Especially controversial is whether the U.S. Marine Air Station at Futenma, in the densely populated city of Ginowan, will be relocated to a rural part of the island—as Washington and Tokyo agreed in 1996—or moved out of Okinawa, as the local governor and many voters demand.
During my tenure as a fellow of the Okinawa prefectural government from 2012 to 2014, I visited most of the U.S. military bases and their local city halls in Okinawa. This is the island where nearly 75% of U.S. military facilities (for exclusive use) in Japan are concentrated. I met with many local residents and members of the U.S. military and learned a great deal about U.S.-Japan relations on the ground.
To my dismay, and despite much high-level rhetoric from Washington and Tokyo about the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance, most Okinawans had very low opinions of the U.S. military. Some local government officials told me it had been several years since a U.S. military officer last visited their offices.
Few Okinawan officials had a clear understanding of the chains of command within the military institutions based on the island. Local U.S. Marine commanders may provide the prefectural government with an organization chart, I was told, but there would be no accompanying explanation of how each department within the organization functions.
Part of this stems from wariness on the part of the Americans. When one U.S. Marine commander suggested that more information be shared with the prefectural government in order to minimize the chances of miscommunication, his advisors rejected the proposal, believing that Okinawan officials would leak the information to local interest groups opposed to the presence of U.S. bases there.
This lack of communication helps create a climate of animosity, as local officials seeking clarity on military procedures are routinely stonewalled and frustrated, lending credence to their belief that the U.S. military doesn’t care about them. They, in turn, become more uncooperative toward U.S. military personnel.
The onus, however, is on the Americans. The Americans need to maintain good relations with the locals, especially given that many locals question the very existence of the bases. The base issue has always been a touchy one, driving risk-averse local bureaucrats to avoid military contact. The language barrier stands tall, while the fence surrounding the U.S. bases creates a physical divide that allows little space for interaction.
Americans have tried to build good relations with the locals and contribute to Okinawa’s quality of life—for instance, by cleaning up beaches, teaching English or organizing sporting events. But such actions don’t always succeed. Often they are viewed by locals with suspicion or cynicism.
These acts of goodwill should not be a goal but merely a starting point. I found during my interviews, with very few exceptions, that the most successful U.S. base commanders and liaison officers were those who had developed deep local relations. These officers and commanders are frequently visiting city halls and befriending ward chiefs. They also clean beaches and teach English, but they focus first on establishing friendships with the locals, sometimes going for coffee together after beach events or having dinner after language lessons.
Such relationships make it easier to establish the necessary lines of communications when potential controversies arise, such as car accidents or crimes committed by U.S. service members. The locals would inform the liaison officers and base commanders of incidents soon after they occur, helping them understand how and when to apologize, and to whom—all of which would be vital for effective damage control.
Meeting in person with local leaders and residents, therefore, is the essential first step to reducing mistrust between the U.S. military and the people of Okinawa. As one successful U.S. commander said he learned from his Okinawan interlocutors: “If I see you in person, it is difficult to hate you.”