Okinawa contains the largest contingent of Marines outside the United States, the largest U.S. Air Force base in Asia and a major port for the U.S. Seventh Fleet. About 50,000 Americans are stationed on Okinawa. They include 28,890 troops (2003), about two thirds of the American troops in Japan, of which 17,600 are Marines.

Nineteen percent of Okinawa is occupied by U.S. forces. At one time the U.S. maintained 88 bases and 44,000 troops on Okinawa. The bases were used as supply and staging areas in the Korean and Vietnam wars. Today there are about 30,000 troops on Okinawa. They aren't well liked but the Okinawan economy would collapse without them.

Known to American servicemen as "The Rock," Okinawa is the home of 30 separate facilities and American military installations, which cover about a fifth of the island. Japan pays most of the operating expenses for the bases. Among the largest facilities are Kadena Air Base, the largest air base in Asia, and home to 100 aircraft, including F-15 fighters, KC-135 airborne refueling tankers and F-22A Raptor stealth fighters; and Futenama Air Station, a Marine facility with 70 aircraft, mostly attack and transport helicopters.

Okinawa is valued by the American military because of its strategic location between Japan, Korea and Taiwan and the fact it is within easy striking distance of North Korea and China. One U.S. official told National Geographic, "North Korea is unstable and dangerous. China's military is growing; its future leadership---who knows? Peace in the region depends on American military presence. And there is no better place for that than Okinawa."

One forth of Okinawa's civilian population died during the bloody World War II battle (See World War II). After World War II, American soldiers gave food to hungry people, and over the years introduced Hollywood movies, American cigarettes, spam, A&W root beer, jazz and rock music and Playboy centerfolds. They are also said to have raped hundreds, maybe thousands, of Okinawan women.

Okinawa was occupied for nearly 30 years by United States. In the 1960s, the U.S. maintained 88 bases and had 44,000 troops on Okinawa. The bases were used as supply and staging areas in the Korean and Vietnam wars. Okinawa was returned to Japan until 1972.

Okinawans and Okinawa, See Okinawans, Separate Section

Good Websites and Sources: Wonder Okinawa, Okinawan Digital Archives wonder-okinawa ; Ryuku Cultural Archives ; Okinawa Virtual Ginza ;Okinawan Music ; on Okinawan Longevity ; Okinawan Centenary Study ; ; Okinawa Peace Network of Los Angeles ; Wikipedia article on Ryukyuan People Wikipedia ; National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka ; National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka


American Community in Okinawa

Okinawans and the American troops live in two separate communities. The Americans live on military bases, with golf courses and swimming pools, that cover 20 percent of the main island of Okinawa and are surrounded by 10-foot-high barbed wire fences. Most interaction between the soldiers and Okinawans takes place at restaurants, shops and bars with names like "Be Girl," "Pyramid" and Bacchus."

Describing the weekend scene outside Kadena Air Force in Chatan, Tim Larimer wrote in Time, "The crowd spills from the bars onto the sidewalks...The streets turn into a bacchanal of hard drinking, drag racing, loud music, sweaty dancing. Tattooed guys in muscle shirts and cargo pants rub against women in midriff-baring T-shirts and tight jeans."

One Marine from California told Time, "Hey, we're 19-year-old guys, we're away from home, we're pumped up and we're horny. Of course it's all about sex."

In an effort to win hearts and minds in Okinawa, American soldiers give free English lessons, dress up like Santa Claus and delivering presents, and host face painting parties for kids.

Okinawa Economy and U.S. Military

Japan rents the land used for the American bases from 450 individuals. Landowners receive fairly generous rent from the Japanese government for land used by the U.S. military, but there are still numerous land disputes.

American servicemen were tolerated, especially when beer and food were cheap, and they brought in much needed money. But these days American soldiers only account for about 5 percent of the economic activity on Okinawa, down from 20 percent in the 1970s and 40 percent in the 1950s. Prices are so high that the soldiers can't spend as much as they used to. Businesses, whose customers used t be 70 percent American servicemen , now have none. There are only 30 bars down from 150 in the 1950s and 60s.

There is currently plan for the U.S. military bases to be removed from Okinawa by the year 2105 and for Okinawa to be a "cosmopolitan city" linking Japan and Southeast Asia. It is hoped tourism will replace the American military as a major income earner

Many Okinawans now rely more on tourists form Japan, South Korea and Taiwan for income than American soldiers and are concerned about protecting the environment for their ecotourism businesses.

