If you haven’t been in Japan long, you’ll soon realize that the United States military has set up shop throughout the country. About 38,000 service members and their families live and work on no fewer than 85 military facilities on Honshu, Kyushu, and Okinawa.
Despite moments of serious and well-published contention, the relationship between Japan and the United States has largely flourished since the end of World War II in 1945. The bases in Japan are artifacts of that relationship, and many bases today are jointly operated by the U.S. and Japanese Self Defense Forces. A look at the history of some of the major bases in Japan reveals bootprints left by both the Japanese and the Americans.
Yokosuka Naval Base: Only about 10 kilometers from Commodore Perry’s original landing in Kurihama, the base started as a shipyard, and still repairs ships today. Called Yokosuka Kaigun Kosho (Yokosuka Navy Yard) until its occupation by the U.S. in 1945, it was a major arsenal for the Japanese Imperial Navy throughout World War II. Today, it serves as homeport for the United States 7th Fleet, with the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force Fleet headquartered immediately beside it. Rumors abound concerning the base’s 260 caves and more than 27 km of underground tunnels, originally designed to mask Japanese activity from U.S. airplanes. Base officials sealed up all but 3 of the caves after a survey in 1992.
Camp Zama: Before it became the headquarters for United States Army Japan, the site served as the Imperial Japanese Army’s officer training school, or Rikugun Shikan Gakko. Renamed “Sobudai” by Emperor Showa in 1937, the post is dotted with well-preserved memorials erected by graduating classes. A 55-foot-long reinforced concrete tunnel served as a bomb shelter for the Emperor when he visited and is available for tours today. The last class graduated in June of 1945, and in testament to the large number of graduates (1071 out of 2299 for one particular class) that died during the war, left a stone that reads, “Shichi sho ho hoku,” or “Were we blessed to be reborn seven times, we would gladly give our lives to our country each time.”
Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni: At times a Japanese, Australian, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, and U.S. Marine Corps Base, Iwakuni has changed hands multiple times. Situated on land reclaimed from the Seto Inland Sea, Iwakuni became what it is today when Feudal lord Kikkawa ordered his subjects to begin cultivating the marshy deltas along the Nikishi river. During the war it served as a base for zero fighter planes, and is now home to the world’s only zero hangar.
Yokota Air Base: Nearby Tachikawa base was originally slated for development, but a deadly transport plane crash in 1953 and ensuing riots forced the U.S. Air Force to relocate to Yokota instead. During the war, it served as a testing ground for newly designed Japanese planes. Upon occupation, American forces discovered a reconstructed B-17 bomber with a classified Norden bombsight, and that the Imperial Army had removed roofs from airplane storage areas to give the appearance of bombed-out hangars. The base now serves as headquarters for all U.S. military forces in Japan.
Images courtesy of the U.S. Naval Historical Center, Japanese National Diet Library, MCAS Iwakuni Public Affairs Office, and Mr. Jimmy Haun, Jr.