The Reversion of Okinawa: Faster Than Replacing Futenma


 Forty-four years ago, the United States returned administrative rights over Okinawa, and the prefecture became a part of Japan again in fact as well as in name.


 The reversion of Okinawa took place on May 15, 1972. From April 28, 1952, when the Allied Treaty of Peace with Japan went into the effect, until that day, the United States exercised administrative rights over Okinawa as per Article 3 of the treaty.

 Specifically, Article 3 read: “Japan will concur in any proposal of the United States to the United Nations to place under its trusteeship system, with the United States as the sole administering authority, Nansei Shoto south of 29 degrees north latitude (including the Ryukyu Islands and the Daito Islands), Nanpo Shoto south of Sofu Gan (including the Bonin Islands, Rosario Island and the Volcano Islands) and Parece Vela and Marcus Island. Pending the making of such a proposal and affirmative action thereon, the United States will have the right to exercise all and any powers of administration, legislation and jurisdiction over the territory and inhabitants of these islands, including their territorial waters.”

 There was no time limit or really any specifics about Okinawa’s future, or Japan’s relationship with it, in the treaty itself. These items were purposely left vague, to give the U.S. government maximum flexibility both strategically as well as diplomatically.

 In fact, while not so written in the article, Japan was given “residual sovereignty” over Okinawa, as per the oral explanation provided by the chief negotiator and architect of the treaty, John Foster Dulles, at the time of the September 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty Conference. As I describe in my The Origins of the Bilateral Okinawa Problem: Okinawa in Postwar U.S.-Japan Relations, 1945-1952 (London: Routledge, 2001), Article 3 and the related interpretation were thus a “window of opportunity” in which the U.S. government, on behalf of the Allies, and Japan could negotiate some sort of “practicable arrangements” over the islands.

 Japan desired their return, and the U.S. government, particularly the State Department and its representation in Japan, as well as the Far Eastern Command (predecessor to U.S. Forces Japan), were highly favorable to Japan’s requests, but the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff eventually vetoed Okinawa’s being left with Japan in early 1952 prior to the peace treaty’s going into effect.

 Japan’s desires (and those of some in Okinawa) were temporarily dashed, but the return of the Amami Islands in December 1953, and of Iwo Jima and the Ogasawara Islands in June 1968, however, gave rise to the hope that Okinawa would eventually be returned.

 In fact, during both sets of negotiations, the Japanese government requested Okinawa’s return and/or special consideration. During the latter talks in November 1967, in addition to request for the return of Iwo Jima, realized the following year, Prime Minister Satō Eisaku (current Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s great uncle) asked President Lyndon B. Johnson to decide “within a few years” a date for Okinawa’s return. When Satō met with President Richard M. Nixon at the next U.S.-Japan summit in November 1969, Nixon actually agreed to return Okinawa in the next few years.

 Indeed, that is what happened. A little more than a year and a half later in June 1971, the two countries signed the Okinawa reversion agreement after intense negotiations on all sorts of basing, fiscal, legal, and other arrangements had been discussed, and eleven months after that, Okinawa itself was returned, with these agreed-to arrangements being implemented.

 What this means is that in a mere two and a half years, “all and any powers of administration, legislation and jurisdiction” were reverted, and the tens of thousands of issues, including base consolidations, land returns, and the transfer of defense responsibilities, capably worked out. Indeed, much of the hard work took place during the remaining eleven months.

 Which makes it a sad testament to state of Japanese and Okinawa politics that the conditional return of one facility (albeit a very important one)—Futenma Air Station—has taken more than twenty years and is not much closer to actualization than when first discussed in 1996.

 In other words, the time elapsed since the April 12, 1996 conditional agreement to return Futenma (after finding a replacement facility) until today is longer than the entire period of the U.S. administration of Okinawa, 1952-1972.

 These past twenty years can be described not only as the lost “two decades” for the U.S.-Japan alliance and overall relationship but also suggest what a poorly thought-out plan the Henoko move really was.

 I write this—that the Henoko plan was “poorly thought-out”—for reasons so many that they all cannot be listed here. But one of the main reasons is that relocating Futenma not solve anything because complaints will be heard next in Henoko and surrounding areas if you relocate it to where a population already lives and where additional people can move into. Indeed it is not even necessary in the first place. Futenma is not the “most dangerous airfield in the world” nor is the “noisiest,” and the number of aircraft at the air station is a fraction of what it was when the SACO recommendations were made twenty years ago.

 The main assumption behind the relocation to Henoko was that the expanded facility could be built easily as it was a part of the existing Camp Schwab. Protesters, according to a former powerful vice minister for defense at the time, could be kept from interfering in the construction he apparently told other officials. Appalled by his ignorance of post-reversion Okinawa political history and opposition tactics, I warned the U.S. and Japanese governments in numerous speeches, including one at the then Defense Agency in February 2006, and in an article Chuo Koron (“The Roadmap to Nowhere”) that same year, that they would have a significant fight on their hands.

 Regardless of the tactics, ideology, and vested interests of the anti-base protesters, the Henoko plan is and always was a bad idea fiscally, militarily, operationally, strategically, environmentally, and politically, so much so that one senior U.S. military official accused a Department of Defense civilian official of “[being] on drugs” when he and others came up with the plan.