After years of protests by locals, the US is moving its Okinawa military base

The World

After 17 years of delays, Okinawa's governor has signed off on a plan to move the US Futenma Marine Corps Air Station to a coastal area in the northern part of Okinawa island, Japan.

Since US servicemen were convicted of raping a Japanese schoolgirl in 1996, the base has long incited controversy on the island. In recent years, residents of the densely-populated city adjacent to Futenma base have continued to push for its closure due to noise and pollution concerns. In 2006, the US and Japan agreed to close the base, as long as Okinawa agreed to move the base elsewhere on the island.

I reported in Okinawa for several weeks in 2010 and 2011. While there, I interviewed local residents and US military personnel all over Okinawa island about the base.

Many Okinawans said they want the base completely off the island. People don't like the fact that it's in a densely populated area, near schools and homes. However, with this week's decision, the base will not move off the island, but just further north to a more remote area. There's still a lot of vocal dissent against the base.

During my visits to Okinawa, I saw the site for the relocated base. I saw a tent sit-in across from where US military aircraft runways are slated to be built. Locals, including a group of senior citizens, have been sitting there daily for several years in protest.

I also met the mayor of the town near the proposed base. He told me how Okinawa has to host the majority of US military installations in Japan, and yet it has less than 1 percent of the nation's land mass.

However, Okinawa has received huge economic stimulus in return for the base. With this agreement, the Japanese government has promised to pay Okinawa 340 billion yen ($3.2 billion US) in 2014, and set aside at least 300 billion yen ($2.85 billion US) per year until 2021. This is a much-needed source of income for Okinawa, which doesn't have many other sources of revenue.

For the Japanese government, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Okinawa is the best location for a strong military force. By helping broker this agreement with Okinawa's governor, Abe has not only bolstered ties with Washington, but also beefed up Japan's defense systems.

For the US, Okinawa is perhaps one of the most strategic locations in the Pacific. It's situated near China and North Korea, which are growing threats for Japan and the US.

The shift of Futenma's operations will also result in a reduced military footprint on Okinawa. With the construction of the new base, the US plans to move marines from Okinawa to Guam, Hawaii, and Australia. This agreement is one big step in that process.

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