US military personnel on the Japanese island of Okinawa have been banned from drinking, and restricted to their bases or off-base residences following an automobile crash involving a local man and a US Marine. The Okinawan was killed, and the 21-year old Marine was arrested on suspicion of drinking and driving. Incidents between US troops based on the island and local residents are nothing new, and the relationship between the two groups has always been strained to say the least. With 25,000 US soldiers, and 1,000,000+ Okinawans occupying a relatively small island, tensions are expected. Criminal actions by US soldiers, unfortunately, have become a common occurrence and only serve to increase the amounts of tension and distrust. US commanders realize there is a problem and that it is not going away. “When our service members fail to live up to the high standards we set for them, it damages the bonds between bases and local communities and makes it harder for us to accomplish our mission,” U.S. Forces Japan said in a released statement Sunday night. “We are committed to being good neighbors with our host communities.”
Unfortunately for Okinawans, the US military presence on their island is not going to diminish anytime soon. The situation with North Korea in the short term, and the potential future ambitions of the People’s Republic of China will ensure Okinawa remains vital to American defense plans in the Pacific. In view of this reality, it is in the best interests of all parties to find a way to peacefully co-exist.
Operationally, the forces stationed on Okinawa represent a sizeable fraction of US power in the Western Pacific. 62% of US military facilities in Japan are located on the island. At Kadena Air Base is the US Air Force’s 18th Wing, comprising two F-15C Eagle squadrons, one squadron of KC-135 Stratotankers, a detachment of E-3C Sentry aircraft, and other attachments. The US Marines have the bulk of the 3rd Marine Division, and main elements of III MEF based on Okinawa. The US and Japan have agreed to relocate 5,000 US Marines from Okinawa to other locations in the Pacific to help ameliorate the tense relationship between US service personnel and local residents. The relocations are not expected to begin until 2020 at the earliest.