Yokosuka Embraces 50 Years of Harmony, Tensions with U.S. Navy Carriers

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Crew family members greet the USS Midway as it arrives at Yokosuka Port in October 1973.

YOKOSUKA, Kanagawa — Oct. 5 marked 50 years since the USS Midway docked at the U.S. Navy’s Yokosuka Base south of Yokohama. The carrier has been replaced by subsequent ones, with the current being the fifth-generation USS Ronald Reagan. With the ongoing unstable international environment, how do locals feel about the U.S. base’s aircraft carrier presence?

Building trust

On Oct. 5, 1973, at 2:35 p.m., the Midway, carrying several F-4 Phantom aircraft, sounded its foghorn as it docked. Protests against the homeporting were held in the city as well as in front of the base. Kazuhiko Ozawa, now 85, who served as the director of Junior Chamber International Yokosuka at the time and is now the honorary head of Yokosuka Chamber of Commerce & Industry, gave a welcome speech from the pier, saying, “Japan and the United States have built a relationship of trust after overcoming a terrible war.”

For five years, Ozawa and other young executives took advantage of the aircraft carrier’s stationing by exchanging views that deepened mutual understanding with U.S. Navy officers about four times a year in groups made up of 20 participants. As interactions increased, more U.S. military personnel began living off the base with their families. “The local economy was revitalized through employment at the base, housing rentals, dining and the supply of goods,” Ozawa said.

Jim Reily, 73, a former crew member of the Midway who now resides in San Diego said in an interview that serving there was the best time of his naval life and that he supported the U.S. Department of Defense’s policy.

Enduring anti-war commitment

Hiroshi Niikura, now 75, a member of the group “Citizens Movement for Declaration of Denuclearization, Yokosuka,” shouted “Go home” from a hill overlooking the base around the time the Midway first docked. Before the war, aircraft carriers of the former Imperial Japanese Navy were built there, and after the war, many U.S. Navy aircraft carriers called at the port. Given the region’s history with U.S. Navy carriers and the growing atmosphere that having a base was a given, even the mayor and the city council, who initially opposed the porting, accepted the decision.

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
USS Midway heads for Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, off the coast of Chiba Prefecture, in October 1973.

Inspired by a desire for peace and anti-war sentiments, young people like Niikura gathered to raise their voices. As time passed from the carrier’s initial stationing, protesters that came from outside the city dwindled. After the Vietnam War ended, U.S. military members who participated in the activities also disappeared.

Still, Niikura and his group continue to hold monthly protests. As of Sept. 24, they have held 571 protests. Recent participation numbers stand at around 30, with participants aging, but Niikura said, “[The issue of aging] is not serious and we want to continue as long as possible.” He looks forward to the emergence of the next generation who can voice their opinions.

Courtesy of Hiroshi Niikura
People march in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, on Aug. 27.

Navy personnel ‘also residents’

With China’s aggressive maritime advances, North Korea’s ballistic missile launches, and Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine, the situation surrounding Japan is becoming more challenging. The aircraft carrier stationed in Yokosuka is expected to play a role in realizing Japan’s vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” Yokosuka Mayor Katsuaki Kamiji said: “Previous mayors have worked hard on various issues that arose regarding the base. Now, I consider all U.S. Navy personnel as Yokosuka residents.”

Vice Adm. Karl Thomas, commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet that operates the USS Ronald Reagan, stated that the bond the U.S. has woven with Japan over the past 50 years will only grow stronger in the next 50 years to come.