American Bases and the Generation Gap in Okinawa

Politics Society

For many young people in Okinawa today, the US bases are no longer the most important issue. Increasingly, they care more about issues like poverty and inequality that affect them directly. The victory of Tamaki Denny in the recent gubernatorial election offers new hope for intergenerational understanding in an Okinawa where public opinion is changing fast.

Okinawa’s new governor is 58-year-old Tamaki Denny, an independent candidate supported by the All Okinawa coalition. Until the eve of the election, most observers were predicting a close contest, but Tamaki won a convincing victory in the end, netting a record 396,632 votes, more than 80,000 ahead of his rival Sakima Atsushi, the candidate backed by the Liberal Democrat Party, Kōmeitō, and others.

In this article, I want to look at voting patterns in the recent election and examine what they can tell us about the political attitudes of young people in Okinawa today.

Fading Memories and the “Spirit of Okinawa”

I know from my own experience that things are changing. In recent years, I have often had occasion to notice a shift in attitudes among the young people at the university where I teach. When I talk about Okinawa’s grim history and the importance of peace today, I am no longer sure that what I want to say is really getting through.

It is a commonplace observation to say that the views of people in Okinawa are ignored on the Japanese “mainland.” But living here, I sometimes feel that it is even more difficult to reach agreement about what is happening within Okinawa itself.

For many years, the shared experience of the disastrous Battle of Okinawa toward the end of World War II created something close to a consensus on important political issues. For decades, the people of the prefecture were united under the slogan “Okinawa no kokoro” (the spirit of Okinawa).

Around a quarter of the population lost their lives in the fighting for Okinawa. This horrific experience led to a sense of solidarity and a heartfelt yearning for peace. Today, although the fighting is more than seven decades in the past, around 70% of US troops in Japan are still stationed in Okinawa. For many Okinawans, the ongoing nature of this unfair burden has become a question of survival. Reducing the number of bases or getting rid of them altogether has been the most important issue throughout Okinawa’s postwar history.

The memory of the war and the ongoing US presence once united public opinion in Okinawa. But things are beginning to change.

The Growing Generation Gap

In April 2017, NHK carried out a public opinion poll to mark 45 years since Okinawa returned to Japanese sovereignty. On the crucial question of the presence of US bases on Okinawan soil, there was a clear generational divide. While most people born before 1972 (when Okinawa “reverted” to Japanese sovereignty) opposed the bases, 65% of those born after the reversion accepted the status quo.

Public opinion in Okinawa is no longer as monolithic as it once was. Further evidence for this came with the results of a mayoral election held in Nago on February 4, 2018. As home to the planned US military facility in Henoko, Nago is a focal point for conflicting viewpoints on American bases in the prefecture.

Initially, the incumbent Inamine Susumu, who opposed the proposed new base and was backed by the All Okinawa alliance, was expected to win convincingly. In fact, newcomer Toguchi Taketoyo, backed by the LDP/Kōmeitō coalition, was elected by a margin of 3,000 votes.

Significantly, Toguchi’s support exceeded the basic voting bloc for the Liberal Democratic Party and their Kōmeitō partners by more than 2,000 votes. Exit polls found that more than 60% of voters aged 18–29 voted for Toguchi, and that he also won the support of almost 60% of voters in their thirties. By contrast, most people in their sixties and older voted for Inamine.

Similar trends were seen in the recent gubernatorial election. Exit polls carried out by the Asahi Shimbun, Ryūkyū Asahi Hōsō, and NHK showed high support for Sakima among voters aged 18 to 29. The candidates were equally popular among voters in their thirties, while Tamaki finished first among voters in their forties and above. Among voters in their sixties and seventies, Tamaki was almost twice as popular.

Younger voters generally tended to prefer candidates put forward by the ruling coalition, while older voters tended to support candidates put forward by the All Okinawa group. To attract younger voters during the Nago election, the LDP and Kōmeitō promised more movie theaters, Starbucks outlets, and other entertainment facilities, while it pledged to cut mobile phone charges by 40% during the gubernatorial election.

