefectural referendum, which will be another indication of how much the Okinawans are opposed to the landfill Futenma Replacement Facility at Henoko. After this referendum, we will see whether either government is willing to listen to the voice of Okinawans.


Last week, Tamaki urged Prime Minister Shinzo Abe not to continue with the transfer of a U.S. base and called for a “fundamental review” of the bilateral security agreement, specifically regarding the status of U.S. forces. Do you think such action from local politicians could have a meaningful impact on the agreement? Is it feasible for Japan to both recognize the sentiments coming from Okinawa and to honor its agreement with the United States?

This question encompasses two separate things that are often confused. First, there is the issue of whether to build the Futenma Replacement Facility (FRF) in Henoko. Governor Tamaki is following his predecessor’s opposition to the plan. Second, the other issue is changing the Status of Forces Agreement. While these issues both relate to the U.S. military presence in Okinawa, they are separate things. However, in both cases, the Japanese government is resisting. The Japanese central government does not want to change the FRF plan and the United States does not want to change the Status of Forces Agreement.  Although the U.S. argues that the operation of the Status of Forces Agreement has been adjusted to be more sensitive to the concerns of the Okinawans, the Okinawans are not satisfied. This is in part because the Status of Forces Agreement limits the access of local officials onto U.S. military bases. For example, even when there are acute concerns about environmental pollution, local authorities are not able to go in without the explicit permission of the United States. In addition, the tension is also about custody over U.S. service personnel that may have committed crimes. Okinawans feel that the Status of Forces Agreement is an affront to their sovereignty and sense of justice.

The problem with the question regarding whether it is feasible for Japan to both recognize the sentiments coming from Okinawa and to honor its agreement with the United States is that it implies that the current agreement with the United States cannot be amended. However, I firmly believe that it is possible to revise the Status of Forces Agreement and it is possible to revise the relocation plan to Henoko without jeopardizing the U.S. security commitment to Japan. The problem with a lot of the discourse in the United States and in Japan is the assumption that, unless this agreement is preserved, the U.S.-Japan security commitment will weaken. I believe it is just the opposite. If the Status of Forces Agreement is not changed and the replacement facility plan is not changed, then this is a ticking time bomb for the U.S.-Japan alliance. I often refer to this as the Achilles heel of the alliance. If there is a major accident or incident, like the September 1995 gang rape of the school girl by three U.S. servicemen, or if a helicopter crashes onto an elementary school and injures or kills children, this would trigger a fundamental crisis in U.S.-Japanese security relations. American and Japanese policymakers must recognize the risk. There was a wake-up call in 2004 when a helicopter crash landed onto the campus of Okinawa International University. Luckily no one was hurt, but it was a benign wake up call. It has been 14 years since then and we still have not had a reassessment of the current policy approach.


Some of the major issues with the U.S. military presence has been regarding crimes committed by members of the military, noise pollution, and dangers of military aircraft crashes. In addition, the current relocation plan for a base off the coast of Henoko includes the destruction of 420 acres of sea. The plan has received backlash from people within the community and on the international stage for the inevitable environmental destruction. Are all such concerns warranted? What can be done to address some of these concerns short of moving the bases out of Okinawa entirely?

First, the current landfill facility is unnecessary. It is possible to reduce the U.S. Marine Corps presence in Okinawa and still be able to deal with possible security contingencies in the region. It is incorrect to assume that you have to continue the current presence or you have to move the bases off of Okinawa entirely. That is binary thinking, which is exactly the problem. Of course there are some people on Okinawa that would want all U.S. military bases off of Okinawa, but the majority of the Okinawans feel that the problem is that they shoulder an unfair amount of the burden for hosting U.S. military forces. One has to look at the nature of the U.S. military forces in Okinawa and evaluate which forces are essential for maintaining the security commitment and what forces can be moved out. While the U.S. Marine Corps has the largest number of bases on Okinawa, such a large presence is not necessary to maintain the ability to respond rapidly to crises.

The Marine Corps is already moving towards a rotational pattern of deployment that involves regularly deploying Marine Expeditionary Units in the region, including all the way to Australia, from locations such as California and Hawaii as well as Okinawa. In other words, the U.S. Marines have begun to move away from a garrison-type presence in Okinawa to a more expeditionary, rotational presence. In fact, we could probably reduce the Marine presence in Okinawa to about 5,000-8,000 troops by further developing this practice of rotational deployment during peacetime.  To be prepared for major military contingencies, combat-ready amphibious ships could be prepositioned in ports on the main islands of Japan, and U.S.-Japan plans to facilitate the rapid deployment of ground combat troops from the United States to bases in Japan could be developed.  Such an option would obviate the need to construct the landfill runways at Henoko.  The problem with much of the discourse is the assumption that you either have to maintain the current presence or you have to get all the troops out. There are other options, which, unfortunately, people don't talk about.


How have the nuclear threat from North Korea and the rising military might of China affected the motivations for Japan and the United States regarding their security concerns? Is there a way both to have the necessary military capacity to protect against such threats and to respond to the concerns of the Okinawa population?

There is no question that the threat from North Korea and the rise of Chinese military capabilities have increased the incentives for the United States and Japan to preserve and strengthen the security relationship. The trend since the 1990s has been to make the alliance stronger rather than weaker. However, the question is whether the current force deployment in Okinawa is necessary to meet those security challenges. My answer is that the current military deployment in Okinawa could be drastically altered; and, in fact, our military presence can become more efficient and effective in dealing with these security challenges.


Do you have any last thoughts or things we should keep in mind as we watch this unfold, whether it is the legal battle or the dynamics of the relationships?

Last week, Governor Tamaki made his first visit to the United States after becoming the governor of Okinawa. At New York University, he stressed the importance of dialogue and democracy.  In Washington, D.C, he laid the groundwork for further dialogue by meeting with U.S. State and Defense Department officials, members of Congress, and experts on U.S.-Japan security relations.  Governor Tamaki’s father was a U.S. Marine serviceman, so in a sense, he symbolizes the nature of the relationship between the United States and Okinawa. He was elected as governor by a wide margin, so it is very important that the U.S. government respects the democratic will of Okinawa and listen seriously to what Governor Tamaki has to say.  I hope that through dialogue between the U.S. and Japanese governments and Okinawa, a solution can be found that will make the U.S.-Japan security relationship more effective and efficient while reducing the unfair burden that Okinawans have had to bear for hosting the U.S. military presence in Japan.


Ellie Wainstein CMC '19Student Journalist

内閣官房内閣広報室 [CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0) or CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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