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In Japan’s Okinawa island, U.S. military bases take center stage in election 

Col. David Steele, commanding officer of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, at work on the base, on the Japanese island of Okinawa. (Kosuke Okahara for The Washington Post)

GINOWAN, Japan — It’s election time on the Japanese island of Okinawa, and — as always — the presence of U.S. military bases is center stage.

“Give the children of Okinawa back their blue sky,” the leading candidate for the governor’s job, Denny Tamaki, said at an election rally this week, vowing to significantly reduce the presence of U.S. troops if he wins. “We will regain peace for the people of Okinawa.”

This semitropical island is home to about 19,000 U.S. Marines as well as the largest U.S. Air Force base in the Asia-Pacific. The sprawling installations, the Pentagon says, are vital not only for the defense of Japan but also for keeping the peace and projecting American power throughout the region.

But local resentment has been bubbling for decades.

The American military is the main election issue, polls show. And Tamaki is the narrow favorite to become Okinawa’s new governor in Sunday’s vote. That outcome would create another headache for the U.S. military and more stress in the U.S. alliance with Japan.

The Pentagon calls the alliance the “cornerstone” of stability in the Indo-Pacific region. But President Trump again asked at the U.N. General Assembly in New York this week whether Japan, a country with a large trade surplus with the United States, was contributing enough to its own defense.

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The hot topic on Okinawa is Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which is surrounded by housing in the ever-expanding city of Ginowan. There is a two-decade-old plan to relocate the base to a more remote site at Henoko, farther north on the island, and move nearly half the Marines to other bases in Guam, Hawaii and Australia.

But Tamaki says that’s not good enough. Like the previous governor, Takeshi Onaga, who died in office last month, he opposes the expansion of the base in Henoko and wants a broader redistribution of U.S. forces to other parts of Japan.

U.S. bases take up nearly one-fifth of the land on Okinawa, which is twice the size of Guam but has more than 10 times the population, at 1.85 million people. Okinawa is home to roughly half the American military force in Japan.

Tamaki’s conservative opponent, Atsushi Sakima, is backed by Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). He says the base relocation should go ahead, freeing up a large swath of prime land for development. But he also wants immediate measures to reduce the noise of low-flying aircraft and to lower the risks of crashes or pieces of equipment falling to the ground in residential areas.

Sakima doesn’t directly mention the bases at his rallies. Instead, with LDP politicians at his side, he dangles the prospect of government subsidies and investment if Okinawa accedes to Tokyo’s wishes on the bases.

“At this important juncture, we have to move from confrontation to communication,” he said.

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Business interests, especially in the construction industry, appear to be backing him. 

At Tamaki’s rallies, supporters are generally older, many of them retired. Behind their views are deeper cultural and historical sentiments, including a feeling that this island — once the independent kingdom of Ryukyu, which traded with both Japan and China — bears an unfair share of the burden of the U.S. military presence in Japan. 

Ethnically different from the people who live on the main islands of Japan, the people of Okinawa have long felt looked down upon.

Taxi driver Seiji Hanashiro, 70, grew up on tales of the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, when his hastily conscripted teenage elder brother was killed. Tens of thousands of Okinawan civilians died in the 82-day battle in which much of the island razed. 

“I really hate war,” he said, adding that he didn’t much like Japan or the United States, either. “We don’t want bombs or guns. We want trade.”

High school teacher Erika Tamayose, 41, complained of “discrimination” by Tokyo but also disagreed that the bases make her safer. As with many people on Okinawa, her views are shaped by pacifism.

“I grew up in the Cold War, and we were always told that because of the bases, Soviet missiles were directed toward Okinawa,” she said. “Now it could be North Korean missiles. I want Japan to be peaceful and solve its problems diplomatically.”

After World War II, the U.S. military continued to rule Okinawa until 1972, two decades after returning the rest of Japan to self-rule. Okinawa played a vital role during the Vietnam War — the troops flooding through the island brought money, but the fact that Japanese courts couldn’t touch them if they broke the law also caused resentment. 

Over the years several incidents fueled outrage, notably the rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl by three American servicemen in 1995.

In 2004, a helicopter crashed into a university building, which still bears the scars of the blades and burn marks as a reminder. Last December, a window fell out of a helicopter and onto the playground of an elementary school. Today, those children rush into shelters every time they hear an aircraft approaching at playtime. 

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But there is no doubting the strategic value of the U.S. military bases in Okinawa.

Lt. Gen. Eric Smith, who commands U.S. Marine Corps Forces Japan, stood in front of a map to show how the island is perfectly positioned “smack in the middle” of a massive naval environment that is home to much of the world’s population and economic activity. 

The bases provide a “credible, lethal military force” to back diplomacy, he said, reassuring allies and ensuring the freedom of the seas. They are there to respond to threats including China and North Korea, and to humanitarian needs from super-typhoons in the Philippines to earthquakes in Japan.

Tokyo pays around 190 billion yen ($1.67 billion) a year toward the cost of keeping U.S. troops in Japan, but some critics say it could do more to promote the benefits of the U.S.-Japan alliance.

The two main local papers in Okinawa, meanwhile, are vehemently anti-base and never miss an opportunity to fuel indignation. More than 90,000 signatures have been collected to petition for a referendum on the presence of U.S. bases.

Tamaki is the son of an Okinawan waitress and an American Marine, who left the island before he was born and whom he has never met. Although he speaks little English, he has faith in U.S. democracy to listen to his entreaties and the will of the people of Okinawa.

“The democracy of my father’s country can’t refuse what its son is saying,” he said at a rally.

But experts are less sure. The government of Japan says it has the constitutional right to make national security decisions and is determined to push ahead with the replacement base plan.

Professor Masa’aki Gabe at Ryukyu University said Japan is so dependent on the United States for its defense that it will find it hard to change its mind about the Okinawan bases, while Washington is too wedded to the “status quo” in Asia to radically rethink its deployments.

At Okinawa International University, professor Hiromori Maedomari agreed. “In Okinawa, that means the will of the people has not been respected,” he said.

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