Story and photo by Takenouchi Shusuke
The Self-Defense Forces (SDF) are deploying more troops to Okinawa, which marked the 50th anniversary of its return to Japan on May 15, with an eye on China’s aggressive maritime expansion driven by military force. SDF members were subjected to discriminatory treatment in Okinawa for a while after the prefecture’s reversion to the Japanese sovereignty due to the memories of having fallen victim to the devastation caused by World War II in the minds of Okinawa people. But the SDF’s steady contributions to local communities helped to improve the sentiments of the people. The importance of the SDF stationed in Okinawa is certainly increasingly amid growing tensions in East Asia triggered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Warrant Officer Ebihara Hiroko has served as command sergeant major, the highest-ranking position for a noncommissioned officer, since March 2021 at the Ground Self-Defense Force’s 15th Brigade headquartered in Naha City. The 53-year-old who is originally from the city says, “The situation surrounding the SDF is getting better.” She joined the SDF after graduating from junior college in 1989. But she says it took her five years to tell her relatives that she had joined the SDF.
Changing sentiments of Okinawa people
Her hesitation is attributable to the history of Okinawa, where fierce ground battles killed a quarter of the population in the closing days of World War II and which was governed by the U.S. after the war. In October 1972, after Okinawa’s reversion to Japan, the predecessor of the 15th Brigade established Camp Naha. But SDF members suffered discrimination. For example, their applications to register as residents were rejected and they could not participate in public coming-of-age ceremonies, among other things, as locals identified the SDF with the Japanese Imperial Army.
But the SDF has steadily carried out its missions, such as airlifting emergency patients by SDF aircraft and disposing of ordnance. As a result, Ebihara says, Okinawans have come to show less antipathy towards the SDF. She went on to say, “I have the impression that we’ve been accepted as ‘family members.’” She mentioned that the SDF and Okinawans seem to have reached a political compromise as well, noting that last year the head of the municipality that hosts Camp Naha sent a congratulatory message to a coming-of-age-ceremony for SDF members stationed in the camp.
The better relationship between the SDF and the Okinawan people is substantiated by the number of SDF recruits from Okinawa Prefecture. According to the Okinawa Provincial Cooperation Office, only 15 people from Okinawa joined the SDF in 1972. But the figure surpassed the 200 mark for the first time in 1979, reaching 215. Though the number of recruits fluctuates, sometimes dropping to double digits, there have been more than 200 recruits from Okinawa in each of the past five years.
The SDF have been prominently beefing up their forces in Okinawa in recent years. The GSDF set up Camp Yonaguni in 2016 as the first camp outside the Japanese mainland. In 2019, the GSDF also opened a camp on Miyakojima island and it plans to set up one on Ishigakijima at the end of this fiscal year. Also, the Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) launched the 9th air wing at Naha Air Base in 2016.
These moves are made with China’s increasing military pressure in mind. This month, the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning sailed south between Okinawa’s main island and Miyakojima. Also, in December last year, the aircraft carrier passed through those waters. One SDF official says: “These passages are apparently intended to keep Japan in check. China is sending us a coercive message, flaunting its capability to deploy troops.”
Taking Ukraine as an example
Professor Kawakami Takashi at the Institute of World Studies at Takushoku University takes the Russian invasion of Ukraine as an example and points out: “The invasion proved that countries without sufficient deterrence are susceptible to invasion. The balance of power will be upset in East Asia unless Japan enhances its self-defense capabilities amid a growing military threat from China.”
Professor Yoshitomi Nozomu, a security expert at Nihon University, says: “It is becoming difficult for the U.S. to individually deal with China as it is becoming stronger. So Japan is required to voluntarily cooperate [with the U.S.]” He went on to say: “Countries need to show their determination to protect themselves. Otherwise, other countries can’t lend them a helping hand.”
Warrant Officer Ebihara, who now leads some 2,000 SDF members, says that following the invasion of Ukraine she tells the members: “War broke out in Ukraine after the international power balance was upset. The significance of enhancing deterrence through our daily training in Okinawa is more important than ever.”