US forces in Japan, 65 years after WWII

I read a column in the New York Times reflecting on the relationship between the US and Japan on the 65th anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.  I knew that the US had military bases in Japan and about 40,000 troops — all told — throughout Japan.  But I’d never thought about where the bases are.  The article opens with these lines:

THE Futenma Marine Corps Air Station on Okinawa, one of the largest United States military bases in East Asia, is in the center of a crowded city. The American and Japanese governments acknowledge the dangers of this situation, and they agreed nearly 15 years ago that the base should be moved; however, no move has yet been made.

I looked up the base on Wikipedia, and that gave me its GPS coordinates. 

I then went to Google Earth, where I plugged in the coordinates so I could see where the base is located and what else is around. 

Indeed, it is in the middle of a city.  For scale, the base is about 2.5 miles long on the diagonal.

I thought a little about the local airport here, RDU.  There’s a good bit of clearance around the airport.  And the planes that land there are commercial planes.  I presume military planes are a bit louder.

As I read on in the Wikipedia article, I got a better sense of the problems of having a base so close to a city.  Again, this is from the Wikipedia article about the base:

Due to its urban location, concerns surrounding training flights over residential areas causing noise, air pollution and endangering public safety have become controversial issues in Ginowan City. Safety concerns were intensified after the August 2004 crash of a Marine Corps CH-53D transport helicopter into Okinawa International University. Three crew members were injured, but there were no injuries on the ground.[6] Public concern with crime related to the base’s location rose in 1995 when three American marines raped a 12-year-old Okinawan girl.[7]

In December 1996, the Japanese and U.S. governments decided that the Futenma base should be relocated to an off-shore location in Henoko Bay in Nago, northern Okinawa.[8] This was and remains a controversial decision, since the projected site involved construction on a coral reef and seagrass beds which are the habitat of the dugong, an endangered marine mammal protected under Japanese and U.S. law.[9] In a referendum conducted later the same year, a vast majority (over 80%) of Nago residents voted against the Henoko plan. However, shortly afterward, they elected a mayor who campaigned on a platform of accepting the new facility. In March, 2006, a new mayor was elected on a similar platform, getting more votes than his two anti-relocation opponents combined.

The New York Times column mentioned that “elderly men and women … have been staging a sit-in at Henoko for more than 2,000 days.”  A thousand days is about three years, so we’re talking six years of protesting in a place I’d never heard of before — Henoko.

I went back to Google Earth to locate Henoko, and now I have a better sense of the controversy because I am starting to understand the geography.  (Speaking of the geography, at the top of my Google Earth screen shot below, there’s a pushpin for the Okinawa Aquarium.  It’s an amazing place, and there’s a phenomenal 4-minute YouTube video of sea life that you really should watch.) 

If the base near the city is closed, how can the US maintain that level of presence?  Where would the planes go?  If the new site off the coast is developed, there are environmental consequences.  And I wonder what will happen to the old base — it’s in a prime location and is presumably very valuable.  Who owns the land the US base is on?  Does the US lease the base from Japan?  And if so, does Japan depend on that rent?  I also wonder how soon after WWII these bases were set up. 

Did you ever think about what happens at the end of a war?  Where do the winning soldiers go?  Where do the losing soldiers go?  Who decides?  When the US “won” WWII and occupied Japan, it set up command centers.  Those command centers became bases.  The same thing happened in Germany, where the US currently has about 50,000 troops stationed.  Here are the details about one such base in Germany:

Ramstein AB is part of the Kaiserslautern Military Community (KMC), where more than 16,400 American service members and more than 5,400 US civilian employees live and work. US organizations in the KMC also employ the services of more than 6,200 German workers. Air Force units in the KMC alone employ almost 9,800 military members, bringing with them nearly 11,100 family members.

source: Wikipedia article about Ramstein Air Base.

So in the post WWII era, is the United States an empire, with bases all over the world? 

It sure looks like it:

As of March 31, 2008, U.S. armed forces were stationed at more than 820 installations in at least 135 countries.[18] Some of the largest contingents are the 151,000 military personnel deployed in Iraq, the 71,000 in Afghanistan, the 52,440 in Germany (see list), the 35,688 in Japan (USFJ), the 28,500 in Republic of Korea (USFK), and the 9,660 in Italy and the 9,015 in the United Kingdom respectively. These numbers change frequently due to the regular recall and deployment of units.

source: Wikipedia article on U.S. armed forces

Does that mean that the United States is similar to the Roman Empire?  If so, how so?  If not, why not?

One author, Cullen Murphy, thought so — in 2007 he wrote a book called Are We Rome? (available in our school library).  There’s an hour-long talk with Mr. Murphy at the Massachusetts School of Law that I found on Google Video.  The link has a pretty good description of what Murphy sees as the parallels between the US and Rome.

Anyway, lots to think about in terms of the US-Japanese relationship… and that’s without even looking at the whole question of whether the U.S. was justified to drop the atomic bomb.

(and if you didn’t watch that video from the Okinawa Aquarium, please do so now — it’s spectacular)


About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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One Response to US forces in Japan, 65 years after WWII

  1. Ken Okoth says:

    In the summer of 2010, the Japanese Prime Minister who had campaigned in 2009 and got elected on a platform of reducing US military influence in Japan and the removal/relocation of the Futenma Okinawa base was forced to resign from office when he reneged on his commitment to that pledge. The Obama administration made clear that moving the Okinawa base from Futenma to any other location was not an easy task. The Futenma base was established there when there was no city around it. The city surrounding Futenma grew into a large city over the last 60 years because of the economic boost of having permanently stationed American soldiers and their family in the area. Real estate/housing, restaurants, shopping and all other kinds of services that the military community need were mostly provided by Japanese businesses looking for opportunity. After the North Koreans allegedly torpedoed a South Korean navy ship in the spring of 2010, it became clear that the Americans must stay in strong presence to continue to protect Japan and South Korea in a hostile neighborhood (North Korea and China’s rapidly growing airforces and navy).

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