Complaints by Okinawans Towards the U.S. Military

Okinawans complain about crime, pollution, obnoxious behavior, litter, and land use problems associated with the Americans and simply being overwhelmed by them. Between 1972 and 2003, there were there were 5,157 crimes committed by American against civilians in Okinawa. Of these 533 were deemed by the Okinawa government to be “heinous crimes such as murder, robbery and sexual assault.” Twelve murders have been committed by U.S. servicemen in Okinawa.

Residents of Okinawa complain that noise from F-15 jets and cargo helicopters disrupts students during the day and people trying to sleep at night. They particularly don't like the nighttime take off and landings and low-altitude training exercises. Sonic booms from American F-16s have broke windows and caused minor injuries to an infant from broken glass. There also been gas leaks, fuel and chemical spills an errant bombs.

There were 39 air crashes between 1972 and 2001 in Okinawa. In 1994, there were two jet crashes and two helicopter crashes near civilian areas. In August 2004, a Marine cargo helicopter crashed into a university building and exploded with a huge fireball in Ginowan, a small city 25 percent occupied by Futenma base. Miraculously no one was hurt and the only people injured were the three Americans on board the helicopter. The accident and the un willingness of the American to let Japanese investigate the crash drew 30,000 people to an anti-U.S. military demonstration.

Okinawans feel there were sacrificed by the Japanese government during World War II and dumped with the burden of housing American bases after the war was over. ManyOkinawans are more angry with Tokyo than they are with Washington because the Japanese government unloaded three quarters of the U.S. military bases on Okinawa.

Efforts to Reduce U.S. Military Forces in Okinawa

Okinawans want American troops off their island by the year 2015. In September 1996, Okinawans voted 10 to 1 in a nonbinding referendum for a reduction American bases.

In 1996, the United States government made a decision to return 12,350 acres of land to the Okinawans. Three quarters of the land came from a jungle training area formally used by Marines. Protests forced the relocation of a massive listening post called the "elephant cage" in 2001.

In 2003, during a visit to Okinawa by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfled, the governor of Okinawa petitioned the U.S. government to reduce or relocate American bases on the island.

In October 2005, the United States government agreed to a proposal to relocate the U.S. Marines Futema Air Station and heliport in Okinawa and move 7,000 of the 18,000 Marines in Okinawa to Guam and Hawaii. The base sits in a residential area. The plan calls for its it be rebuilt on existing land at Camp Swab. The United States originally wanted to build the base on land reclaimed from the sea.

There were plans to build a $2 billion floating helicopter base off of Okinawa that would involve blowing up a coral reef, building a huge land fill and inserting a steel platform nearly a mile long. The plan was scrapped. By one count over 400 international environmental groups and 890 international experts on coral reefs and the majority of voters on Okinawa oppose the plan. The United States had wanted to move helicopters from Futema Air base there. Many Okinawans saw the plan as way for the Japanese government to funnel money to well-connected construction companies.

In April 2006, the Japanese government agreed to shoulder 59 percent of the $10.27 billion costs of relocating 8,000 U.S. Marines from Okinawa to Guam. Washington also promised to return four U.S. facilities in Okinawa---including Futema---in 2013 with Japan paying $26 billion for the realignment and the United States only only $4 billion.

Okinawa Rape Incident in 1995

In September, 1995, four United States servicemen stationed in Okinawa met at a disco, had a few drinks and decided to grab a local girl and have some "fun." One of the soldiers backed out, but the other three---two Marines and a sailor---piled into a rented car and cruised around the city of Naha until they spotted a 12-year-old elementary school girl who had walked from her home to nearby store to buy a notebook.

The men stopped the car, said something to her in English that she didn't understand, and threw her into the car. Her eyes, mouth, arms and legs were bound with adhesive tape. About a mile up the road the car pulled off the road to a deserted beach, where the girl was raped by two of the men and then left on the beach as the car drove away.

The residents of Okinawa were understandably freaked out, especially since a suspect from a 1993 rape case was able to fly home before Japanese authorities could arrest him and the U.S. military refused to hand over three men until they were indicted.

