Protests Against U.S. Military Base Policy in Asia
Persuasion and Its Limits
Yuko Kawato



On April 25, 2010, approximately ninety thousand people gathered in an athletic field in Okinawa, Japan, to press Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio to keep his promise to relocate the Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station “out of Japan if possible, but out of Okinawa at the very least.”1 To fulfill this promise would have required him to rescind an agreement with the United States to relocate Futenma to a new facility in Henoko in northeastern Okinawa. Hatoyama was wavering. Instead of relocating all of Futenma’s functions out of the prefecture, he was considering a relocation of some helicopters to Tokunoshima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture and moving the rest of the functions to Henoko. The participants at the rally passed a resolution demanding Futenma’s swift closure and relocation to another prefecture or abroad.

This rally was the largest to date on the issue of relocating the Futenma base. All political parties in Okinawa participated, as did Governor Nakaima Hirokazu and representatives from all forty-one cities, towns, and villages in the prefecture. A poll conducted in the prefecture one week before the rally showed that 89.8 percent of the respondents supported Futenma’s relocation outside of Okinawa.2 The opposition to Futenma’s relocation within Okinawa developed into what the people of Okinawa call an “island-wide struggle” (shimagurumi tōsō).3

This was not the first “island-wide struggle” in Okinawa on the issue of U.S. military bases. Three other significant episodes of protest that spread throughout Okinawa had occurred since the end of World War II. In the 1950s under the American administration of Okinawa, protesters mobilized against a policy of land expropriation for American military use. The second wave of protests came in the 1960s against the American administration of Okinawa. Protesters demanded Okinawa’s reversion to Japan and the closure of all U.S. military bases. The third wave followed the rape of a twelve-year-old girl by three U.S. military personnel in 1995. Protesters urged a revision of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) to facilitate the handover of American suspects to Japanese authorities, and a reduction in the number and size of U.S. military bases in Okinawa.

Protests against U.S. military bases and related policies have also occurred in the Philippines and South Korea. Some accidents and crimes that U.S. military personnel committed against citizens of these states triggered major protests, which asked the United States to transfer the right to exercise criminal jurisdiction and custody to the host states. Protests demanding closure of military bases and opposing new base construction occurred as well. The development of environmental consciousness in South Korea in the 1990s contributed to protests that expressed concern about the environmental policy governing U.S. military bases.

From these episodes, we know that citizens of host states express their grievances about U.S. military bases and related policies through protests. However, we are less certain about the extent to which these protests influence the policy decisions of the United States and host states. Although protests often seem similar in terms of actors and issues, the results are often different. What explains the difference? There are four possible policy outcomes in response to protests. First, a protest can lead to a fundamental change in base policy. Closure of all U.S. military bases in the Philippines in 1992 is an example. Second, protests can result in limited policy change. For example, in 2001 the United States agreed to transfer custody of U.S. military personnel accused of crimes to Korean authorities at an earlier stage of judicial proceedings. However, the United States limited change by attaching various conditions for the transfer of custody, much to the frustration of protesters who demanded greater change.

Third, states can decide not to change their policy in response to protests. For example, despite the significant protest mobilization in Okinawa in 2010, Hatoyama returned to the original plan to relocate Futenma to Henoko. In South Korea, some farmers and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) vigorously opposed a bilateral plan to expand Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, but Seoul and Washington did not cancel the plan. Finally, in some cases where states decide not to change base policy, they nevertheless offer symbolic concessions to protesters. These are gestures to create a public image that governments pay attention to grievances. For example, in 2000, protesters in South Korea demanded that the U.S. and Korean governments include some environmental provisions in their SOFA in order to oblige the United States to follow Korean environmental laws. The two governments attached a Memorandum of Special Understandings on Environmental Protection to their SOFA, but it was a symbolic declaration of the two states’ intention to cooperate on environmental protection. It did not change the environmental policy on U.S. military bases.

Various outcomes such as these raise important questions about the extent to which protests influence policy on U.S. military bases. Why do some protests lead to change in base policy while others do not? When states decide to change base policy, what influences the extent of change? When states decide not to change base policy, why do they sometimes offer symbolic concessions? These questions are important to the United States, which maintains a global network of military bases, to governments that host those military bases, and to protest organizers and participants who challenge base policy.

