Okinawa’s Colonial Trap

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Fifty years ago, the U.S. returned Okinawa to Japan. But the U.S. retained dozens of military bases, which now occupy a sizable share of the island’s land mass, ooze both environmental and social pollution, and elicit a grumpy feeling of disenfranchisement. Many locals are fed up with what they view as a form of colonialism — one sanctioned by their own national leaders.

“The American government controls the Japanese government, and the Japanese government controls the Okinawan people,” an anti-base activist told me. “It’s all top-down.”

This is not a new problem. But it has been sharply exacerbated by the insistence of Washington D.C. and Tokyo to expand Camp Schwab, a U.S. Marine Base, by building a new runway on top of a fragile coral reef near Henoko in Nago City, where I have spent the last two weeks (including during Typhoon Hinnamnor).

In February 2019, more than 70 percent of Okinawan voters expressed opposition to a US-Japan plan to move USMC operations from Ginowan to Henoko. Beyond that, they want a smaller American footprint here.

Japan’s southernmost prefecture accommodates more than 30 U.S. military bases – about 70 percent of all such facilities in the country. And it is home to more than 25,000 U.S. soldiers – a little more than half of all such foreign troops stationed in the entire country. In 1996, after the kidnapping and brutal rape of a 12-year-old by American service members, Okinawans overwhelmingly approved a non-binding referendum calling for a reduction in the U.S. military presence. They continue to demand relief by voting for anti-base politicians.

On September 11, barring some surprise, Okinawans will re-elect Gov. Denny Tamaki, the estranged son of a U.S. Marine. Tamaki is a vocal critic of the Henoko expansion and an equally vocal supporter of de-militarization.

Washington D.C. and Tokyo, knotted together in the U.S.-Japan Security Alliance, remain unmoved by the political unrest here. “We will always have Okinawa,” says a longtime minder of the U.S.-Japan Security Alliance, sounding like “Rick” in CasaBlanca – but without the romance. “This is a problem that can never be fixed; at best, it can be managed.”

Another alliance-minder wondered if I was proposing something more radical when I expressed sympathy for base-weary islanders. He asked: “Close the bases and let the Chinese take Okinawa?” 

These views, I think, reflect a willful ignorance or callous indifference about the islands and their inhabitants.

Okinawa is the least “Japanese” of Japan’s 47 prefectures. It was its own Ryukyu kingdom from 1429 to 1879, when it was finally folded into the centralizing, industrializing, and perhaps “Westernizing” regime of Meiji Japan. Before that, it operated as a quasi-independent nation in the China-centered tributary system of East Asia, and served as a critical node in the trading networks that connected the Chinese and Japanese with Indonesians, Malay, Thai, Filipinos and others in Southeast Asia. One still finds traces of Chinese influence in food, art, and architecture here; an example is the shisa lion that guards many Okinawan homes.

US military bases on Okinawa (2010)

Because they tend to be physically darker and culturally distinct, Okinawans have been viewed for years by mainlanders as “different,” and as inferior. Some islanders, especially aspiring assimilationists like the early 20th century anthropologist Ifa Fuyu, became just as critical of what they regarded as “backward” characteristics of their own culture. They described themselves as seiban or “primitive tribal members.” This self-loathing is, sadly, a common product of colonialism.

World War II heightened Okinawa’s alienation from Tokyo. In the bloodiest and last major battle of the war, U.S. troops seized the islands in a “typhoon of steel” that led to the death of between 100,000 and 150,000 Okinawans, maybe a third or even half of the local population. The Japanese military recruited many islanders to fight and encouraged others to commit suicide rather than, as imperial soldiers warned, be raped or murdered by the “impure” invaders.

Over the objections of right-wing nationalists, Okinawans have called on Tokyo to acknowledge the Japanese military’s role in that massive loss of life. A Japanese court has sided with islanders in this dispute, noting evidence that the military distributed grenades to local families and encouraged them to kill themselves.

Okinawa remains poorer than the rest of the country. Infrastructure here is less developed, in part due to neglect by the Japanese government before and during the war, and in part due to neglect by the U.S. government during its long military occupation. The unemployment rate is almost double the national average – largely a function of Okinawa’s dependence on tourism, which has been crippled by the coronavirus pandemic.

The U.S. military provides employment for Okinawan guards, cooks and more on its many bases, but also service workers, including bar hostesses, outside the gates. The local economy is distorted by its dependence on Japanese tourists and American troops. There is almost no manufacturing here.

It rankles some American officials when islanders complain about the heavy burden of hosting so many military bases. Back in 2011, Kevin Maher, formerly head of Japan affairs in the U.S. State Department, reportedly told a group of visiting U.S. students that Okinawans are “masters of manipulation and extortion.” He also called them lazy and said they drink excessively.

Maher, who later denied making the comments but also said they were made off-the-record, was fired after the interview was reported in the Japanese press, generating a PR firestorm in Okinawa.

Tokyo tends to side with Washington DC in the ongoing disputes over the military bases in Okinawa. Officials there are concerned about rising Chinese power in Asia, as well as zooming missiles from North Korea. Japanese military leaders and diplomats have forged close personal ties with their American counterparts over the long life of the bilateral alliance.

To many here in Okinawa, the national government’s firm commitment to the alliance just reinforces their own feelings of estrangement.

A few years ago, I interviewed Hiroji Yamashiro, then the head of the anti-base movement in Okinawa. “Tokyo doesn’t think of us as Japanese, and we don’t think of ourselves as Japanese either,” he told me. “Maybe that’s the only thing we agree on.”

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Walter Hatch is a professor of political science at Colby College in Maine who, when not teaching, lives in Seattle's Phinneywood. He has written numerous articles and chapters on the politics of Japan and China, as well as three books on international relations, including "Ghosts in the Neighborhood: How Germany Has Escaped a Haunted Past, But Japan Has Not" (University of Michigan Press, forthcoming). Before becoming an academic, he was a journalist -- most recently for The Seattle Times.

2 COMMENTS

  1. The article makes me wonder if, as with England after the Queen, America will face a series of independence moves by its former bases and colonies? The spirit of “exit” is not confined to Brexit or to workers.

  2. One presumes the Okinawa tourist industry specifically targets Japanese travelers.

    It would be interesting to know what have been the trends in migration during the last 30-40 years between Japan’s larger islands/population centers to Okinawa, as well as outbound migration by Okinawa people to Japan’s Kyushuu, Honshuu, etc.

    Prime Minister Kishida might have taken a political hit at Tamaki’s re-election, but will this improve Tamaki’s ability to exert political influence and benefits for Okinawa when (and if) the Japanese PM is facing a backlash?

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