In March 1996, a Japanese court convicted the three soldiers and gave them six and seven year prison sentences. Many Okinawans regarded the sentences as inadequate. The men faced sentences of three years to life in prison. All three admitting to abducting the girl but only confessed to forcibly having sex with her.

Okinawa Rape Incident and Japan and U.S. Relations

The rape incident had a major repercussions on Japan-U.S. relations and seriously threatened the security arrangement between the United States and Japan. Protests attending by 85,000 people were held in Okinawa and smaller demonstrations were held in other parts of Japan. Demands were made to curb the privileges of American servicemen and renegotiate the lateral security pact.

American Ambassador Walter Mondale quickly apologized for the rape incident almost immediately after he was notified about it. U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry publicly apologized on a visit to Tokyo and said that although the force in Japan would not be cut, some of the troops in Okinawa would be moved to other locations. Military forces participated in a one-day stand-down and a day of reflection and collected money to compensate the victims. On-base alcohol sales after 9:00pm was banned.

In reference to the Okinawa rapes, Adm. Richard C. Macke, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, said, the incident was "absolutely stupid" because "for the price they paid to rent a car they could have had a girl." Macke later apologized for the remark.

Incidents in Japan Involving American Soldiers in Early 2000s

In 1998, an 18-year-old girl was killed in a hit-and-run accident involving an American serviceman. In July 2000, a 19-year-old Marine was accused of molesting a 14-year-old Japanese girl in her home. The Marines formally apologized. The Marine was drunk at the time and claims he accidently entered the girl's house, thinking it was the house of a friend.

In July 2001, a 24-year-old Air Force staff sergeant was arrested for attacking and raping a Japanese woman in a parking lot outside a nightclub area near Kadena Air Force base. Okinawans were very upset as they were after the rape in 1995. The U.S. ambassador formally apologized and the sergeant was turned over to Okinawan police. It was the first time in Okinawa (second time in Japan) that an American serviceman had been turned over to Japanese authorities for a crime committed in Japan. The sergeant went on trial in a Japanese court in Okinawa. He claimed the sex was consensual. The victim testified that she made it clear it was not. In March 2002, the sergeant was sentenced to 32 months in prison.

In January 2001, a 21-year-old Marine was arrested after he reportedly lifted the skirt of a high school girl and tried to take her picture. A week later two other Marines were arrested on arson charges. In November 2002, a U.S. Marine was arrested in connection with the attempted rape of a Filipino woman. He was tried in a Japanese court.

In May 2003, a U.S. Marine was arrested in connection with the rape of a 19-year-old Japanese woman. The Marine reportedly raped her after punching her in the face. The Marine was sentenced to 3½ years in prison for the crime in a Japanese court.

Incidents in Japan Involving American Soldiers in Mid-2000s

In February 2008, a U.S. Marine sergeant was charged with raping a 14-year-old middle school girl in Okinawa. The sergeant claimed he forced the girl down and kissed her but never raped her. The charges were eventually dropped but not before a major fallout occurred. For a while U.S. troops---and their family members---were confined to their bases with a 24-hour curfew that applied not just to Okinawa but all of Japan. The U.S. ambassador publically apologized to the Okinawan governor. Secretary of State Condoleza Rice expressed regret to Japanese Prime Minister Fukuda. There was discussion of installing cameras at Okinawa nightlife areas,.

Okinawa residents were angry that the sergeant was let off and about other crimes and incidents involving U.S. servicemen, including one incident in which a woman came home to find a drunk soldier that she didn’t know crashed out on her sofa A large protest with several thousand Okinawans was staged calling for withdrawal of the American military from Okinawa.


There are around 4,000 Okinawan children born to Japanese mothers and abandoned by American servicemen. They are known as Amerasians. The mothers of many Amerasian children have not heard from their husbands or boyfriends for months or years. Many have economic problems and trouble paying the rent and need public assistance to make ends meet.

Amerasians endure their share of discrimination. When they attend Japanese schools they are often bullied and many drop out. One Amerasian girl told the New York Times other students called her "half," made fun of her because she looked American but couldn't speak English and even put tacks in her shoes. "I hated going there," she said. "I was bullied almost everyday. I missed many days of school because I was so sad."

Okinawan Economics

The opening of the economy to Japanese competition has resulted in high unemployment rates.

The average wage in Okinawa is 77 percent of the national average. Unemployment on the island is 9 percent (1998), almost twice the national rate.

