Straight Talk on Okinawa
By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service
KADENA AIR BASE, Japan, April 24, 1997 Relatives in Nebraska and Utah send Navy Capt. Richard Mayne newspaper clippings that paint a bleak picture of U.S.-Okinawa relations.
"The articles say, 'You can't leave the gates ... everybody is held hostage on base because of discontent downtown,'" Mayne said. "That's just not the case."
Mayne, who commands Fleet Activities Okinawa, and other U.S. military leaders here want to set the record straight. Whether you're single or married, he and other commanders said, the installations and surrounding communities work in unison to make an assignment to Okinawa rewarding and enjoyable.
"Several newcomers have asked me, 'Is it OK for my family to go off base?' ... This is one of the safest overseas assignments I've ever had," said Brig. Gen. John Baker, commander of the Air Force's 18th Wing.
"Okinawa is a great place to come to. It's safe, and the people are very friendly. Unfortunately, because of the way some of the current issues are being addressed in the press, we end up with a misreading of political rhetoric."
Much of the news has focused on complaints of a small group of Okinawan landowners who protest U.S. use of their property for military operations. According to Mayne, less than 1 percent of the 32,000 owners object to military use of the land, which falls under the U.S.-Japan security agreement. "So you have a very small minority with a very big voice, and that tends to distort what's really going on here," Mayne said. "In reality, the majority of landowners -- and Okinawans in general -- know the economic importance of our presence and don't want to see us go."
Instead, the bases and communities cooperate on issues affecting them both, Mayne said. Military aviation units have adjusted flying hours to reduce aircraft noise over civilian neighborhoods and schools. Okinawan real estate agents go out of their way to help service families find off-base housing near their work place and schools. And both communities -- military and civilian -- invite each other to participate in festivals and other social events.
"Okinawan communities involve us in a lot of their activities," Mayne said. "We have ongoing relations with them both professionally and socially, and it's the enlisted members who most benefit from that, because they're often the ones who actually do the interfacing."
For these and other reasons, neither commander hesitates to recommend Okinawa for military assignments. At the same time, neither whitewashes problem areas.
"Duty here can be hard," Mayne said. "You're separated from family, you may not always be able to find things in the exchange and commissary you take for granted back in the states, and the cost of living off base can get very high."
Affordable housing presents military families a big challenge. "Depending on your rank, the wait for base housing can be anywhere from nine to 14 months," Baker said. Long-range plans call for construction of new family housing that would increase the number of units available by several hundred. Meanwhile, single-member dorms are going up across the island. At Kadena, residents will see four-story dormitories with private rooms and bathrooms by the year 2000.
Schools aren't a problem on Okinawa, where Department of Defense Dependent Schools operates modern facilities in or near family housing. Child care facilities are still catching up, particularly at Kadena, where more than 4,000 military families from all service branches reside.
In November 1996, Kadena opened an $11 million child development center -- its second -- cutting the waiting list in half. A third center will open in 1998, almost eliminating the waiting list, Baker said.
Recreational facilities add to the list of quality of life improvements at Kadena and throughout Okinawa. "Because of the higher cost of living off base, we have a responsibility to provide quality on-base eating and recreational facilities," Baker said. Kadena is in the middle of renovating its four restaurants and all clubs, the general said, while all the services are improving facilities at their posts and the Okuma joint recreation center on the northwest shore of Okinawa. Several American chains also operate restaurants on the island.
Service morale, welfare and recreation programs cater to all age groups. "Because this is an isolated, overseas location, the services place more emphasis on recreational outlets," Mayne said. "We try to give people based here permanently and on rotation a variety of things to do. At White Beach, for example, we have cabins, sailboats and jet skis. The Okuma recreation center has cabins, a little golf course, restaurant and, of course, the beach." Base tour offices at every installation offer tickets and tour packages at deep discounts.
Unaccompanied Marines and others on rotational deployments rely heavily on military shuttle buses, which provide transportation between bases, and on commercial taxis. But owning a car makes it a lot easier to get to some of the more remote recreation centers -- and anywhere off base. Not many service members ship vehicles to Okinawa (check with your transportation management office for restrictions), but they can buy good cars and insurance for under $2,000.
"To drive here, you have to take a course and pass a test that shows you know how to drive on the left side of the road and understand Japanese road signs," Baker said. "But the transition to left-side driving is pretty easy, particularly since all the cars have right-side steering wheels. The problems occur when you go back home on temporary duty or leave and have to revert to the right side of the road."
Taking leave from Okinawa is easy if you're heading to another location in the Pacific, but a little harder if you're returning to the United States. "There are no direct flights from Okinawa to the states," Mayne said. Instead, commercial flights depart Naha International Airport for Nagoya, Osaka or Tokyo, where connecting flights are available. Depending on destination, round-trip airfare can run several thousand dollars -- prohibitive costs that add to the sense of isolation many Americans on Okinawa feel. Special leave programs make some space available on military airlift and contract flights. However, Mayne said, it's imperative to good morale that the services provide a full agenda of off-duty activities.
"In particular, we try to find things to keep single sailors busy, whether they're permanently assigned or on rotation," Mayne said. "Otherwise, they may head for the off-base bars, which usually ends up with them getting into trouble."
Each service conducts special programs for single members. For example, the Navy's Single Sailor Program sponsors community relations projects and orphanage visits. Chapels conduct similar programs for singles and families, while recreation centers and youth centers host trips to recreational parks and tourist attractions on and off island. And every base provides high school equivalency, continuing education and college degree programs, conducting courses at lunch, after work and on weekends.
For the most part, service members on Okinawa hold down a typical stateside work schedule. The island's strategic location comes into play during contingencies and exercises, however. The USS Independence carrier battle group took on equipment and supplies at White Beach during the 1996 dispute between China and Taiwan. During the recent multinational exercise Tandem Thrust, the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force loaded troops, supplies and equipment onto waiting ships at White Beach.
As the largest U.S. air base in the western Pacific, Kadena, too, plays a pivotal strategic role. "Okinawa is equidistant from several parts of the Pacific, whether it's Tokyo, Seoul, Taiwan or the Philippines," Baker said. "If there is a trouble spot in the Pacific and [DoD] needs to move forces quickly, we have the facilities to support that response. Our operations tempo isn't greater than at other locations, but we do keep busy."
Come to Okinawa, Mayne added, prepared to work hard, but knowing senior military leaders and Okinawans alike support your presence.