Some people have criticized these tactics as an attempt to “hide” the Henoko issue from the public debate, but in fact voters were quite aware of what was going on. The decision not to discuss the rights and wrongs of Henoko was widely seen as the key to victory for the ruling coalition. Young voters understood that the issue of the bases was being avoided. But although they realize that the base is controversial, for them it is no longer the overwhelmingly important issue it was for previous generations.

The reasons are clear. Different age groups see the bases quite differently: people who remember seeing their land taken by force and bulldozed have a different view from younger people who have grown up with the sight of the fences around the bases since the day they were born.

In addition, there is the fact that although local politicians have won support by opposing the Henoko base, the national government has continued to plow ahead with its plans in the face of local opposition, and construction work on the new base is ready to start at any moment.

It is hardly surprising that a sense of resignation is common among the younger generation. Many younger people feel that it is pointless to argue with the national government, and that it is too late to turn back on the plans now.

The students I teach today were born around the time of the agreement reached between the Japanese and American governments in 1996 to return the Futenma air base to Japan. The question of building a new base has therefore been the subject of fierce disagreements between Okinawa and the national government for as long as they can remember. It is perhaps only natural that they struggle to see Henoko as a subject of primary interest after so many years have passed.

It is now 73 years since the Battle of Okinawa. When I entered university in 1978, it was 73 years after the Russo-Japanese War ended in 1905 with the Treaty of Portsmouth. As a young student, it was impossible for me to feel the weight of this historical event.

Even the return of Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty 43 years ago may no longer be part of living history for young people today. One thing is certain: a deep divide now exists between the generations in terms of their perception and awareness of history.

New Priorities

As one university student told me: “We know that peace is important. But that doesn't mean we want to hear older people going on about how terrible war is every time they open their mouths. And it’s hard to identify with people who treat the mainland like an enemy: Okinawa is part of Japan.” Others admitted to wanting to cover their ears when people start to discuss these topics. Probably it’s reasonable enough for them to feel this way.

For the young generation, there are more pressing issues closer to hand. They are more worried about things like poverty and inequality of wealth, low pay, and proposals to shake up the scholarships system. These are things that affect them directly, unlike arguments about the past.

Around a third of children in Okinawa live in poverty—double the national average. According to a 2016 survey on problem behavior and truancy carried out by Okinawa Prefecture and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology, 32.3 people out of 1,000 were not in high school. This is the highest rate in the country, and more than double the national average. Among the chief reasons why students drop out are economic factors and conditions at home. Many students continue to drop out of college level courses for similar reasons. It is not difficult to see that poverty and wealth inequality are among the major contributory factors leading to this situation.

In Okinawa, average levels of pay are low and many young people are stuck in unstable, nonregular jobs with few benefits. In this environment, dropping out of high school or college only makes finding a decent job even more difficult. But for many years, local politicians have paid scant heed to young people’s problems. The same old arguments have continued to rage between conservatives and reformists, while local companies and financial figures have used economic stimulation packages for their own vested interests. This has made income disparities in Okinawa worse than ever. And it is today’s young generation who are having to pay the cost.

It was in an attempt to break away from these political squabbles and tussles over interests that the All Okinawa movement was born four years ago.

As I have noted, however, the main support for the All Okinawa group at the Nago mayoral election and the gubernatorial election came from people in their sixties and above. As a result, the young and old now share few concerns in common, and meaningful dialogue between the generations is becoming more difficult than ever.

What is it that young people in Okinawa want to see in the future?

Even among those born after Okinawa’s return to Japan, who essentially accept the presence of the bases in Okinawa, most people do not like the idea of depending on the bases or being thought to be dependent on them. In any case, the days when Okinawa could make a living off the bases are long gone. Income from the bases now accounts for just 5t of the total revenue of the prefecture. Meanwhile, revenue from tourism has now reached a new high for five years running. In 2017, the number of tourists visiting the islands reached 9.6 million, and Okinawa now outstrips Hawaii as a tourist destination. Beyond any doubt, tourism is now very much Okinawa’s leading industry. In fact, it is difficult to conceive of a future for Okinawa that does not involve tourism. This is something on which almost all young people would agree.