Okinawa is the home of Japan's only Special Free Trade Zone. To spur economic growth, the government reduced airfares to Okinawa, expanded free-trade zones and allowed tourist from Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong to visit without visas.

Agriculture is largely dead although some places produce sugar cane and other crops.

Tourism is no. 1 industry. Some 4.8 million tourists visited Okinawa in 2002. The vast majority of them were Japanese. There are also many tourists from Taiwan, China, South Korea and Hong Kong.

Rare Animals in Islands Around Okinawa

The Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa Prefecture) and the Satsuna Islands of Kagoshima Prefecture---a chain of 200 islands stretching for 1,000 kilometers between Kyushu and Taiwan---are especially rich in unique plants and animals. The number of plant species per unit area is 45 times greater than the rest of Japan due to the way species can evolve independently’separated from other species---on islands.

There are two large gaps in the Ryukyu Island chain: 1) the northern gap between Yakushima and Amami islands; and 2) a southern gap between the islands of Miyako and Okinawa. The plants and animals in either side of theses gaps tend to be very different form those on the other side. On the northen side of the northen gap, located in the Tokara Strait---and called the Watase Line after early 20th century biologist Shozaburo Watase---the plants and animals are virtually the same as those found in Kyushu and the other main islands of Japan while those south of the gap are markedly different. Similarly the islands south of Okinawa near Taiwan have many animals and plants similar to those in Taiwan because when sea levels dropped during ice ages many were connected to Taiwan and the Asian mainland.

See Iriomote Cats; Poison Toads, Habu Snakes and Mongooses; Okinawan Rail, Nature, Animals

Coral Around Okinawa

Coral reefs have been damaged by coral bleaching. Particularly worrisome is the presence of bleached coral around Ishigakijima, which boasts Japan’s largest coral reef. Much of the damage has been blamed on unusually high water temperatures---temperatures above 30 degrees for extended periods, usually in July and August--- in recent years. Soil erosion that washed into the sea from construction sites and farms is blamed from contributing to the problem by clouding up the water.

Coral bleaching occurred four times in recent years---in 1998, 2001, 2003 and 2007---in Okinawa Prefecture. In 1998 around 40 percent of the coral around Ishigakijima died. In 2007 large swaths of bleached coral were found in eight locations around Ishigakijima and of Sesokojima Island off Okinawa. Most of the reef stretching from Yonehara beach on Ishigakajima out into the sea had turned completely white. That year water temperatures were high in July.

Baby coral transplanted onto the Sekisei coral-reef lagoon---Japan’s largest coral reef--- in Okinawa Prefecture is growing fast. Scientists working on the project implant fertilized corals eggs into ceramic beds and once the eggs grow into larvae one centimeter to two centimeters they are attached to rock in the seabed.

Whales Around Okinawa

Every year between January and April, hundred of humpback whales migrate through an area near the main island of Okinawa. The humpback have only been seen in the area since the mid 1990s but about 270 of them have been seen in the peak season.

Humpback whales breed in waters off Chichi Jima (one the Ogasawara Islands) from December to May, peaking in February and March. According to to Oasawara Whale Watching Association about 20 whales a day can be seen form the Chichijima island observation tower if the conditions are good. The waters off the island are 200 meters of shallower with gentle waves, providing good breeding conditions.

Sperm whales are often seen at a site about one hour from Chichijima. In the late autumn mothers are spotted with their calves. The number green turtles coming ashore to lay their eggs on Chichi Jima is increasing at a rate father than anywhere else in the world.

Dugongs Around Okinawa

Dugongs are found in waters off Okinawa. There are believed to be less than 50 of them. They are rarely seen and little is known of their habits other than what they feed on. In 2007, dugongs living off Okinawa were listed as a critically endangered species in the Japanese Environment Ministry’s Red List.

Killing dugongs has been banned since 1993 but there are no laws to protect their habitat. They are sometimes killed in collisions with boats or are accidently caught in fishing nets. Environmentalists are concerned over about a proposal for of new U.S. military heliport on northeast side of Okinawa, which is regarded as a prime dugong habitat. In 2008, after environmentalists in Japan and the United States brought a lawsuit against the U.S. Defense department, a federal court in California ordered the Pentagon to study the effect of the heliport on dugongs.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated March 2010

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