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POWERPLAY- Exploring US Military Bases as a form of Neocolonialism


Military bases can be defined as enclaves that have some of the characteristics of extra-territoriality. They are militarized areas under the control of another state for the purpose of training, troop deployment, as well as the amassing of equipment and soldiers. Men of foreign nationality are posted at these bases and are permitted to bring their families to live near them.They have an impact on the national territory of the host state and, primarily, on the local community. 

According to the American Defence Department’s annual “Base Structure Report” for the fiscal year 2003, the Pentagon currently owns or rents 702 overseas bases in about 130 countries and has 6,000 bases in the United States, making it the largest operator of such bases.

The Japanese archipelago serves as the most significant operating platform for the U.S. military in the region with  approximately 53,000 military personnel. The military presence in these bases serves various purposes like keeping a tab on China’s rise as a global actor, regulating maritime trade security, and keeping a track of nuclear weapon sites in regions like South Korea. The U.S. military presence particularly in  Okinawa, allows it to fulfil its obligations under the 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security to not only defend Japan but to maintain security in the Asia-Pacific region.

Hard power is generally defined as the ability to compel a state to act in a certain way. Hard-power strategies focus on military intervention, coercive diplomacy, and economic sanctions to further one’s national interest. Joseph S. Nye contends that soft power instead relies on the ability to persuade others to do something, where consent is moulded according to the needs of dominant power over a subordinate state. In turn, the most recent literature has introduced the term ‘smart power’. Understanding one’s goals and capabilities are critical, as is the proper selection of tools and the timing to deploy them. The deployment of foreign troops has combined both hard and soft power tactics to keep anti-militarist factions in Japan at bay and the locals tolerant to the occupation for decades, shaping the base’s economic, social and cultural profile over 60 years.

Increasing Militarization

The US position in east Asia traditionally materialized with the ‘Sanfransisco System’ where it established bilateral treaties with many countries that turned to the US for both militaries, foreign affairs, and institutional regionalization. Apart from the building of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, South Asian Treaty Organization and Asian Development Bank, establishing other regional organizations to balance US power in the region was a failure.

The US Japan Security Treaty, signed in 1951 through its first article states the US can land air, sea, and land forces in Japan. The treaty’s terms are indefinite and many scholars argue that the occupation in Japan never really came to an end. At the beginning of the Cold War in 1949, Okinawa was physically transformed into a fortress with vast military bases and military road networks connecting them.

Since 1960, the U.S. and Japan have maintained an agreement that allows the U.S. to secretly bring nuclear weapons into Japanese ports, and there is speculation that some nuclear weapons may be located in Okinawa, along with other tactical and strategic weapons . U.S. military bases occupy 18% of the main island, while 75% of the area of all USFJ bases is concentrated on Okinawa prefecture.

Marine Corps Air Station Futenma is a United States Marine Corps base located in Ginowan, on the island of Okinawa. Due to its urban location, concerns surrounding training flights over residential areas causing noise, air pollution, and endangering public safety have become controversial issues in Ginowan City. Safety concerns were intensified after the August 2004 crash of a Marine Corps transport helicopter into Okinawa International University. Three crew members were injured, but there were no injuries on the ground. 

In December 1996, the Japanese and U.S. governments decided that the Futenma base should be relocated to an off-shore location in Henoko Bay in Nago, northern Okinawa. This was and remains a controversial decision since the projected site involved construction on a coral reef and seagrass beds which are the habitat of the dugong, an endangered marine mammal protected under Japanese and U.S. law.


According to Gayatri Spivak, neocolonialism is not just an economic world order but the political, military, and ideological facets involved. Okinawa is a site of multiple US bases and suffers from a political status referred to as “double-colonization” first colonized by Japan and subsequently by the USA.

Economic militarization followed physical militarization. Roads leading to the gates of military bases began to be filled with small businesses catering to U.S. military personnel, such as bars, restaurants, souvenir shops, hotels, and apartments. Hence, patron-client relationships between U.S. personnel and Okinawans were established. The land rent paid by military bases also supported the lives of Okinawan landlords. Through such economic processes of militarization, the subsistence of Okinawan society became deeply dependent on the military. Here the idea of ‘smart power’ politics emerges, where an economic system is built around the base.

Okinawans have been absorbed as workers and service providers into newly built military bases and the commercial and service industries serving the bases. As a result, they began to be settled and form sprawled residential and commercial districts adjacent to the bases. 

In the context of the original treaty, signed when Japan was still poor and recovering from the war, the USA only encouraged it to pay for certain infrastructural costs. But as Japan’s wealth grew in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the Americans began to pressure the Japanese to take more responsibility for their own defence. For the last two decades that has meant paying approximately 70 percent of the costs of the American presence. From 1979 onwards Japan has paid the salaries of Japanese employees of the US military as well as a large sum of the gas, water, and electricity bills of US bases. So who is the real benefactor? 

