Okinawa and the Future of the U.S.-Japan Security Alliance

Interview with Jennifer Lind
May 11, 2012

Over the past decades, the U.S. military presence in Okinawa, Japan, has at times strained an otherwise healthy U.S.-Japan relationship. Last month’s announcement of the removal of 9,000 U.S. troops from Okinawa demonstrates both governments’ attempts to alleviate this sore spot in the alliance. However, larger, more pressing issues such as the relocation of the Futenma airbase still remain to be resolved. NBR asked Jennifer Lind, Associate Professor of Government at Dartmouth College, to discuss the underlying domestic factors that shape the conflict surrounding the U.S. military presence in Okinawa and how this continuing tension could affect the future of U.S.-Japan security relations.

The U.S. military has had a long-standing presence on Japan’s southern island of Okinawa. What has been the general public opinion among Okinawa’s citizens regarding the presence of U.S. troops in their community?

As I have written elsewhere, [1] a problem with the U.S.-Japan alliance, and a problem in many U.S. alliances, is that Washington often forms alliances with political-military elites, while the alliances are less popular among the people as a whole. The U.S.-Japan alliance began in this narrow fashion, as a marriage of convenience between political-military elites. (The Japanese people, however, have never hated the alliance to the degree that many Pakistanis, Saudis, Yemenis, and others hate their country’s’ relationship with the United States—but still, in the 1950s, many Japanese people were deeply opposed to the alliance with the United States, in particular because of the perception that it risked entrapping Japan in a nuclear war.)

The 1960 Security Treaty crisis led many American and Japanese leaders to conclude that their narrow alliance was not sustainable—that the Japanese people had to be convinced of the need for the alliance and that the two societies (not just the two governments and militaries) needed deeper and broader connections. The governments of Hayato Ikeda and John F. Kennedy began this effort, aided by so many dedicated people on both sides—Edwin and Haru Reischauer come to mind for their leadership and powerful positive influence. Another standout was Mr. Yamamoto Tadashi, [2] whom we sadly lost last month. It’s because of people like them that Japan and the United States have the remarkably deep and broad relationship that we enjoy today.

One problem: although the alliance grew broader and deeper because of these efforts, Okinawans were still left out to a great extent. They didn’t sign onto an arrangement that—due to a combination of strategic location and center-periphery politics in Japan—imposed on them the vast majority of the U.S. military footprint. Okinawans have had to deal with the noise, accidents, crime and prostitution, and sexual violence that accompany the bases. They have endured tragedies such as the 1957 Girard affair (in which a U.S. serviceman shot a local woman who had come onto the base) and the 1995 gang rape of an Okinawan schoolgirl by American soldiers. The Okinawan people have to live beneath military helicopters that could come crashing down on them at any time (and indeed have). As an Okinawan journalist once told me, Tokyo talks about threats from North Korea and China—but the bases threaten us every day.

How do you think the United States could better engage and respond to these sentiments and improve relations with Okinawans?

This is first and foremost a Japanese domestic political issue. The United States has an alliance with the country of Japan, in which we pledge to defend it and to advance shared goals of regional stability. The Japanese government needs to explain to the Japanese people—all the people, including the people of Okinawa—what the country’s security goals are and how the alliance helps advance them. Tokyo must also explain that Japan’s strategy of advancing those goals via the alliance with the United States comes with a price, which is that the United States needs military bases from which to operate. The Japanese need to figure out who in Japan will have to pay the costs of having loud, dangerous, and annoying military facilities and soldiers. Some Japanese are going to pay a disproportionate share of the costs, such as those who live near Futenma or Iwakuni. It’s fundamentally a problem for the Japanese government and electorate to figure out how to compensate the local people who suffer the externalities of the alliance for the sacrifice that they are making to keep Japan safe.

