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In-depth Examining Okinawa Today
Thinking About Okinawa: The Widening Perception Gap

The perception gap between Okinawans and mainland Japanese appears to be growing by the day as Okinawa steps up its opposition to plans that would keep a controversial US Marine Corps installation within the prefecture. In the second of a three-part series, political experts probe the meaning of “Okinawan independence” in the context of the base problem and assess the prospects for a resolution.

Miyagi Taizō (Moderator)

Miyagi Taizō (Moderator)Professor, Faculty of Global Studies, Sophia University. Born in 1968. Was a journalist with NHK after earning a degree in law from Rikkyō University. Went on to graduate school at Hitotsubashi University. Was an assistant professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies before taking his present position. Works include “Kaiyō kokka” Nihon no sengoshi (Japan’s Postwar History as a Maritime State) and Sengo Ajia chitsujo no mosaku to Nihon: “Umi no Ajia” no sengoshi 1957–1966 (Japan and Southeast Asia in the Quest for Order: The Cold War, Decolonization, and Development, 1957-1966).

Endō Seiji

Endō SeijiProfessor, Faculty of Law, Department of Political Science, Seikei University. Born in 1962 in Shiga Prefecture. Received a master’s degree in law from the Graduate School of Law and Politics, University of Tokyo. Became an associate professor at Seikei University in 1993 and professor in 2001. Has held academic positions at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford University (1995 and 2010), and at Wellesley College (1996). Is the author or editor of Gurōbarizēshon to wa nani ka (What Is Globalization?), Futenma kichi mondai kara nani ga miete kita ka (The Repercussions of the Futenma Base Issue), Shirīzu: Nihon no anzen hoshō (Series: Japan’s National Security), and other works.

Taira Yoshitoshi

Taira YoshitoshiResearch associate, Regional Comprehensive Research Institute, Dokkyō University. Concurrently a lecturer at Hōsei University. Born in Okinawa in 1972. Graduated from the College of Law, Okinawa International University, in 1995 and completed coursework for a master’s degree at the Graduate School of International Relations, Tokyo International University (2001), and for a doctorate at the Graduate School of Social Sciences, Hōsei University (2008). Holds a doctorate in political science. Works include Sengo Okinawa to Beigun kichi: “Juyō” to “kyozetsu” no hazama de 1945–1972 (Postwar Okinawa and US Military Bases: Between Acceptance and Refusal, 1945-1972).

MIYAGI TAIZŌ The Japanese government’s plan to relocate US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to another site in Okinawa Prefecture has triggered a major protest movement that continues to escalate, with no resolution in sight. Lately, we’ve even begun to hear local calls for “Okinawan independence.” I’d like to start off by asking what Okinawans mean when they talk about independence.

Independence and Self-Determination

ENDŌ SEIJI There are several schools of thought among those advocating independence. Matsushima Yasukatsu [founder of the Association of Comprehensive Studies for Independence of the Lew Chewans] is a proponent of independence for the Ryūkyū people per se, with the focus on ethnicity. Most people who talk about “Ryūkyū independence” share this emphasis on ethnic lineage, which is something I’m very uncomfortable with.

For the most part, though, the focus of discussion is on the right to self-determination, not necessarily an independent Okinawan state. Many Okinawans have come to the conclusion that the Japanese government and the citizens of mainland Japan are just too insensitive to Okinawa’s plight to address its problems thoughtfully and responsibly, as a challenge for the nation as a whole. So, how do you go about resolving the region’s problems in such a situation? The right to self-determination has emerged as a possible answer to this dilemma.

International groups have recognized the status of the Ryūkyū people as an ethnic minority and an indigenous people distinct from the Japanese majority. There’s also broad international support for the right of indigenous peoples to decide their own fate—in other words, self-determination. Canada and Australia have both moved to institutionalize aboriginal self-determination. The argument goes that if the people of Okinawa are recognized as an indigenous people, then under international norms, they have the right to self-determination, and the Japanese government must defer to the will of the Okinawan people when it comes to determining their future.

I think this self-determination argument was originally put forward in hopes of swaying mainland public opinion regarding the base issue. That said, if you look at recent trends, the monolithic structure and authority of national governments is being seriously challenged in regions all over the globe.

The movement for Scottish independence, for example, attracted a fair amount of interest throughout Japan as something with the potential to alter the basic composition of Britain as a sovereign state. But the Okinawans followed the referendum much more closely. For them, it was a milestone in the Scottish people’s quest for self-determination. Okinawans began to think that if the Scottish nation, led by the Scottish National Party, had progressed to the point of voting on independence on the strength of this principle of self-determination, then perhaps Okinawa should embrace the same principle. They don’t imagine that Okinawa is going to achieve independence overnight, but they are hoping to secure a high degree of local autonomy and to make use of that autonomy to solve the island’s base problem.

It’s true that the idea of an independent ethnic Ryūkyū state has gained some traction among younger Okinawans, but I think they’re still in a distinct minority. And my impression of the self-determination argument, which has gathered a lot of momentum of late, is that it’s not so much an ethnic issue as a theoretical framework for securing local autonomy as a path to alternative solutions to the base problem and other local issues.

TAIRA YOSHITOSHI As an Okinawan born and bred, I’m interested in examining why this fringe movement for independence has drawn so much attention among mainland Japanese. I imagine one factor is the sheer novelty of it, which you could argue speaks for mainland citizens’ detachment from Okinawa’s very real problems.  But another reason for the strength of that reaction might be that they intuitively sense a genuine threat to national unity.

