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Sunday, Sept. 23, 2001

The struggle for a strategic prize

Staff writer
THE ORIGINS OF THE BILATERAL OKINAWA PROBLEM: Okinawa in Postwar U.S.-Japan Relations, 1945-1952, by Robert D. Eldridge. Garland Publishing, Inc., New York & London, 2001, 280 pp., $85.00 (cloth)

Of all the issues plaguing Japan's relationship with the United States, none is as contentious as the U.S. troop presence on Okinawa. Since the rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen in 1995, every criminal act committed by a U.S. soldier has made headlines, fueling local anger and resentment and, more importantly, reawakening the debate in both the U.S. and Japan over the reason for the U.S. presence in not only Okinawa but all of East Asia.

A dozen years after the end of the Cold War in Europe, North and South Korean troops stare each other down in Panmunjong, while the president of the U.S. declares China a strategic competitor and says the U.S. will defend Taiwan. Meanwhile, lingering memories of Japanese aggression throughout Asia remain strong, and the country's every action related to the period, from revising textbooks to the prime minister's visit to Yasukuni Shrine, are seen as proof that Japan cannot be entirely trusted to act on its own.

Thus, the conventional wisdom argues, Asia is still a dangerous place and Okinawa, by virtue of geography, is the most important port in any potential political storm. Only the U.S. Air Force at Kadena can supply logistical support and reserve forces to U.S. troops guarding South Korea. Only the U.S. presence in Okinawa will keep the Chinese from grabbing Taiwan, the Senkaku or the Spratly Islands. And only the U.S. presence on Okinawa will ensure that the Japanese military genie remains firmly inside the bottle.

For a long time, these arguments were sufficient, if not always satisfactory, to the public at large. But with Okinawans ever more vocal in their demands for troop reductions, more people are once again asking why, exactly, there is still a U.S. military presence on Okinawa 50 years after the signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty. This has led to East Asian policy experts, journalists and Okinawans both for and against the U.S. presence to refocus their attention as never before on the island's historically strategic role.

As American scholar Bob Eldridge shows in "The Origins of the Bilateral Okinawa Problem," the Okinawa debate has waxed and waned over the past half century, but actually began at a time when the war in the Pacific was still raging. The U.S. government was giving serious thought to what should be done with Japanese territory as early as December 1942 -- six months after the Battle of Midway. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered his chief of staff, Admiral William D. Leahy, to begin studies of where an international police force should be located once a peace treaty had been signed. The president, Eldridge emphasizes, ordered that this plan be drawn up without regard to current sovereignty.

A few months later, the U.S. military produced a study that argued it was necessary to ensure that islands taken from Japan by the Americans in battle not be returned. The study declared that "all other islands as far west as the Philippines, south of latitude 30 degrees, and north of the equator should be neutralized or under U.S. control." In other words, as Eldridge concludes, the U.S. wanted Okinawa under U.S. control.

By the end of the war, the U.S. military had drawn up a list of potential army, navy, and army air force bases that it wished to use. The bases ranged from Alaska to Ecuador and from Iceland to Okinawa. Included in those labeled "Primary Base Areas" were the Ryukyu Islands.

Eldridge notes that in the early postwar years there were some in the U.S. government, particularly the State Department, who wanted Okinawa to be placed under a U.N. trusteeship. However, the U.S. military was opposed to that idea. Debate in the U.S. government over Okinawa's status had thus moved from one of whether or not it was strategically important, to one between those on the national security side (who wanted it under U.S. control) and those favoring international control.

To this point, Eldridge's work is a good scholarly account of the official meetings, committees, memoirs and studies that were produced by both sides during the Occupation years. What's missing, though, is the broader historical context. Little or nothing is mentioned about political developments in China and Taiwan during the period in question or about U.S. aims in Asia as a whole. In addition, even readers with a fairly detailed knowledge of developments in East Asia during the Occupation years are likely to find some of the writing a bit turgid, full of acronyms and bureaucratic jargon.

It is when Eldridge reaches the middle of the Occupation, the beginning of the so-called reverse course, and the intervention into Okinawan and Japanese affairs by the U.S. State Department's George Kennan, that the prose takes off.

He gives a gripping account of Kennan's whirlwind trip through Tokyo, Kansai and Okinawa only several months after his article in Foreign Affairs magazine calling for the containment of the Soviet Union. It proved to be a major turning point in U.S.-Okinawan relations: Following Kennan's visit, supporters for maintaining the U.S. presence on the islands after the Occupation gained the upper hand and serious talk of a U.N. trusteeship disappeared.

1950 was the key year in the debate over when, and under what terms, a treaty with Japan would be concluded, and thus over who would gain sovereignty of Okinawa. John Foster Dulles, the Republican Party's foreign policy spokesman, was appointed as consultant to the secretary of state on April 6 of that year and given the authority by Democratic President Harry Truman to begin working toward a peace treaty. Two days before his departure to Japan, North Korean forces invaded South Korea, and, suddenly, the military importance of Okinawa became crystal clear to both the U.S. and Japan.

Over the next year and a half, as the war in Korea raged, the U.S. and Japan worked to secure a peace treaty, with the U.S. military arguing that Okinawa remain under its control. Dulles, in an effort to forge a peace treaty that took into account Japanese and State Department concerns and differences with the military over a U.S. presence on Okinawa, eventually forged an article (Article 3) of the treaty that was a compromise. Japan got to keep residual sovereignty over Okinawa, satisfying Japan and the State Department, while allowing the U.S. military to maintain a huge presence.

But the issue of just who was in charge of Okinawa would become a major issue of contention between the citizens of Okinawa, Japan and the U.S. In the late 1950s, several years after the peace treaty had been signed, Eldridge quotes former U.S. Consul General to Okinawa Olcott H. Deming as being asked by Dulles, who by then had become secretary of state, what problems he was having in Okinawa.

"The biggest one is continually trying to explain what residual sovereignty means," Deming reportedly told Dulles.

"It means exactly what it says. When we are through with Okinawa, they get it back," Dulles replied.

More than 40 years after Dulles' comment, and nearly 30 years after Okinawa was officially returned to Japan, the need to preface "sovereignty" with "residual" has disappeared. Yet many in Okinawa wonder when they will get their island back. While it was not the purpose of Eldridge's work to delve into the role of the Okinawans themselves, it has become clear over the past few years that, if they played almost no role in the debates of a half century ago, the people of Okinawa will play a large role in any final resolution of the bilateral Okinawa problem.

So despite the occasionally turgid academic prose and lack of broad historical context, "The Origins of the Bilateral Okinawa Problem" is an excellent account of the official meetings, briefings, plans and policies related to Okinawa and Japan that came out of Tokyo and Washington during the Occupation years, and is a valuable resource to those interested in exploring why, 56 years later, the Okinawan problem remains a source of friction and concern in U.S.-Japan and U.S.-East Asian relations.

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