Managing the US Base Issue in Okinawa: A Test for Japanese Democracy

IR Working Paper 2000/1

Author/s (editor/s):

Auerlia George Mulgan

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Publication type:

Working paper

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IR Working Paper 2000/1

Aurelia George Mulgan, ‘Managing the US Base Issue in Okinawa: A Test for Japanese Democracy’, IR Working Paper 2000/1, Canberra: Department of International Relations, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University, January 2000.

The domestic politics of US base management in Okinawa has become more problematic since the September 1995 rape of a 12-year old Japanese schoolgirl by three American servicemen. More than any other single event in recent times, this act catalysed waves of protest against the presence of US forces in Okinawa and a defiant challenge by the former prefectural governor, Ota Masahide, to the central government’s rights and prerogatives on base-related issues. How the Okinawa base problem has been handled by the central government since late 1995 generates insights into the workings of Japanese democracy: the extent to which individual property rights are subordinated to national policies; the level of judicial independence from political interference; the use of economic compensation as an adjunct to more coercive instruments of state authority; the balance of power between central and local governments; the role of bureaucrats as political and electoral agents; the level of state responsiveness to minority interests; and the effectiveness of local protest movements in eliciting concessions from national policymakers.

In addition to assertions of superior executive, statutory and legislative authority, political and bureaucratic elites in Tokyo have deployed a two-pronged strategy for dealing with the Okinawa base problem: economic blandishments combined with limited relocation of bases and base functions, plus some amelioration of the noxious spin-offs from bases for the Okinawan people. While these concessions represent only a qualified victory for the anti-base movement in Okinawa, both the US and Japanese governments now accept that they must respond constructively to popular protests against the US force presence in Japan, that base-related issues can no longer be ignored or shunted aside, and that these issues must be factored into the US-Japan security relationship.

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