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Okinawa feels impact of U.S. and Japan military shifts

Marines of the 12th Marine Littoral Regiment practice with .50-caliber machine guns on a firing range on Okinawa.
Anthony Kuhn
Marines of the 12th Marine Littoral Regiment practice with .50-caliber machine guns on a firing range on Okinawa.

OKINAWA, Japan — President Biden and visiting Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will discuss upgrades to the two countries' alliance that are being felt on this island, which hosts some 70% of U.S. military bases in Japan.

The two nations are expected to tighten cooperation between their military command structures, and their defense industries, while regional groupings such as the U.S., Australia and the U.K. are considering sharing new defense technologies with Japan.

Kishida's state visit is the first by a Japanese leader in nine years, and will include an address to a joint session of Congress on Thursday and a trilateral meeting that includes Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr.

Okinawa, which sits closer to China than to Japan's main islands, is the focus of U.S. and Japanese efforts to beef up defenses in Japan's southwest islands.


Japan has set up missile bases on the main and outlying islands of Okinawa prefecture. And the U.S. established a new unit called the 12th Marine Littoral Regiment, or MLR, here in November of 2023.

Marines from the unit plodded through Okinawa's dense vegetation on a recent land navigation exercise. They plot their course with maps and compasses, honing their navigation skills without GPS devices that could give away their location.

That's because they're within missile range of possible adversaries, such as China.

"We view ourselves already well within the enemy's weapon engagement zone," explains 12th MLR Lt. Col. Dan O'Connell. "The importance of 12th MLR is that we are already here, able to be where we need to be."

The MLRs are designed to be agile and stealthy. They've got fewer marines, tanks, aircraft and artillery, but more missiles.

With the missiles, the Marines can try to control chokepoints between islands that separate China from the wider Pacific. So even as China has deployed missiles to keep adversaries away from its shores, the U.S. may try to use its missiles to hem China in.

Marines of the 12th Marine Littoral Regiment assemble before a land navigation exercise on Okinawa.
Anthony Kuhn / NPR
Marines of the 12th Marine Littoral Regiment assemble before a land navigation exercise on Okinawa.

Plans to reform the Marines over the next decade have met with withering criticism from some U.S. retired generals. They argue that by downsizing, ditching heavy weapons, and focusing on island defense rather than offense, the Marines will no longer be an effective global response force.

They also argue that the Marines are trying to tailor their force to a single theater, the Western Pacific, although Marine leaders insist that the MLRs will work in other environments.

Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former Marine colonel, says that some military planners think "we ought to just focus on China and step back from these other global commitments." But, as the war in Ukraine has demonstrated, he argues, "when you look at the real world, that's just not possible."

Others worry that enemy missiles could keep the US from resupplying far-flung Marine units. The Marines say they can share infrastructure and purchase supplies from Japanese self-defense forces or civilians.

But that could mean that "there will be less of a boundary between military and civilian life," says Fumiaki Nozoe, a US-Japan relations expert at Okinawa International University. "And it could lead to an increased burden on Okinawa, in either emergency or training situations," he says.

Even as the U.S. and Japan build up defenses on Okinawa, the island's long-running peace movement has been running into difficulty.

Fewer survivors of the WWII Battle of Okinawa, in which nearly a third of the island's population perished, are around to tell their stories.

Polls show 70% of Okinawans feel their prefecture shoulders an unfair proportion of the burden of hosting U.S. military bases. But the ranks of anti-base protesters are aging and thinning.

"Some young people say that, you know, there is no way to kick all the bases out. This is a discouragement to them. They know it's almost not worthwhile to work on this issue," says 84-year-old activist and protest leader Suzuyo Takazato.

Young Okinawans tend to express less concern about the bases.

"Young people don't want to join the movement's sit-ins, but we definitely want to do something for peace," says 26-year-old Nitsuki Karimata, who takes visitors to Okinawan historical sites. "So more people in my generation are engaged in peace studies or peace tourism," she says.

Okinawa was an independent kingdom until Japan annexed it in 1879. The U.S. military occupation of Japan ended in 1952, but Okinawa didn't return to Japanese rule until 1972.

Some Okinawans feel that Japan and the U.S. have colonized and sacrificed them.

"They have used Okinawa as a tool," says Takazato. "So, we don't believe our position [is] always respected equally."

Marines of the 12th Marine Littoral Regiment do land navigation exercises in Okinawa's jungles.
Anthony Kuhn / NPR
Marines of the 12th Marine Littoral Regiment do land navigation exercises in Okinawa's jungles.

Okinawans have consistently elected governors who represent their views on the military base issue, including the current governor, Denny Tamaki.

"My position is that I accept the current Japan-U.S. alliance," Tamaki says in an interview. "But because U.S. military bases are overly concentrated in Okinawa, I have been telling the Japanese government to reduce the excessive burden imposed by these bases."

But Okinawa International University's Fumiaki Nozoe says that Okinawa's governors are in a tough spot, as the prefecture is one of Japan's poorest.

"The governor must conflict with the central government on the issue of U.S. military bases," he argues. "On the other hand, he or she must ask the central government for cooperation on issues of economic development. That's the dilemma."

Chie Kobayashi contributed to this report in Tokyo and Okinawa.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.

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