Document created: 1 June 04 
Air University Review, November-December 1972

Okinawa Reversion

A Study in Change

Lieutenant General Gordon M. Graham

In November 1969, President Nixon and Prime Minister Sato of Japan announced in a joint communiqué the intentions of both the U.S. and the Japanese governments to “immediately enter into consultations regarding specific arrangements for accomplishing the early reversion of Okinawa without detriment to the security of the Far East including Japan.” These words initiated a process of administrative change that led to Okinawa’s becoming a prefecture of Japan on 15 May 1972.

The reversion of Okinawa, or, more generally, the Ryukyu Islands, involved many changes. These included fundamental changes in the political administration of the islands, the status of U.S. military forces on Okinawa, and major aspects of the economic system. Also involved were other changes in such prosaic but important daily activities as driving on the left side of the road, the language of the road signs, and the currency used throughout the islands.

Okinawa, which has been called a keystone of the western Pacific, was placed under the administrative control of the United States late in World War II. From the end of fighting until 1950, Okinawa had the status of occupied territory. In 1950 a U.S. Civil Administration, Ryukyus, was established, and two years later an indigenous government of the Ryukyu Islands. However, overall administrative authority, granted to the U.S. by Article 3 of the 1951 Treaty of Peace with Japan, remained with the U.S. Civil Administration, headed by a High Commissioner of the Ryukyus. That position was filled by a military officer appointed by the Secretary of Defense.

Because of its strategic location and the continued U.S. involvement in the Far East since the war, Okinawa became a major U.S. military stronghold. With the large concentration of U.S. Army and Marine forces and the major Air Force and Navy establishments at Kadena and Naha Air Bases, Okinawa has been densely populated with military forces. On an island short of arable land, with a civil population of one million, this dense military concentration led to some difficult administrative problems.

Solutions to these problems were the product of the close working relationship between the U.S. Civil Administration and the local island government. This government, organized into legislative, executive, and judicial branches, slowly grew in importance and authority until, in 1968, provisions were made to allow the Ryukyuan Chief Executive to be elected by popular vote.

This popular election was a milestone in the evolving U.S. decision to return Okinawa to Japan. The seeds for this decision had been present since the end of the war, and as Japan developed into our strongest Far Eastern economic and political ally, the actual reversion came closer to reality. To support the new direction of our foreign policy in the Far East as summarized in the Nixon Doctrine, a close long-term U.S. relationship with Japan became crucial to our efforts to help other Asian nations develop in peace. Thus Japan's long-sought reversion of Okinawa assumed great political importance by the late sixties.

planning for change

By establishing that Okinawa would be returned to the jurisdiction of Japan, the Nixon-Sato communiqué launched a long and complex process of preparation. The great changes could not have been accomplished without thoughtful planning, detailed research, and considerable negotiation. The planning had to address political considerations, efficient administrative changeover, and—of great importance to the U.S.—the operational flexibility of its Far Eastern military forces. In the planning process U.S. political and military leaders faced many major issues: How could the political decision be translated into reality, particularly from a military viewpoint? Who would establish the priorities and timing to insure meeting the projected reversion date in 1972? Who would develop the positions, from a military viewpoint, to be used in negotiations? What military issues would require negotiation, and how would these negotiations be accomplished?

The organization of committees and groups formed to answer these questions and begin planning was complex and multilayered. These agencies combined the political and military expertise necessary to tackle the broad task of transferring administration of Okinawa from one country to another.

The Consultative Committee, comprised of the U.S. Ambassador to Japan and the Japanese Foreign Minister, established broad guidance and set up the basic government-to-government negotiating machinery. Other groups began developing specific issues and U.S. positions that would be required in later negotiations with the Japanese government. On Okinawa, for example, the Preparatory Commission and the Reversion Coordination Group began local Okinawan preparations for reversion.

