Most Americans are aware of at least two things about the Japanese island: It saw a lot of fighting during World War II, and it has had a large US military presence since then. But major things have been happening in Okinawa this past year. The recent contentious relocation of the largest base on the island has exposed a bizarre cooperation between Japanese nationalism and US imperialism...
Where the US Occupation Started
The United States has had a major military presence on Okinawa and across Japan since World War II. Okinawa officially returned to Japanese control in 1972, but the bases remained, and to this day more than 70 percent of US military personnel stationed in Japan, and more than 70 percent of Japanese land used for US bases, are located in Okinawa Prefecture alone. The largest and most contentious of these bases is Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, in the middle of Ginowan. In 1996, the Japanese central government and the United States reached a deal to close Futenma if they could relocate it to another part of the island — this agreement, critically, left out the Okinawans' say in the matter. The site they chose was Henoko and Oura Bay.
The relocation to Henoko would require destroying part of the bay through extensive land reclamation, which already began in mid-December. But relocation fails to address the root problem of US occupation and instead makes more permanent the military's presence. In the last few years, Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga rigorously opposed the relocation, using several measures to halt the relocation and involve the Okinawan people in the process. Then in August, he died of pancreatic cancer.
The Election of Denny Tamaki
The September 2018 special election for governor pitted Atsushi Sakima, supported by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) – Komeito coalition, against Denny Tamaki, supported by a broad coalition of left-leaning parties including the Liberal Party (not to be confused with the LDP), Japanese Communist Party (JCP), and Social Democratic Party (SDP). The top issue was the base relocation to Henoko, and Tamaki ran on continuing Onaga's stance of strict opposition to the relocation and greater involvement of locals in the process. Tamaki won, and 60 to 70 percent of Okinawans side with him on this issue. (Tamaki is also the first ethnically mixed person to have served in the House of Representatives and be elected governor, so his victory is especially significant there.)
For people less familiar with Japanese political history, I should emphasize that the LDP is very powerful. They have been the ruling party for nearly all of the last 60 years, with only brief periods of opposition rule. The LDP is a big tent, though one that includes laissez-faire capitalism, corporatism, and right-wing nationalism. The nationalist wing often brings up the abuses and damages from Futenma and other US military bases — the occasional drunk driving incidents, break-ins, and even rapes and murders, stand out in a country that generally has an extremely low violent crime rate, and the noise and air pollution in the middle of the city is not unnoticed. Why, then, is the relocation backed by the LDP, and the biggest critics of the US occupation are people like Tamaki and parties like the Liberals and Communists?
Nationalism Aligns with Imperialism
This fact really puzzled me. But earlier this year, quite coincidentally while working with the Poor People's Campaign in DC, I met some Okinawan activists from whom I've learned several critical details that offer an answer. Namely, nationalist elements routinely reinforce the idea that Okinawa isn't part of Japan — as if Okinawa is still a colony, but now just a colony of Japan that the nationalists are happy to use as a bargaining chip if it lessens the burden of the US military on the other 46 prefectures. Earlier this year when Defense Minister Iwaya (LDP) said that the land reclamation was "for the good of the Japanese people," the reaction from Okinawa was a mix of anger of being the only ones to bear a sacrifice, and questions of "Wait, aren't we supposed to be included in 'the Japanese people'?" When the central government justified the continued presence of the US bases as important to protect Okinawa from China and North Korea, a common reaction was "what we really need is protection from [the rest of] Japan."
But that's nationalism. Whether American, Japanese, or otherwise, it never offers protection from foreign powers, even as an accidental byproduct. Nationalism only, inherently and fundamentally, serves to sort out who in the population is "deserving" of dignity and consideration and who can be sacrificed.
What This Means for Okinawa and for Us
Futenma and its relocation to Henoko have not been good deals. Under various agreements, Japan shares the costs of the bases and relocation (from $6 billion per year in 2012 to $8 billion per year in 2018), not to mention the indirect costs of pollution and congestion that locals are expected to deal with. Worse still, the land reclamation at Henoko will cause extensive ecological devastation, threatening several species and coral reefs in the bay. Over the last several weeks, activists have been staging sit-ins and blocking incoming ships with canoes, while the local government pushes to delay further relocation efforts until a referendum in 2019. But the direct and ecological costs continue to rise.
Meanwhile, activists in the United States have held demonstrations at the consulate in New York and at the Pentagon and White House, including one this Monday, January 7, at 11am in front of the White House. A fourth-generation Okinawan-American started a whitehouse.gov petition as well — and while I don't expect the current administration to care, I’d encourage people to sign. The petition itself and the number of US residents signing it has been a significant show of support for Okinawans that has not gone unnoticed. And, of course, never forget the harm caused everywhere by all types of nationalism. Most Americans are aware of at least two things about the Japanese island: It saw a lot of fighting during World War II, and it has had a large US military presence since then. But major things have been happening in Okinawa this past year. The recent contentious relocation of the largest base on the island has exposed a bizarre cooperation between Japanese nationalism and US imperialism.