Although this is primarily a domestic issue for Japan, the Americans certainly can help in important ways. Rather than just position the same forces that the alliance had during the Cold War, Tokyo and Washington can figure out the number and mix of troops that are really necessary to advance modern-day U.S. and Japanese military goals in the region. They can (as they have recently decided to do) [3] reconfigure that force mix if doing so both eases Japan’s domestic tensions on Okinawa and aligns with American and Japanese security interests.

Furthermore, the Americans can make sure that, for the forces we do have in Japan, we are the best guests that we possibly can be. Airplanes and helicopters are loud and training has to be done, but we need excellent leadership at these facilities to ensure that every soldier, sailor, and Marine knows that his or her daily conduct with the Japanese has a big effect on the U.S.-Japan relationship. So the Americans should minimize the consequences of hosting them.

Despite the recent agreement involving the transfer of some U.S. Marines to Guam, the future of the Futenma airbase remains unresolved. What issues are at stake in this dispute?

Other than the domestic political issues at stake, there are important issues related to military operability involved. For example, U.S. military planners don’t like relocation plans that separate Marines from their command element. Moving forces to Guam also shifts them further away from most plausible contingencies in the region (whether in South Korea or elsewhere). But deployed on Guam, the Marines are still a relatively short airplane trip from South Korea, as they would be from Okinawa. The military issues, while real, are probably not the dominant ones here.

The politics are probably the bigger issue. If we are seeing a growing trend in which the Japanese are pushing the U.S. military to Guam, Hawaii, Alaska, or to some other country, this would mean that Japan is asking the United States to protect it and to provide regional stability from longer distances—something that is costlier, harder, and less effective. Importantly, at some point this would challenge the basic deal at the heart of the U.S.-Japan alliance, dating to 1950: that the United States provides protection and Japan provides bases. If Japan grows less willing over time to provide bases, Americans will quite rightly start asking themselves, what exactly does Japan contribute to this arrangement?

Doesn’t Japan contribute in many ways to its security arrangement with the United States?

Absolutely—Japan does help alleviate the cost of hosting U.S. troops on its territory. And of course Japan is a great global citizen. But we’re talking about a military alliance here.

Japan is living in a region with serious security challenges. The United States spends hundreds of billions of dollars each year to protect Japan and to promote stability in East Asia. The American people can see that Japan is threatened by North Korea and lives next door to a rising China. So if Japan not only resists building a military commensurate with its economic power and also starts reducing its willingness to host U.S. military forces, this does not bode well for the future health of the relationship, particularly because Americans have a freight train of an entitlements crisis bearing down on them at home—Social Security and healthcare. This entitlements crisis is going to force some serious conversations about U.S. priorities and about America’s staggeringly costly grand strategy.

I don’t want to overstate this—it’s possible that the Futenma relocation issue can be resolved in some way, that it’s a special case and not a sign of broader and growing anti-base sentiment in Japan. But it’s also possible that Yukio Hatoyama opened up a Pandora’s box with his support for moving U.S. military forces out of Japan and that this fed an anti-base movement in Okinawa (in part by fueling the political empowerment of anti-base politicians there). According to this way of thinking, the Futenma controversy is the start of a trend that, because it would challenge the central deal within the alliance, could cause a lot of trouble in U.S.-Japan relations in the future.

What do you think about the general, long-term health of the U.S.-Japan alliance?

When we talk about military basing disputes, it’s important to consider the big picture. First, as I discussed earlier, the United States and Japan really do have a warm relationship: we have shared values, a long history of cooperation, and deep and broad connections in a wide variety of areas—not only in politics, but trade, culture, science, technology, and education.

And importantly, powerful structural forces are pushing Japan and the United States together. The U.S. is “pivoting” or as people are now saying, “rebalancing” toward East Asia. Japan is confronting an increasingly muscular China and an erratic North Korea. It’s hard to imagine Japanese and U.S. policymakers looking around this neighborhood and concluding that they need each other less in the coming decades. That said, from an American perspective, the Futenma controversy and the anti-base sentiment in Okinawa and elsewhere in Japan suggest that perhaps the Japanese need to think more about how much they value this alliance, how unpleasant it would be if Japan had to deal with the coming challenges in East Asia without its powerful ally, and what Japan is willing to contribute to keep the alliance strong.