MIYAGI I’m inclined to view calls for independence as an appeal to mainland Japan to appreciate the depth of Okinawa’s suffering: “See what you’ve driven us to?” But what’s difficult for mainland Japanese to evaluate is how the Okinawan public views such calls.

TAIRA Most Okinawans wouldn’t go so far as to advocate political independence, but I think a large and growing number of them share in the underlying emotions that have inspired the independence movement. I can sense this among the people I live and deal with in Okinawa. The central government continues to insist that the only possible solution to the problem of the Futenma air base is the current plan to build a replacement facility in Henoko, and my concern is that if it forges ahead with this plan, Okinawans could become radicalized. All possible common ground will vanish, and the opportunity for a negotiated solution will be lost. Who would most welcome a total break between Okinawa and the mainland? That’s a question that merits some serious thought.

Second Thoughts About Rejoining Postwar Japan

TAIRA Governor Onaga [Takeshi] has placed a lot of emphasis on the idea of Okinawan identity in an effort to unite divergent interests and political camps. But if he wants to persuade mainland Japanese to address Okinawa’s problems as the nation’s problems, he also needs to speak more broadly to the Japanese nation as a whole. This means appealing to a certain kind of nationalism. If he goes too far in stressing Okinawan identity, he runs the risk of widening the gap with mainland Japan. On the other hand, too much emphasis on Japanese nationalism could undermine Okinawan solidarity. Onaga’s challenge is to frame the issue in a way that maintains that delicate balance. But such balanced leadership seems a lot to ask from a prefectural governor, particularly given the current political climate.

ENDŌ I think mainland Japan has to be a little more sensitive to the deep-seated emotions that are fueling the current political climate in Okinawa. It seems to me that there’s a real groundswell of emotional support for a more independent Okinawa, even though most locals don’t support political independence in the narrow sense of the word. Very few Okinawans could imagine severing themselves from Japan any time soon. But it’s clear that a growing number are open to revisiting the old reversion-versus-independence debate and asking whether Okinawans made the right choice in lobbying for reunification with Japan all those years ago.

Back when Okinawa was under US control, reversion to Japanese sovereignty seemed to promise unification with a nation committed to human rights and peace under the principles of the postwar Constitution. But more than four decades after Okinawa’s 1972 reversion, the US military remains ensconced on bases built with “guns and bulldozers” on expropriated land, and the promise of peace and human rights remains unfulfilled. Meanwhile, Okinawans have watched helplessly as efforts to abandon the war-renouncing provisions of the postwar Constitution gain momentum on mainland Japan. In other words, the Japan that the Okinawans were so eager to rejoin is rejecting its own Constitution and commitment to peace. In that case, wasn’t reunification itself a mistake? There’s a growing sense among the Okinawans that perhaps they were deluded in thinking they were rejoining a nation committed to peace and human rights. I think this is something that the mainland Japanese need to realize.

Confronting Structural Discrimination

ENDŌ Related to this is a growing feeling among Okinawans that, contrary to their hopes and expectations, they haven’t been accorded equal protections and rights as Japanese citizens under the Constitution—and furthermore that this amounts to discrimination. Until recently, even though they sensed the inequity, they hesitated to characterize it as discrimination. But now they’re beginning to realize that there’s no other word for it. It’s dawned on them that Okinawa is the only prefecture in Japan where the government is free to run roughshod over the will of the Japanese people, however clearly expressed.

In other parts of the country, the government has to pay heed to the voice of local residents when they make their collective will known. The government may want to build a nuclear power plant somewhere, but if the local residents reject the plant in a referendum, it doesn’t get built there. In Okinawa, though, the citizens have made their views known over and over again. In the petition submitted by all forty-one municipal assemblies, in the Nago mayoral election, in the Okinawa gubernatorial election, in the local election for the Japanese House of Representatives—in each case, the people of Okinawa have made it clear that they don’t want the bases there any more, but nothing changes. Why is Okinawa treated differently from other prefectures? One of the big changes that has occurred in recent years is a willingness to confront this for what it is—namely, discrimination.

I may be too pessimistic, but lately I’ve been troubled by signs that the rightwing nationalists who spend so much time bashing South Korea and China on the Internet are beginning to whip up animosity against the Okinawans for not putting the nation’s interests first. I’m very concerned that this trend could gain momentum and make it harder than ever to influence public opinion in Okinawa’s favor.

  • [2015.09.17]
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Other articles in this report
  • Thinking About Okinawa: The Regional Security ContextThe Japan-US security setup and moves by China have a major bearing on prospects for the US bases in Okinawa. In the last of a three-part series, political experts consider the regional security context and domestic political situation relating to the “Okinawa problem.”
  • Thinking About Okinawa: A Historical Perspective on the US Military PresenceOkinawa Governor Onaga Takeshi’s staunch opposition to the Futenma relocation plan has deepened the rift between the local and central governments. In the first of a three-part series, political experts shed light on the issues involving US bases in Okinawa, host to 74% of American military installations in Japan.
  • The Okinawa Issue and East Asian SecurityThe knotty problem of relocating US Marines Air Station Futenma in Okinawa casts a shadow over prospects for the US military presence there. Meanwhile, China’s expansionist strategy presents a major challenge for Japan and the United States. Respected foreign policy commentator Okamoto Yukio explains the background and regional implications.
  • Okinawan Identity and the Struggle for Self-DeterminationSince Onaga Takeshi’s successful campaign for governorship of Okinawa last fall, “Okinawan identity” has emerged as a rallying cry for unified opposition to plans for a replacement facility for US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma inside Okinawa Prefecture. Okinawan political scientist and activist Shimabukuro Jun explores the meaning of Okinawan identity in a historical context, focusing on the postwar experience of “structural discrimination.”

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