But at the moment, many young people have no clear idea of the future they want for the island where they live. Their psychology is therefore much more complex and tangled than the state of mind common among previous generations, who tended to define themselves through a dichotomy between “the bases or the economy” and arguments about independence and ideological resentment against mainland Japan.

Will a Referendum Bring the Generations Together?

This forced choice between two positions and the extreme rhetoric that has often accompanied it have served to deepen the generational divide, to the detriment of everyone involved. Now is the time for the older generation, who have tried and failed to pass on their sense of Okinawa’s history—and I include myself in this—to transform the way they think. We need to address the problems of poverty and inequality that young people face and work together to resolve them. If we can do this, the gap in understanding will resolve itself as a matter of course.

In that sense, the proposed referendum on the Henoko base offers an ideal opportunity to bridge the divide between the generations.

A petition demanding a referendum has received over 100,000 signatures—more than four times the number required—and the prefectural assembly has been deliberating on referendum legislation. People in their twenties played a central role in the petition movement, alongside political parties and economic figures supporting the recently deceased governor, Onaga Takeshi. In its later stages, the movement attracted considerable support from teenagers.

Motoyama Jinshirō, the twenty-six-year-old representative of a civic group demanding a referendum to decide the Henoko issue, says his group wants to use the referendum as an opportunity to encourage greater intergenerational and interisland dialogue.

I have repeatedly stressed that different generations now want different things. But in Okinawa the situation is even more complicated than that: there are as many different “Okinawa issues” as there are islands in the prefecture. Many remote areas face problems with a dwindling population, poor medical infrastructure, and transportation. These discrepancies are reflected in voting patterns at elections. On a municipality level, the votes received by the various candidates at the recent gubernatorial election show the same pattern as the previous election in 2014. Although Tamaki was well supported in the densely populated urban districts in the central parts of the main island, he lost to Sakima in the farming villages of the north, on many of the smaller islands, and in Ginowan, where the Futenma base is located.

The dialogues Motoyama suggests are a bold attempt to tackle issues that previous generations have known about, but failed to address.

Hope for the Future

The new governor’s background gives him a personal experience of many of Okinawa’s pressing issues. His father was a US serviceman stationed on a base in Okinawa; his mother is from the island of Iejima. He was bullied as a child in school for being mixed-race and he grew up in extreme poverty in a single-parent household. He perfectly encapsulates the postwar history of Okinawa.

During the election campaign, he was often to be seen guitar in hand, giving spirited renditions of rock songs. An abiding memory of the campaign is of a beaming “Denny” being warmly greeted by crowds of women and children. His cheerful, youthful personality, an optimistic outlook apparently undimmed by his difficult childhood, and a warm and approachable personality helped him attract the support of 70% of independent voters. Many young people played an important part in supporting his campaign, which went beyond the bases issue to promise a new kind of politics in which no one would be left behind.

“A lot of the young people who worked hard on his campaign were staff members of the referendum campaign,” Motoyama reveals. Nevertheless, exit polls showed that his support among young people was hardly overwhelming—it was only a small percentage who were actively involved. But this should not blind us to the opportunity that this moment represents. Young people embraced this campaign and made their voices heard. This is the ideal moment for a new attempt to bring the generations together. This result is also likely to have a significant impact on the referendum. The various generations and regions face conflicts and tensions of their own and do not always see eye to eye. I hope this result will mark the beginning of a new spirit of dialogue and cooperation.

(Originally published in Japanese on October 12, 2018. Banner photo: Tamaki Denny dances to celebrate his victory in the Okinawa gubernatorial election on September 30, 2018. Courtesy Naha municipal government; © Jiji.)

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