“What’s Going On in Okinawa,” located at whatsokinawa.wordpress.com, has emerged in the last few months as a go-to site publishing English translations of Okinawan news. Run by a US-based MA student in Japanese-to-English translation, the blog provides a most valuable service, making Japanese-language news articles from the Ryukyu Shimpo, Okinawa Times, and other papers available to the English-reading audience.
While there is no shortage of English-language material on the ongoing military base conflict, written from an Okinawa-sympathetic point of view, and thoroughly well-informed on Okinawan history and conditions, if you know where to look for it – the Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus is one such place – the average reader who knows about Okinawan matters only from the Economist, ABC News, Foreign Policy, and so forth, is going to get a very different impression. The major mainland Japanese papers, such as the Asahi Shimbun, Yomiuri Shimbun, and Mainichi Shimbun, also convey a rather different impression of what’s going on in Okinawa than the Okinawan newspapers. And while all of these different perspectives are valuable for having a fuller understanding of the situation, the Okinawan papers are, I would imagine, for most policy wonks and so forth who read only the policy-driven media, a crucial missing link in understanding both the Okinawan perspective on these matters, and what is going on on a day-to-day basis.
(In searching around for links with which to populate the above paragraph, I actually found that the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Japan Times, and quite a few other papers are actually quite balanced, or Okinawa-sympathetic. Which is certainly encouraging, though it does weaken my argument for the importance of this new blog. Nevertheless, I think the blog provides an extremely valuable service.)
To summarize what has been going on lately:
First, some background: The US military controlled all of Okinawa under martial law from 1945-1972, twenty years after the rest of Japan regained its sovereignty following the Allied Occupation. Though Okinawa has been restored to Japanese sovereignty, and to equal participation in Japanese electoral/representative democracy, the US military continues to control about 20% of the tiny island of Okinawa, and Okinawa accounts for something like 75% of the total US military presence in Japan. The US has been saying since 1996 – nearly twenty years ago – that they are going to close the noisome Futenma Air Base. However, the military (backed by Washington and Tokyo) have responded to Okinawan protesters not by closing the base any faster, but quite to the contrary by delaying and delaying, saying that Futenma will be closed when a new base is completed to replace it. Okinawans have shown their collective will, through democratic elections, through protests, and through news coverage and editorials, among other means, that no new bases be built /and/ that Futenma be closed. But, again, rather than take the blame themselves, the US military, and Tokyo, have placed the blame on the Okinawans, for delaying construction at Henoko.
Henoko is a site in northern Okinawa, more remote to be sure than Futenma, which sits right in the middle of the city of Ginowan like an off-limits militarized Central Park, but for most Okinawans, who live on an island smaller and more densely populated than Oahu, this is hardly remote enough. They want to see the bases – or at least some of them – removed from Okinawa Prefecture entirely. And, with Okinawa representing less than 1% of Japan’s land area, is that really so much to ask? There’s plenty of space elsewhere. Maybe on Tsushima, which, though smaller, is far less densely populated, and has none of the exploitative colonialist history that Okinawa does. Henoko is also home to the second most bio-diverse coral reef ecosystem in the Pacific, after the Great Barrier Reef – or at least it was up until construction started, last year – and marks the northernmost portions of the range of the rare Okinawan dugong.
In a recent round of elections (in 2014), Okinawans elected an anti-base governor, in Onaga Takeshi, an anti-base mayor of Nago (the city where Henoko is located), and all anti-base representatives to the National Diet (Japan’s national parliament). I think the Okinawan will is clear. Out-voted and unheard in their own national political organs (much as Hawaii’s delegates are, on similar issues, in our own Congress), the Okinawan prefectural government has issued support for the establishment of a new think-tank and lobby group based in Washington, to make Okinawa’s voice heard. I find the organization’s name wonderfully snarky: New Democracy Initiative. The US claims that its military presence in Okinawa, and indeed around the world, is there to defend “freedom and democracy.” And yet, as we continue to squash the democracy and freedom of the Okinawan people, we really have to ask, “Security for whom?”
While the US Marines have executed a variety of tactics to ensure that construction goes forward – such as bringing in trucks overnight when fewer protesters are around to block the streets – protestors have been demonstrating outside the gates to Henoko almost continuously since construction began last August (if not earlier). Despite freedom of speech and of assembly (i.e. peaceful protest) being enshrined in both the American and Japanese Constitutions, protesters at Henoko have been harassed, assaulted, and arrested, and both high-ranking American military officers and Japanese officials have laughed off accusations of such harsh treatment, going so far as to question the authenticity of the protests (suggesting many protesters may be plants hired by the Chinese Communist Party to cause trouble for the Japanese government), and to characterize the anti-military protests as anti-American “hate speech.” On February 22, just a few weeks ago, protestor Yamashiro Hiroji was physically grabbed and dragged across the pavement, off of Japanese land and onto base property, so he could be charged with criminal trespassing and arrested by security guards in the employ of the US Marines.
On March 4, “Sanshin Day,”1 protesters – including Living National Treasure Shimabukuro Eiji – played Okinawan folk songs, and protest songs, and managed to maintain their composure, playing peacefully even as police got “very worked up,” and forcibly removed the tarps protecting the protestors from the rain.
And, all the while, PM Abe Shinzo’s administration has been wholly unsympathetic, even willfully ignorant of the reasons behind the Okinawans’ demands or desires, painting them on occasion as petulant children, or even politically ignorant masses. (I have no idea if the term gumin 愚民 has actually been used, but as one of the standard terms used over 120 years ago when ex-samurai elites were arguing that the ignorant masses were incapable of self-rule, it would certainly bear some powerful resonances to imperialist and colonialist rhetoric of that time) Or, to make another comparison the Abe government should hopefully find embarrassing, they have been treating Okinawa like a “rogue province” which must be punished for its insolence – a rhetoric and policy stance not so different from Beijing’s treatment of Taiwan, at times.
Finally, the US military & Japanese government have hidden from the public the extent of the planned construction, sometimes lying about it outright. Concrete blocks have begun to be dropped into the ocean outside of the permitted area, damaging coral in violation of the permits, and while I can’t seem to find the article again at the moment, various blog posts and the like have expressed that the presence of the USS Bonhomme Richard would seem to suggest much larger or more extensive port facilities than the military had said they were going to be building.
Even as Nago city mayor Inamine Susumu and Okinawa governor Onaga Takeshi continue to work to find ways to repeal the permits granted by their predecessors – thus denying the national government and/or the US military use of Nago roads to bring in the construction trucks and materials – along with other legal and bureaucratic tactics, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga was quoted as saying:
“Our country is governed by the rule of law and our procedures are based on law. The permission for the landfill work has no legal problems at all, so our position to proceed with the work remains unchanged.”
thus showing, once again, the completely dismissive attitude and willful cluelessness of the national government when it comes to the issues most important to its citizens.
Much thanks to What’s Going on In Okinawa, for keeping us informed!!
1) The sanshin is a three-stringed banjo-like instrument which forms the core of most Okinawan music. “Sanshin” literally means “three strings,” and the development of the Japanese shamisen, essential to kabuki and Japanese puppet theatre, and to geisha & courtesan music, owes its origins to the introduction of this Okinawan instrument into Japan in the late 16th century. “Sanshin Day” is a rather unofficial holiday, but widely acknowledged or celebrated in Okinawa, as a result of the coincidence of 3/4 (i.e. March 4th), san shi in Japanese, sounding like sanshin.