Located in the center of Okinawa Island, Kadena Air Base is the largest United States Air Force installation in Asia.
Equipped with two 3.7 kilometer runways and thousands of hangars, homes and workshops, the base and its adjoining arsenal at Chibana sprawl across 46 square kilometers of Okinawa's main island. Approximately 20,000 American service members, contractors and their families live or work here alongside 3,000 Japanese employees. More than 16,000 Okinawans own the land upon which the installation sits.
Kadena Air Base hosts the biggest combat wing in the USAF -- the 18th Wing -- and, during the past seven decades, the installation has served as an important launch pad for wars in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. Given the long history of Kadena Air Base and its city-sized scale, it is easy to understand why the USAF calls it "The Keystone of the Pacific."
But until now, nobody has realized the damage the base is inflicting on the environment and those who live in its vicinity. Documents obtained under the US Freedom of Information Act reveal how years of accidents and neglect have been polluting local land and water with hazardous chemicals including arsenic, lead, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), asbestos and dioxin. Military authorities have often hidden this contamination, putting at risk the health of their own service members and the 184,000 Japanese civilians living in neighboring communities.
Japan-US Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and the Environment
In Japan, there are 130 US bases -- 32 of which are located on Okinawa -- but the Americans who serve upon them and local residents know nothing of the dangers these installations pose to human health or the environment.
At the root of the problem lies the Japan-US Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) which makes no allowances for Japanese officials to conduct pollution checks within US bases -- nor does it hold the military responsible for cleaning up land returned to civilian usage.
In 2015, Washington and Tokyo tagged a supplementary agreement onto SOFA giving local authorities the right to request a base inspection following a spill. However so far, the Pentagon has failed to green-light any such checks.
Since SOFA absolves the US of all financial responsibility to clean up contaminated land, the costs are borne by Japanese tax-payers. The financial burden of military contamination is particularly heavy on Okinawa, Japan's poorest prefecture, where US bases take up roughly 20% of Okinawa's main island but contribute only 5% to the prefecture's economy.
In Chatan Town in 2002, for instance, the cost to clean up 187 barrels of unknown chemicals dumped by the US military amounted to approximately 20 million yen. Elsewhere redevelopment of land returned from Camp Kuwae, has been delayed for more than 12 years due to contamination from arsenic, lead and oil.