Of more direct concern to the military, however, were the agencies that processed the military issues and recommended positions. The on-scene military agent for the Department of Defense and Joint Chiefs of Staff was the U.S. Military Representative to the Okinawa Negotiating Team, which acted as the negotiating focal point and planning monitor for military affairs. Also working in support of the U.S. negotiating team was the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) Task Group. This body was created to conduct working-level discussions concerning the application of the U.S.-Japan SOFA to U.S. forces on Okinawa after reversion. The U.S. membership on the Task Group included technical experts from U.S. Forces Japan, U.S. component services in Japan, and the High Commissioner. The first two agencies also provided support to the Military Representative concerning direct military issues, such as the local defense of Okinawa and the postreversion interface of U.S. and Japanese military forces on Okinawa. Fifth Air Force, as the USAF headquarters in Japan, represented the Air Force interest and developed detailed positions on such matters as Okinawa air defense and air traffic control. Other groups, principally subunits of the organizations mentioned, provided technical expertise during the complex and detailed negotiations and subsequent planning.

The detailed negotiations by the U.S. reversion organization and its Japanese counterparts culminated in June 1971 with the widely publicized signing of the Okinawa Reversion Agreement. Also concluded in June were subsidiary agreements that concerned the military, such as the Arrangement Concerning Assumption by Japan of the Responsibility for the Immediate Defense of Okinawa and working agreements concerning facilities, labor, telecommunications, and air traffic control. These subsidiary agreements became the basis upon which the military continued to plan for implementation of reversion.

USAF planning

Two major planning areas were of particular interest to the USAF in Japan and Okinawa: status of forces application and air defense. Although all component services were interested in these topics, I will concentrate on the USAF role and interests.

Status of Forces Application. The four main topics addressed by the SOFA Task Group were facilities, labor, telecommunications frequencies, and air traffic control.

Of great importance to the U.S. military on Okinawa was the disposition of our facilities there. Article II of the SOFA grants the U.S. use of those facilities and areas in Japan required by U.S. forces for the security of Japan and maintenance of international peace and security in the Far East. The problem was to identify the facilities and areas on Okinawa that would be required by the U.S. after reversion. Furthermore, to retain U.S. military flexibility, it was imperative to describe accurately the conditions of use for those areas. Then, arrangements had to be made to release to Japan any facilities and areas excess to U.S. needs. Development of complete lists of facilities for retention and for release entailed a thorough screening of our requirements and considerable planning for proposed postreversion activities. These lists were developed by our component services in Japan and the Reversion Coordination Group on Okinawa and were incorporated into a Memorandum of Understanding concerning facilities, which was signed in June 1971.

Another important SOFA issue was labor. In Japan, U.S. forces use a central indirect-hire arrangement to employ Japanese labor. By this arrangement the government of Japan acts as the legal employer and is reimbursed by the U.S. This procedure is advantageous to the U.S. because the Japanese government acts as a buffer in dealings with powerful employee labor unions. By contrast, administration of the labor force on Okinawa had previously been by direct hire, and the U.S. as employer was faced with all the attendant problems of determining wages and conditions of employment as well as bargaining with the local labor unions. Agreement was reached to incorporate Okinawa labor into the Japan indirect-hire system; however, transition to the new system posed sizable problems for both Okinawan and Japanese authorities.

The issue of telecommunications frequencies focused on obtaining guaranteed Japanese protection for the U.S. military communications network on Okinawa after reversion. The U.S. objective was to protect U.S. communications facilities against physical and electromagnetic interference and to provide for frequencies required by existing and future U.S. military forces on Okinawa. The realization of this position required a vast amount of technical work, and the issue was satisfactorily resolved.

Finally, of great military importance was the issue of air traffic control (ATC). Prior to reversion the Okinawa ATC system was administered and operated by the USAF. After reversion the Japanese government, through the Japan Civil Aviation Bureau (JCAB), assumed this responsibility. Considerable negotiation and planning were required to carry out the transfer of air traffic control responsibility. Both U.S. and Japanese government representatives devoted careful study and planning to such matters as the lack of ATC facilities that could be transferred intact to the JCAB, the close proximity of the major Okinawa airfields, and the need for a single approach control in the high-density Okinawa terminal area. Both the U.S. and Japan had as their prime objectives air safety within the Okinawa Flight Information Region and the smooth integration of both nations ATC requirements in order to provide maximum flexibility and service to all using parties.

