Examining Okinawa Today

Thinking About Okinawa: The Widening Perception Gap

Politics Economy Society

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)

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

Professor, 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

Research 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.

What Okinawa Says About Japan

TAIRA That’s why we need to shift the debate to find a way out of the current impasse. Right now the government and its mainland supporters are framing the issue as a matter of national security, citing the threat from China and so forth. The Okinawans, meanwhile, are approaching it in terms of their own rights, stressing self-determination, structural discrimination, even calling for independence. We’re talking past one another. We need to reframe the debate so that we can start discussing the issue on the same level.

One way to go about this is to ask people to think about what the situation in Okinawa says about the character of Japan as a sovereign state. Another is to ask how it reflects on Japan as a democracy. How does Japan, as a democratic nation, justify the fact that 73.8 percent of the US military facilities in Japan, by area, are concentrated in a prefecture that accounts for only 0.6 percent of the country’s total land area? In a democracy, sovereignty resides with the people. It follows that the people themselves should have the collective will to defend their own country and share the burden of defense equally. So the question becomes, How do each of us, as Japanese citizens, feel about the fact that the burden of national security in the form of US bases falls so disproportionately on one region?

MIYAGI Some people counter that the central government has compensated Okinawa amply in the form of generous subsidies for local development and so forth. They argue that Okinawans are in no position to talk about independence, given that outlays from the central government’s coffers are what keep their economy going. How do you answer those critics?

Breaking the Cycle of Dependence

TAIRA Once again, I think it’s a matter of reframing the issue. Much of this discussion is predicated on the assumption that Okinawan politics is divided between progressives who oppose the bases on ideological grounds and conservatives who support them for economic reasons. Furthermore, there’s a perception among mainland Japanese that the two sides are basically in cahoots, since the anti-base sentiment helps the prefecture wring more economic benefits from the government. There’s no denying that the construction industry has its eye on the bottom line, but nowadays it's quite mistaken to equate conservative politicians with economically motivated support for the US bases. Most of Okinawa's conservatives are embracing a platform of economic development paired with base reductions—together with the idea of Okinawan pride.

Since the 1972 reversion, the Japanese government has allocated a total of 15 trillion yen for Okinawa’s economic development. Of course, the government created this program because it wanted to reduce the economic gap between Okinawa and the mainland that had emerged during the twenty-seven years of US control. This has become clear to me from my interviews with officials who worked in the Okinawa Development Agency, as well as from my study of historical documents.

Under the program, the government instituted the practice of defraying 90 percent of the cost of local infrastructure projects and other public works. This completely undermined the fiscal discipline of local government and nurtured a system in which the construction industry got fat off undisciplined spending on public works projects.

This is the scary thing about subsidies. Before you know it, they take on the character of an entitlement program, and people become more and more dependent on them. Once that happens, the system becomes self-sustaining and resistant to change. In recent years, the government has reinforced this structure of dependence by targeting the weak links with new spending programs, like the northern development program and the Shimada Commission initiative. In the end, this policy has hurt Okinawa, just as it has hurt the taxpayers who shoulder the burden.

But the northern development program and the Shimada Commission initiative both have their roots in the agreement that the Japanese and US governments reached in 1996 to relocate Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from its current site to a less populated area in Okinawa Prefecture. The programs were adopted as a kind of compensation or inducement. We need to ask why the base couldn’t be relocated to mainland Japan or to another country.

The LDP's Widening Chasm

ENDŌ At the national level, the [conservative] Liberal Democratic Party seems baffled by the complexity of conservative politics in Okinawa. Mainland LDP leaders today don't see how Okinawa's conservatives can call themselves conservatives.  What’s the reason for this gap?

TAIRA I don’t like to reduce everything to generational differences, but I do think that the experience of World War II and the US Occupation provided the basis for a shared understanding between Okinawans and mainland Japanese. Old-school LDP politicians like [former Chief Cabinet Secretary] Gotōda Masaharu, [former Prime Minister] Hashimoto Ryūtarō, and [former chief Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Okinawa Development Agency] Nonaka Hiromu seemed to feel a certain amount of remorse over the fact that Japan had basically abandoned Okinawa for twenty-seven years, and that even after that, the United States, which had defeated Japan in World War II, still maintained all those military bases in Okinawa. I would imagine that deep inside, they harbored feelings of guilt toward the inhabitants of this island, where more than 180,000 Japanese citizens died in the war.

But that generation of politicians gave way to a new one that no longer had this shared experience of the war and the US Occupation. Around the time Prime Minister Koizumi [Jun’ichirō] took the helm, a more pragmatic, unsentimental breed of conservative politician began to dominate the LDP.

MIYAGI There's a certain logic to it when you view it in the context of postwar political history. The LDP politicians who considered themselves representatives of the conservative mainstream credited Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru with restoring Japan’s sovereignty via the San Francisco Peace Treaty. Yet Article 3 of the treaty abandoned Okinawa and left it under the administration of the US military. That's why Prime Minister Satō Eisaku, Yoshida's protégé, saw the reversion of Okinawa as the all-important piece of unfinished business left to him by his mentor. Similarly, from Hashimoto's viewpoint, the bases were the business left unfinished by his mentor, Satō Eisaku.

But Koizumi came to power on a pledge to destroy the old LDP, to end the dominance of the Takeshita faction—of which Hashimoto was a member. And that's just when the LDP’s attitude toward Okinawa began to undergo a fundamental change.

(Translated from a roundtable discussion conducted in Japanese on June 19, 2015, and edited by the Nippon.com editorial department. Banner photo: Okinawa Governor Ongaga Takeshi meets foreign correspondents in Tokyo in May, 2015. © Jiji)

Okinawa Takeshi Ryukyu independence Henoko Air Station Futenma US Marine Corps self-determination Scottish National Party Onaga