Fifty Years Later, Okinawa Is Still a Strategic Crossroads

In Brief

Fifty Years Later, Okinawa Is Still a Strategic Crossroads

Japan’s Okinawa islands still have an outsize importance to U.S. military operations in the Indo-Pacific, particularly in deterring a Chinese attack against Taiwan.

It has been fifty years since the United States relinquished control over Okinawa Prefecture. However, the islands remain home to dozens of U.S. bases, and with China’s escalating aggression in the region, Okinawa’s importance to the U.S. and Japanese militaries has only grown. The United States and Japan are increasingly concerned about tensions across the Taiwan Strait, and Okinawa’s proximity to Taiwan makes it a focal point in allied efforts to enhance deterrence.

Why is Okinawa important? 

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The Ryukyu Islands, which compose Okinawa Prefecture, are strategically located between Japan and the Asian mainland. Growing military tensions in Northeast Asia continue to make Okinawa of great strategic value to both Washington and Tokyo. 

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In particular, the United States and Japan are concerned about China’s increasingly provocative behavior toward Taiwan and worry that China could use force against the island. Okinawa’s southern-most inhabited island, Yonaguni, sits only 110 kilometers (68 miles) from Taiwan. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised questions about how the U.S.-Japan alliance would respond should a crisis erupt: Would bases in Japan be fully available to U.S. forces? What role would the Japan’s Self-Defense Forces play in such a regional contingency? U.S. and Japanese forces stationed in Okinawa would be important to an allied response to a Taiwan Strait crisis, but the alliance would also need to consider Japan’s own defense requirements in such a contingency.

Japan’s southwestern islands also command considerable U.S. and Japanese attention because the region’s largest militaries operate in their waters. China’s navy often transits the straits to get to the Western Pacific, and the U.S. and Japanese militaries regularly exercise together across the southwestern region.

Tokyo and Beijing have also clashed over the Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu Islands in Chinese), uninhabited islands about 400 kilometers (249 miles) from Okinawa’s capital of Naha. Japan maintains a coast guard fleet on Ishigaki Island to keep an eye on Chinese activities near these disputed islands, and China has dispatched coast guard patrols as well. Japanese and Chinese naval and air forces also operate across the East China Sea, where the maritime boundary is also disputed. Japan’s Air and Ground Self-Defense Forces have been redeployed to Japan’s southwestern region to ensure early detection of Chinese operations near Japanese waters and airspace.

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What is the United States’ history with Okinawa?

During World War II, in 1945, the United States launched its invasion of Japan via Okinawa. After the war ended, the United States occupied Japan and built large military bases in Okinawa that it would use to fight the Korean and Vietnam Wars. In 1972, as it drew down its military involvement in Asia after the Vietnam War, the United States returned Okinawa to Japan but retained access to its bases. Today, those bases represent the bulk of land occupied by the U.S. military in Japan and 10 percent of the land area of Okinawa.  

On Okinawa, the United States maintains Kadena Air Base, its largest in the Indo-Pacific, as well as naval facilities for supplying surface and submarine fleets. The U.S. Marine Corps also maintains the III Marine Expeditionary Force, a rapid deployment corps that can deploy across the Indo-Pacific.

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What are the tensions between the United States and Japan over Okinawa?

The U.S. bases continue to be the focus of contention for Okinawa residents. The U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement, which grants the U.S. military extraterritoriality on their island, creates frustration when accidents and crimes occur. Originally, such incidents were prosecuted by U.S. military authorities. 

People look out on a U.S. military base in Japan.
People look toward the U.S. Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan. Issei Kato/Reuters

In 1995, three U.S. service members raped a twelve-year-old girl, spurring an island-wide protest movement reminiscent in scale and outrage to demonstrations of the early postwar years. The U.S. and Japanese governments responded by forming a Special Action Committee on Okinawa, agreeing to reduce the footprint of U.S. forces there. They also agreed to give Japanese authorities custody of any U.S. personnel indicted for heinous crimes, such as rape, murder, and arson. The men found guilty of the 1995 rape were sentenced to prison in Japan, and other subsequent crimes have been prosecuted by Japanese authorities.

How could the United States and Japan address Okinawans’ concerns?

So long as tensions with China continue, it is unlikely that either country will meet Okinawans’ calls for reducing military forces on their islands. As the countries consider a Taiwan crisis, the bases on Okinawa will be ever more important to the alliance.

One way to address residents’ frustrations would be to integrate the U.S. and Japanese bases. Base integration could consolidate territory occupied by the militaries and improve the interface between Japan’s government and citizens. There could also be operational benefits for U.S. and Japanese forces as they consider how to integrate during a regional crisis.

Should another major incident provoke Okinawan residents, the U.S. and Japanese militaries will once again be confronted with the demand for a reduced presence on the islands. Addressing residents’ fears of bearing the brunt of major power competition will be paramount as the U.S. and Japan consider their regional goals.

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