Pity the Poor Marines

Pity the poor U.S. Marines, helplessly caught in a feud between the Okinawan people and the government of Japan. At least, Col. Eric Mellinger would have you believe so. Mellinger, chief of staff for the III Marine Expeditionary Forces in Okinawa, recently confided: “I hate to say we are the ball in the middle of the two rackets, but often I do think the U.S. military is used that way because it highlights other tensions that have absolutely nothing to do with the U.S. military.”

It’s quite true that it suits Japan’s central government just fine to have 74% of U.S. bases there located in Okinawa, with 0.6% of Japan’s total land area. Concentrating the U.S. presence in a small, politically weak prefecture also cordons off opposition to the crime, noise, environmental harm, and accidents that it brings. And there’s nothing new about Tokyo’s victimization of Okinawa. After all, Emperor Hirohito wrote to General MacArthur in 1947, suggesting that Okinawa be leased to the U.S. for 25 years or longer. Despicable as that was, Hirohito did so at American urging, and in this the hands of the U.S. military are far from clean. When Okinawa remained under U.S. military rule even after Japan regained its sovereignty in 1952, this was, notes Chalmers Johnson, “simply the price of getting the Pentagon to go along with the peace treaty.”[1] The U.S. finally restored Okinawa to Japanese control in 1972, but retained the bases. Johnson observes, “The military’s situation in Okinawa struck me as similar to that of Soviet troops in East Germany after the Berlin Wall came down. In both cases the troops preferred to stay on because the pleasures of life as a legionnaire in an imperial garrison far outstripped those of life back in the ‘homeland’.”[2]

The Marines in particular wield a “racket” of their own. Though a 2013 RAND study found that Mellinger’s own III MEF could be moved to California without harming response times, a supposed need to base air and ground units near each other is offered up as a rationale for keeping them in Okinawa. Even within that constraint, Peter Ennis attributes rejection of sharing facilities with the Air Force to “decades of inter-service rivalries” – i.e., the Marines insist on a shiny new base of their own. The Commandant of the Marines himself gives the lie to Mellinger’s plea of innocent neutrality. General James Amos “expressed great admiration for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s handling of the thorny base realignment issues on Okinawa, and said he was confident that Abe would be able to overcome local opposition.” In cracking down on anti-base protests, Abe is unlikely to withhold any instrument of state power, up to and including the Coast Guard and Self-Defense Forces. This is the same administration that is pushing for fewer restraints on the SDF’s use of force outside the country.

Mellinger goes on to suggest that Okinawan concerns about living near military bases are on a par with those of Americans: “I don’t think what the Okinawan people have as far as feelings is all that much different from what Americans have.” But let’s look at some numbers:

  • U.S. military personnel stationed in Japan: 50,341
  • U.S. military personnel stationed in Okinawa: about 26,000
  • Okinawa land area as percentage of Japan’s total: 0.6
  • West Virginia land area: 24,038.21 sq. miles
  • United States (50 states and DC) land area: 3,531,905.43 sq. miles
  • U.S. military personnel in the 50 states and DC: 1,187,466

From these figures we can derive that about 52% of U.S. military personnel in Japan are stationed in Okinawa, and that West Virginia’s land area is roughly 0.7% of the U.S. total. So if the U.S. concentrated its stateside personnel in one state to the degree it does in one Japanese prefecture, there could be something like 52% of 1,187,466 troops in West Virginia. That’s over 600,000 in a state with a current population of less than 2 million.

Imagine that those 600,000 troops were not Americans, but Japanese. Imagine that, occupying the state’s best land, they forced West Virginians to help defray the costs of this foreign military presence – including officers’ clubs and golf courses. Imagine that, like U.S. troops in Okinawa, those Japanese troops operated under a Status of Forces Agreement that shielded them from local laws. Imagine that the Japanese had stored chemical and nuclear weapons on their bases while hiding this fact from West Virginians. Perhaps now, Col. Mellinger, you can begin to fathom “what the Okinawan people have as far as feelings.”


[1] Chalmers Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004), p. 201.
[2] Johnson, p. 7.

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