More specifically, studying the influence of protests on base policy is important for three reasons. First, ordinary people rarely seek participation in decision-making in international security issues but base policy is an exception.4 Base policy is a part of “high politics” that governments normally handle without the public’s participation. This is why the popular expression of grievances on base policy is through protests. Protest is a means of communicating objections when people do not have direct access to policy-making. Protesters challenge not only the content of base policy but also the fact that policy-making occurs without their participation. Given their limited access to policy-making, it is important to learn when, why, and to what extent U.S. and host governments take the public’s preferences into account.

Second, examining the influence of protests on base policy is important because protests reveal some weak points of U.S.–host state alliances, and state response suggests how policy-makers intend to manage the alliances. U.S. military bases exist in Japan and South Korea, and existed in the Philippines until 1992, as an essential feature of the host states’ alliances with the United States. Protests against U.S. military base policy reflect popular discontent with how the alliances operate. State officials are often forced to respond to protests in order to maintain public support for the alliance, although the importance of this response varies across cases.

Third, studying protests’ influence on base policy contributes to the on-going debate over U.S. grand strategy in East Asia, between those who argue that the United States should remain a deep engager with forward deployment of its military forces, and those who believe that the United States should retrench and become an off-shore balancer.5 The study of local protests against U.S. military base policy sheds light on one of the challenges of deep engagement. It is useful to know how and to what extent protests complicate deep engagement. This will help with the evaluation of the strategy to either improve its implementation or to add to other arguments for changing it.

This book explains the extent to which protests influence base policy by exploring state response to twelve protests: three in the Philippines between 1964 and 1991, four in Okinawa between 1945 and 2010, and five in South Korea between 2000 and 2007. The cases cover diverse policy issues including base closure, base construction through land expropriation, jurisdiction and custody when American military personnel commit crimes, storage and transit of American nuclear weapons, environmental problems in and around military bases, and prohibition of American military personnel’s involvement in prostitution as customers.

In each case, protesters demanded change in base policy by arguing that existing policy violated important norms, which are widely shared principles. Protesters referred to one or more of the following norms: antiwar, antimilitarism, sovereignty, human rights, antinuclear, and environmental norms. Protest organizers used these norms to shape policy demands. I call norm-based policy proposals “normative arguments,” and examine their influence on policy. In some cases, for example, protesters with antiwar and antimilitarism beliefs argued that military bases should be closed and new ones should not be built because they are instruments of war and generate military tension with neighboring countries. In criminal cases involving American military suspects, protesters demanded increased jurisdictional and custodial rights for host countries by arguing that limits placed on host countries’ rights represented a curtailment of sovereignty. When states expropriated land for military use without landowners’ consent, and when American military personnel were involved in prostitution as customers or raped local women, protesters argued that the U.S. military presence led to the violation of human rights and therefore U.S. forces should be reduced or withdrawn. Protesters demanded prohibition of transit and storage of nuclear weapons in U.S. military bases with the antinuclear norm. Protesters used environmental norms to urge governments to adopt more rigorous environmental standards on military bases.

I argue that there are two processes by which protesters’ normative arguments change base policy. First, protesters’ arguments can persuade policy-makers. Persuasion is more likely when normative arguments do not contradict policy-makers’ knowledge and beliefs, and when policy-makers think that protest leaders and organizations are credible. Persuasion leads to policy change under domestic institutional settings that allow persuaded policy-makers to shape policy. Persuasion defines or redefines policy-makers’ interests and can change base policy in fundamental ways.

Second, when persuasion fails, normative arguments can change policy by mobilizing large protests that create incentives for policy-makers to change policy. The type of incentives varies across cases. Policy-makers in host states may become concerned that protests might reduce public support for their government. Policy-makers in the United States and host states may worry about diminishing support for the security alliance and a reduction of U.S. military effectiveness. Policy-makers try to eliminate these political and military concerns by changing base policy. Yet policy-makers’ security, political, and economic interests compete with protesters’ demands and make fundamental change difficult. Policy-makers limit change to protect their interests while hoping that their response will help placate protesters.