For a decade or more, U.S. energies have been consumed by events in the Middle East, and it has paid less attention to the important strategic developments in East Asia. Now Washington says it intends to concentrate more on Asia. But what U.S. allies need to keep in mind is, even if today the United States says that it is “pivoting,” events beyond our control might occur tomorrow in the Middle East that could make us pivot right back there. We might see a serious conflict between Iran and Israel, revolution and instability in Saudi Arabia, ongoing civil war in Iraq—any of these things could make the next decade yet another one of U.S. preoccupation with the Middle East.

If I were a Japanese policymaker, I’d be trying to find ways to make Japan look relevant, indispensable and useful to the United States. If the Japanese were confident that we were truly pivoting toward Asia, they might be tempted to take the United States and the alliance for granted. But if things fall apart in the Middle East, then U.S. allies in Asia may find themselves having to take on a more assertive role—certainly not abandoned by the United States, but having to manage more of Asia’s political and security affairs side by side with the Americans rather than the United States taking the lead.

Do you expect Japan to continue to rely on the U.S. military presence as part of its core national security strategy, or do you think the country is likely to head in a more independent direction in the future?

The alliance with the United States serves Japan very well. It permits Japan’s low level of defense spending—the lowest such level (below 1% of GDP) of any great power. The alliance defends Japan from North Korea and serves as an insurance policy against a potentially dangerous China. The alliance dampens regional arms racing that might occur if Japan increased its military expenditure and participation. Furthermore, in Operation Tomodachi, the alliance came to Japan’s aid when disaster struck. A potential cost of the alliance might be entrapment (which the Japanese have understandably worried about since the 1950s). Yet the alliance has not entrapped Japan—in America’s many military adventures, Washington has accepted either little or no Japanese participation.

Of course, Japan bears other costs associated with the alliance. I earlier mentioned the very real ones borne by Okinawans and others. But if I were a Japanese policymaker I’d think, let’s not mess this up. Indeed, not even the momentous changes we’ve seen in the past few years in Japanese domestic politics have led to a meaningful strategic debate. As we can see from the Democratic Party of Japan’s (DPJ) emphatic ouster of Yukio Hatoyama, the DPJ isn’t offering the Japanese an alternative grand strategic vision, nor is any other mainstream leader or group. Why? Because—relative to the alternatives—Japan’s got a good thing going, and the Japanese know it. Similarly in the United States, there are no mainstream leaders questioning America’s prevailing grand strategy of “primacy” or “global leadership”; Washington is showing more, not less, interest in East Asia. Given the strategic debate in both countries, both sides are likely to value each other more, not less.


[1] Lind, Jennifer, “Learning to Share the Stage,” The New York Times, February 5, 2012,

[2] Warnock, Eleanor, “End of an Era: Yamamoto, Top ‘America Hand’ Dies at 76,” The Wall Street Journal, April 16, 2012,

[3] Shanker, Thom, “U.S. Agrees to Reduce Size of Force on Okinawa,” The New York Times, April 26, 2012,

Jennifer Lind is an Associate Professor of Government at Dartmouth College and a Research Associate at the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies at Harvard University. She is also a Fellow of the U.S.-Japan Network for the Future, a program sponsored by the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation and the Japan Center for Global Partnership. Dr. Lind is the author of Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics (2008). Read more about Dr. Lind’s work at her website or follow her on Twitter at @profLind.

This interview was conducted by Laura Araki, an Intern at the National Bureau of Asian Research and a senior in the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies.

This interview was produced by the Japan-U.S. Discussion Forum, NBR’s public email forum on Japanese affairs.