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SECURITY > Okinawa

Former U.S. military sites: The dream of land return and the reality of livelihood

  • June 24, 2021
  • , Yomiuri , p. 4
  • JMH Translation

By Hara Shogo


Yomitan Village in Okinawa Prefecture used to be home to the U.S. military’s Sobe Communication Site, popularly known as the “elephant cage.” Amid growing anti-base sentiment caused by the assault of a girl by U.S. soldiers in 1995, the then governor refused to sign by proxy the forced land lease for the site, which was to expire the following year. This made the site the symbol of the anti-base movement.


The movement was successful, and the site was returned to Japan in 2006. Part of the site is currently a residential area. But most of the site is either vacant land or farmland. It is said some landowners did not want the land returned because there was no specific plan for the site’s use and they did not want to lose the land rent paid by the Japanese government.


There is a strong call for the return of U.S. military base sites in urban areas, but most of the U.S. bases in Okinawa are located in forests and fields in the northern section of Kadena Town. It is difficult to find ways to use the returned land. When other bases in Okinawa were returned to Japan, signboards saying, “We welcome the base to continue to use the land” were erected at the roadside. Also, a reformist local government head called for the postponement of the base’s return.


Okinawa will mark the 50th anniversary of its reversion to Japan in May 2022. A campaign against the reversion was waged largely by reformists out of frustration over the continued existence of the U.S. military bases. It is understandable that Okinawans want a land free of bases given the damage caused by the ground battle [during World War II] and the history of the forcible expropriation of land. But not all Okinawans are against the U.S. bases, because land rents support the livelihoods of the landowners.


The annual land rent of the U.S. military bases in Okinawa was 12.3 billion yen in 1972, the year that Okinawa was returned to Japan. But the figure has steadily increased due partly to higher land rents, and it reached 88.1 billion yen in fiscal 2019. Undeveloped former sites of the U.S. military bases made me feel the gap between the vision of those who seek the land return and the reality of those who depend on the land rents.

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