Air Defense. The second major area of military interest concerned the defense of Okinawa. The Nixon-Sato communiqué provided that after reversion Japan would gradually assume the defense of Okinawa. The communiqué was amplified by the 29 June 1971 Arrangement Concerning Assumption by Japan of the Responsibility for the Immediate Defense of Okinawa. By this Arrangement Japan assumed the air, ground, and maritime defense of Okinawa. USAF interest centered on the orderly and effective transfer of the air defense mission to Japan. This transfer was important to both countries in terms of immediate defense and regional security. Within the climate of budgetary restraint in both countries, careful planning to provide maximum air defense capability at lowest cost was most important. Fifth Air Force was appointed by U.S. Forces Japan (USFJ) as executive agent to develop implementing plans and provide for the beddown of air defense units of the Japan Self Defense Force (JSDF). A bilateral U.S. Forces-JSDF Air Defense Planning Group, chaired by Fifth Air Force, developed these detailed plans.

Okinawa reversion negotiations and planning took place over a period of more than a year. In the interim, U.S. military forces on Okinawa were looking toward reversion and adapting procedures to accommodate to the realities of postreversion requirements. An illustration of this accommodation (a minor point in itself but typical of a host of similar actions) concerned the issuance of landing permits at Naha Air Base, one of the two major USAF bases on Okinawa. Naha became a Japanese civil airport after reversion, with the JSDF jointly using the airfield. In the prereversion period, however, Naha remained a USAF installation and thus was subject to USAF regulations governing the use of Air Force bases by civil aircraft. Normally, civil aircraft are issued landing permits at USAF bases only for official business and subject to very restrictive conditions. This tight control is necessary to insure noninterference with the military mission. However, with Japan requiring increasingly greater air access to Okinawa to make plans for reversion, the USAF relaxed the restrictions on use of Naha Air Base. This was clearly in the interest of both countries for reversion preparation and further provided evidence of U.S. willingness and desire to achieve a smooth and harmonious administrative and military transition.

lessons of change

I have outlined some of the major aspects of change that came about as a result of the reversion of Okinawa. From governmental administrative change, to change in day-to-day military operations, to such everyday activities as change in currency and driving habits, the reversion of Okinawa to Japanese control had a significant impact on the USAF in Okinawa. Planning to cope with this change was a valuable experience for us because the major aspects of reversion demanded that civil and military leaders identify and analyze reversion issues, anticipate future requirements, and then develop sound and effective plans. From the vantage point of my dual role as Commander of USFJ and Fifth Air Force, I was able to observe directly the many unique requirements in the preparation for reversion. Unilateral, joint, interdepartmental, and binational channels merged into a complicated medium in which to plan for implementation of the reversion decision. Cooperation and close coordination were needed at every level of decision-making to insure that the best interests of the U.S. were preserved. Throughout the spectrum, from Fifth Air Force and USFJ action officer to the embassy negotiator, the development and maintenance of harmonious working relationships were essential, to prevent misunderstandings and develop effective plans in a complex environment. The reversion preparations provided a rare opportunity for the military services to gain this valuable experience.

The changes imposed by Okinawa reversion provide an excellent study of how the military services must gain and apply knowledge across a broad range of disciplines to do their job well. To meet the needs of U.S. foreign policy in the world, particularly in the Far East in the seventies and eighties, the military services must continuously be alert to the need for adapting to change while retaining maximum flexibility and operational capability.

Hq Fifth Air Force


Lieutenant General Gordon M. Graham (M.S., University of Pittsburgh) is Commander, U.S. Forces Japan and Fifth Air Force. During World War II in ETO he commanded 354th and 374th Fighter Squadrons and 361st Fighter Group and was ACS/O, VIII Fighter Command. Postwar assignments have been in Target Analysis, Hq USAF and Hq FEAF; as Commander, 31st Strategic Fighter Wing; Director, Operational Forces, Hq USAF; Commander, 4th Tactical Fighter Wing; Vice Commander, Nineteenth Air Force; Deputy for Operations, Hq Tactical Air Command; Vice Commander, Seventh Air Force, Vietnam; Commander, Ninth Air Force; and Vice Commander, TAC.



The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

Home Page | Feedback? Email the Editor