The biggest flipside is that the bases occupy about 20% of the main island of Okinawa,  strongly constraining traffic, which is constantly congested. With the urbanization of the last forty years, the bases have increasingly impinged on local communities in terms of noise and pollution. They represent a real obstacle to the implementation of an economic development policy or urban planning by some municipalities. 

Army Wives, Sex Trade Nexus and Sexual Assault

Alexandra Hyde did a study on military wives in a British army base in Germany. She pointed out how the military establishment had made several moves to make the base more ‘family friendly’. She noted that women felt they exercised autonomy, though their area of action was constrained by expectations of the command, their husbands, and other wives. Yet while no explicit command existed that prevented women from doing anything they wanted, a subtle nexus of pressure was present that deprived women of their free choice. 

For example, there were rumors that the men got promotions based on their wives’ behavior which compelled women to follow social niceties even when they didn’t want to. They had to give up their jobs in order to live on the base and many began to derive satisfaction from their ‘regimental family’ so that the sense of collectivity and belonging extended beyond the soldiers and to their wives. Their husband’s ranks played an important role in their social responsibilities- the higher the rank, the greater their responsibilities on the base. The fulfillment of wifely duties was also tied to the successful running of the base, a matter of national security.

In a militarized marriage, the husband takes up the most explicitly militarized role, not only in the conventional sense as a uniformed officer but in the fact that his status depends on his wife’s loyalty, for which she must adopt feminized militarist attributes. These wives become so co-opted into this process that they become willing participants in loyally supporting their husband’s militarized operations, endeavors, aspirations, and expectations. This leads to fetishization and commodification of the native woman, who satisfies white men in uniform while their wives retain a certain ‘chaste’ status in society.

The occupation period was the most humiliating in terms of Japanese authorities setting up ‘Recreational Amusement Associations’ or brothels. While these were shut down in 1946, a deregulated market for sex work prevailed where native women were sent by the authorities to military camps. Civilians targeted sex workers as the worst form of ‘post-war’ culture. Foreign Commanders on the other hand viewed such women as sources of venereal diseases and thought of marriages with such women as horrific, ordering crackdowns and compulsory VD exams for such women. Hence such women were looked down upon from both ends of the spectrum while being objectified by troops.

Social militarization led to the US military forces establishing a licensing system to issue an ‘A sign’ to local establishments approved for US forces and their families. Such segregation took place in special entertainment public places, where hygiene was seen as a problem for US personnel only.The A-sign program was a means to not directly control prostitutes but the establishments that provided prostitution. The sign not only signifies U.S. control over human bodies but also plays a role to invoke place-based identities in the region. 

Post occupation the Japanese press also regularly reported on robberies, rapes, and murders of women and children by American servicemen. The Asahi Weekly particularly focused on crimes against children perpetrated by the army. During the occupation especially victims could not sue anyone.

The group Okinawan Women Act Against Military Violence reports that there were 4784 serious crimes committed by US service personnel that were reported in Okinawa between 1972 and 1995. To further exacerbate problems around many overseas bases these crimes go unpunished due to “Visiting Forces Agreements” shielding US service members from being tried in local courts.The culmination of such violence took place in 1995 when a 12 year old Okinawian girl was raped by American soldiers and led to one of the biggest anti-base protests in the area. This masculine aggression in training for war can directly be connected to conquering women’s bodies alongside increased sexual assault according to Lucina Marshall.


Not only do the global designs of a male-dominated, masculine and patriarchal institution like the military has impacts on the spaces of everyday life but also they are enabled by the practices in those spaces, according to Cynthia Enloe. Given this, these spaces are also sites of resistance to those practices. Activists in communities adjacent to bases have long challenged the idea that the security of their bodies, homes, and communities should be sacrificed for the cause of ‘national security’. Women scholars have questioned the scale at which security ought to be considered but also how security might best be promoted through demilitarization.

The military’s dependence on local factors for effective global dominance means that national security policy is, at least in part, made in towns and villages from Okinawa. The role played by the locals hence is of paramount importance in the sustenance of such bases. According to David Vine, very few sources actually talk about the different activities that take place in these bases and how they affect host countries holistically in terms of internal politics and depletion and control of their economic resources. One needs to analyze the various facets of neocolonialism being exercised by the US. Further, the exploitative activities including sexual exploitation of native women are completely negated and don’t make it to the forefront of structural social impacts of foreign armies.

Important questions to be asked are how you define the line between impunity enjoyed by men in and why this should be an integral aspect when defining the impact of hard-power politics in host countries. In Cynthia Enloe’s words ‘The International is Personal too’ and one needs to look at the legal ramifications of such exploitation and how exactly they would take place.

Diya Narag is a first year LLB student at Jindal Global Law School interested in the intersection of human rights and policy-making.

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