Base policy does not change when protests fail to persuade policy-makers or generate significant incentives for them. Base policy also does not change when protesters generate incentives for policy-makers to change policy but other factors such as lobbying by actors that support the policy that protesters seek to change and states’ capacity under law to impose their will reduce or eliminate these incentives. Furthermore, my cases show that policy does not change when protesters generate incentives for host-state governments to change policy but the United States opposes change. When policy does not change, policy-makers can nevertheless offer symbolic concessions for three reasons. First, policy-makers wish to show that the U.S. and host-state governments are norm-abiding even if they do not change policy in response to protests. Second, symbolic concessions allow states to save face. When policy-makers reject policy change, symbolic concessions help host-state governments appear effective, and help prevent the United States from appearing like a bully. Finally, policy-makers decide to make symbolic concessions to enable a smoother implementation of the policy that protesters oppose.

Exploring how normative arguments influence base politics is new. Comparative research on base politics recently emerged with three pathbreaking volumes. Kent Calder’s Embattled Garrisons (2007) and Alexander Cooley’s Base Politics (2008) examine the influence of regime type on base policy. These scholars agree that protests and their normative arguments have very limited—if any—influence on base policy. Andrew Yeo’s Activists, Alliances, and Anti-U.S. Base Protests (2011) argues that protests can influence policy when host states’ policy-makers do not strongly concur that a positive relationship with the United States is critical to national security. A weak security consensus opens up a political opportunity for antibase movements, and a strong security consensus closes it. Yet a review of protests in Asia suggests that policy-makers respond to different normative arguments in different ways under a given security consensus. Explaining that variation requires a focus on normative arguments. This book reveals when, how, and to what extent protesters’ normative arguments matter.

My analysis shows that normative arguments helped mobilize large protests in all twelve cases but had different levels of influence on policy. Protests led to policy change in five of the twelve cases. In one of these five cases, normative arguments persuaded policy-makers and this resulted in policy change. In four cases, normative arguments did not persuade policy-makers but large protests generated political and military incentives for policy-makers to change policy. In the remaining seven cases, policy change did not occur. However, policy-makers offered symbolic concessions in five of the seven cases. These concessions aimed to make states appear norm-abiding despite their decision not to change policy. Protests did not result in policy change or symbolic concessions in two cases.

In sum, protests failed to bring about policy change more often than not (7 cases without policy change, 5 with policy change). When policy change occurred, this was more often due to large protests pressuring policy-makers to change policy through a rational calculation of political and military costs and benefits (4 cases) than due to protesters’ normative arguments persuading policy-makers (1 case). This confirms the intuition of other scholars that protests and their normative arguments have limited influence on policy-makers. However, the finding that protests led to policy change is significant. In the earlier works on base politics and traditional research on international relations, scholars assumed that protests do not have an important influence on security policy. My research shows that we must include protests in our analysis to explain some changes in policy.

Moreover, in the one case in which persuasion of policy-makers led to policy change, all U.S. military bases in the host country were closed. Normative arguments may rarely persuade, but when they do they can produce significant results. This makes it important to examine the role of normative persuasion in base politics. We also need to explain why persuasion is so difficult. Furthermore, when persuasion fails, if norms produce incentives to change policy through mobilization of large protests, and policy-makers change policy even in a limited way, norms play an important causal (though not constitutive) role and merit examination. This book explores the different ways in which protesters’ normative arguments drive policy change. It also explains why some normative arguments fail to influence policy.


1. Remark at the Japan National Press Club, August 17, 2009.

2. “Kokugai, kengai e: 90% Futenma isetsu, honshi kinkyū yoron chōsa,” Okinawa Times, April 20, 2010.

3. The concept of “island-wide struggle” (shimagurumi tōsō) comes from Arasaki, “Okinawa tōsō,” 74.

4. Protests against nuclear weapons, landmines, and wars are other examples.

5. Montgomery, “Contested Primacy in the Western Pacific.”