Japan Cleans Up America’s Mess: This Is Not the Act of a Sovereign Country

Is this the behavior of an independent, sovereign country? It has been announced that contaminated wastewater that should rightfully be disposed of by the U.S. military has instead been taken into Japanese custody for incineration. About 92 million yen of the Japanese taxpayers’ money will be used to shoulder America’s burden in an unprecedented move by the Japanese government.

The wastewater contains per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which have been identified as carcinogens. The Okinawa prefectural and Ginowan municipal governments issued protests in August, when the U.S. Marine Corps based at the Futenma Air Station released some of this contaminated wastewater into the municipal sewer system, rather than incinerating it as per standard practice. Now the Japanese government will be incinerating the remaining 360,000 metric tons of wastewater, which is equivalent to 1,800 drums.

While the further discharge of the contaminated water has been avoided, the high-handed behavior of the U.S. military cannot be tolerated any longer. This is a critical problem that concerns the sovereignty of the nation. The Japanese government should view this a diplomatic issue and force the Americans to reconsider their stance, while also investigating the handling of PFASs at U.S. military bases and ensuring that incineration is thoroughly carried out.

The genesis of this issue lies with the U.S. military’s uncompromising stance. Deeming incineration too costly, it diluted the contaminated water and discharged it into the municipal sewer system. The U.S. military says that concentrations of toxic chemicals in the diluted water are below those considered safe for drinking, but has not guaranteed any means by which the Japanese or prefectural governments can verify this prior to its release. The Ginowan municipal government detected high concentrations of PFASs in sewage just after the U.S. military’s August discharge.

Given this state of affairs, it is impossible to take the Americans at their word. The health and lives of Okinawans cannot be protected. It is natural that the prefectural and Ginowan municipal governments would protest this situation. The Japanese government shares the position that the contaminated wastewater should rightfully be disposed of by the American side, and has used every route available to seek a halt to its discharge. Even the U.S.–Japan Status of Forces Agreement, which guarantees the special privileges of the U.S. military in Japan, does not provide for the idea that the Japanese side should have to shoulder the burden of the proper disposal of this wastewater.

However, the Japanese government has intervened this time because there is a concern that rainwater from typhoons and similar storms could leak into underground storage tanks on the U.S. bases, causing them overflow. The Japanese intervention is thus an emergency stopgap measure to prevent spillage of the contaminated wastewater. The cost of upgrades to aircraft hangars to help prevent the flow of rainwater into the underground tanks will also be borne by the Japanese government.

If this were a concern, the American side should simply have been made to incinerate the water at an early stage. Why was this not possible? The Japanese side has taken an extraordinarily weak stance.

This is reminiscent of Japan’s footing of the $4 million bill for restoring U.S. military land to its original state in the run-up to the 1972 return of Okinawa to Japanese rule. Next year will mark 50 years since Okinawa’s return. It is not a surprise that some in the upper echelons of the prefectural government have privately asked, “How long are we going to be cleaning up America’s messes? We’re basically a semi-colony.”

During the ongoing debates occurring as part of the election of the next head of the Liberal Democratic Party, the four candidates have issued the following statements in reference to the presumed threat posed by China. Taro Kono proclaimed that “determined diplomacy is necessary”; Fumio Kishida declared that he would “take the posture necessary to protect Japanese territory, waters, and airspace”; Sanae Takaichi said that Japan needs to be able to possess the ability to attack enemy military bases; and Seiko Noda argued that Japan must carefully consider its position as a “clever country.” These are bold statements about the idealized role of the Japanese state.

However, the threat that Okinawa is facing now is the pressing matter of environmental pollution carried out by the U.S. military. If, out of concern for the sovereignty of the country, these candidates do not display the will to resolve this matter, no amount of posturing about the power of the Japanese state will ring true.

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