Okinawans living in presence of U.S. bases seek compromise

Listings displayed on the window of the Odayaka Real Estate agency in Naha feature some figures that ordinary property advertisements do not. An ad for land used for the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma bore the words “45 times” and one for property used by Kadena Air Base read “58 times.”

In Japan, private property used for U.S. military bases and other such facilities is leased by the Japanese government, which pays rent to the landowners. This allows the United States to continue to use the land.

The numbers on the flyers indicate the price the landowner wants to sell the lot for as a multiple of the annual rent paid by the government.

Such land used by the U.S. military has gained popularity as an investment with stable returns since the novel coronavirus pandemic erupted last year.

“Even though the economy has struggled due to the pandemic, owners of such land still get rent paid to them without fail,” said Yoshihito Heshiki, president of Odayaka Real Estate. “Land here also provides a better yield than government bonds.”

For instance, if a plot of land earns ¥100,000 in rent annually, and the land price is ¥5 million — an amount 50 times the rent — a simple calculation shows this will provide a gross yield of 2%.

These properties become more sought-after, pushing up the multipliers on the ads, as the prospect goes down of the United States returning such land to Japan. The higher the multiplier, the lower the yield, but potential purchasers see the opportunity to earn rent over the long term.

The brisk market for land used by the U.S. military speaks volumes about the reality that, although many of the prefecture’s residents want Okinawa to be free of military bases, returning the land will not be straightforward.

The sporadic emergence of opposition movements to the return agreed to by Tokyo and Washington is one factor behind the delays in putting these installations into Japanese hands.

Since the U.S. occupation ended and Okinawa was officially returned to Japan in 1972, the largest return of land occurred in December 1996 involving about half of the U.S. military’s Northern Training Area. Tokyo and Washington agreed that about 4,000 hectares of the jungle training area’s about 7,500 total — the largest U.S. military installation in Okinawa Prefecture — would be returned, with the initial target date set for the end of fiscal 2002. However, the transfer was pushed back about 14 years and eventually completed in December 2016.

One condition of this process was establishing six helicopter landing zones in the sections that would remain under U.S. control to compensate for seven helicopter landing zones in sections of the training area that would be returned.

The plan was to relocate the six helipads to around Takae, a small district of about 110 people in the village of Higashi. Local residents expressed opposition to this plan, concerned about noise pollution and the risk of accidents.

The atmosphere surrounding this issue changed, however, after activists who appeared to be from outside Okinawa Prefecture started to stand out in the opposition movement. Opponents to the plan left several vehicles on a prefectural road as a blockade to prevent construction vehicles from passing, and they set up their own “checkpoints.”

The increasingly extreme opposition movement did not sit well with many local residents. These residents just wanted the construction to be finished quickly and were resigned to the fact that the government would complete the work eventually.

“At first, everybody in Takae opposed the helipad plan,” recalled Kumiko Nakamine, head of the Takae district. “We went to the prefectural government and the prefectural assembly with our demands. But when opponents from outside Okinawa started converging here, we began to have some misgivings.”

The hardline opponents would intentionally jump out in front of construction vehicles, or lie down to block their path. Getting in the way of the construction workers and heaping verbal abuse on them became commonplace. In July 2016, the prefectural police decided the actions of the opponents were dangerous, and riot police were sent in to subdue the protesters, and the government was able to restart the construction work.

Amid all this, the government was offering extensive financial support to local residents and municipalities. Although deep-rooted criticism of this carrot-and-stick policy remains in the prefecture, the government wants to reward locals who have shown support for the helipad plan.

Funds from the national budget have been used to construct a community center for residents in the Takae district and some shopping stalls are being repaired.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga often visited the prefecture during his time as chief cabinet secretary and minister in charge of mitigating the impact of U.S. forces in Okinawa. He listened to the requests of Nakamine and other local leaders. Suga even asked Nakamine for her mobile phone number and often sent emails or called to ask her about noise from the helicopters and other matters.

Yet, it would be wrong to assume Takae residents wholeheartedly welcomed the helipad plan. What appears to be waste from the U.S. military was found at the old training area sites and disposing of this has become a problem.

“If the U.S. military conducts training exercises, their aircraft will be flying around, it will be noisy and our windows will be rattling all the time,” Nakamine said. “That makes me feel afraid.”

As they seek a compromise on various elements of this issue, local residents will continue to feel the presence of the U.S. military.

Prefecture hosts 70% of facilities

When Okinawa Prefecture officially reverted to Japanese control in May 1972, facilities for the exclusive use of the U.S. military covered 27,893 hectares in the prefecture — about 12% of the total area. The return of these facilities started soon after the reversion, but anti-base movements flared up each time an accident or crime involving U.S. military personnel occurred.

This is epitomized by the movement across the prefecture that erupted after three U.S. servicemen raped a schoolgirl in September 1995. Later that year, Tokyo and Washington established the Special Action Committee on Okinawa (SACO), tasked with examining ways to consolidate, realign and reduce U.S. facilities and areas. The SACO final report, which was completed in December 1996, stated about 21% of the total area of land used by U.S. forces will be returned. The Futenma air base, which is in a densely populated residential area in the city of Ginowan, was to be returned within five to seven years. However, the construction of a replacement facility at Camp Schwab’s coastal section in the Henoko area of Nago has not progressed smoothly. The relocation of the Futenma air base likely will be pushed back to the 2030s.

According to the Defense Ministry, U.S. military facilities covered 18,483 hectares in Okinawa Prefecture as of the end of March this year. The prefecture is home to about 70% of all U.S. military facilities in Japan. When taking into account facilities jointly used by U.S. forces and the Self-Defense Forces, however, the Okinawa figure drops to about 20% of the U.S. military presence in Japan.