Getting my bacon saved in Okinawa

Opinions - June 20th, 2003
Henry Scott Stokes

by Henry Scott Stokes

I flew down to Okinawa the other day on a first visit in 20 years. I was completely taken aback by the relaxed atmosphere in Naha. They say that Okinawans live longer than any other Japanese, If so, it’s no wonder. They have such an easy-going life, as compared with the rest of Japan. People from the “mainland” are all tensed up and assertive.

You can tell them in a flash, as they come into a hotel—we stayed at the Harbor View Hotel in downtown Naha. They want everything done for them on the double, they are the very reverse of the Okinawans… the visitors from Tokyo are bossy and tense, as New Yorkers landing up in New England on a weekend. They make you cringe with their bad manners and the way they bark orders all the time.

During the last couple of decades, I can tell you, Naha has advanced by leaps and bounds. It’s completely unrecognizable as the dusty provincial town I visit­ed as a correspondent in the late 1970s or 1980s—honestly, I am not sure exactly when. There’s a huge new airport terminal, built three or four years ago, and there’s a monorail to whip you in and out of town in 10 minutes.

Just imagine being able to get to Narita in a quarter of an hour. This visit convinced me, all over again, that the sooner Shintaro Ishihara and his crew over at Tokyo HQ can get their heads together and decide to resurrect Haneda as the international air­port for Tokyo, the better. Tokyo is never going to achieve its goal of becoming a mecca of tourism in the region unless it has, for starters, some brisk and recog­nizable way of getting into town.

Down in Okinawa, I attended a conference put together for sev­eral hundred of the leading small and medium businessmen in the Ryukyus. Again, it was so differ­ent from Tokyo. Everybody from the Okinawa Employers’ Associations trouped in there, just wearing shirts—no jackets and no neckties is the code. A stuck-up Brit such as yours truly—complete with Savile Row gear—can feel like an absolute idiot, standing up on a platform in his dire finery, facing several hundred cats in beach shirts. And what else did I learn down there?

Well, Okinawa has got out the WELCOME mat in a big way these days—and is presenting itself as the shomen genkan (main entrance way) for travelers com­ing into our archipelago from all points south, such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and of course Taiwan and China.

Judging by the folk they gath­ered for their annual business­men’s bash down there, they are on the way to making their point. First off as a speaker at their con­ference was Masahiro Origuchi, the Chairman and CEO of the Goodwill Group. He introduced main speaker Goro Watanabe, the outgoing chairman of Mitsui Chemical, one of Japan’s most outspoken big company peo­ple—watch Goro for sparks, as he makes his new moves on leav­ing Mitsui after 45 years.

Right there in the audience were a whole bunch of people among whom I met Seikichi Miyagi, Director General of the Okinawa Employers’ Associations, and Yoshimasa Koja, Vice President of Okinawa Electric Power.

Okinawa is, of course, best known to many Americans as the strategic spot in all of Japan. There is that historic old base at Kadena in the heart of Naha still—unfortunately, as to loca­tion—with its complement of U.S. Marines; and there is anoth­er big base on the water, on the right as you go out to the airport. Altogether, the cab drivers say, there are some 35,000 U.S. ser­vicemen on deck, and 50,000 American nationals altogether, when you’ve added in the fam­ilies. It’s a huge comple­ment—roughly 70 percent of the entire U.S. military pres­ence in these parts is concen­trated on the not-very-large island of Okinawa.

Right at the start of our con­ference proceedings—I was the only westerner in a cast of hundreds—I mumbled to a person in charge that when it came to be my turn to appear on the stage, I did not wish to address the topic of the bases. You can call this a skin-saving maneuver, if you like. It was exactly that.

You don’t, if you have got your wits about you, prance out in front of the locals in any coun­try, in lieu of a qualified diplomat or military person and preach to the unconverted. Instead, you leave it up to some Japanese expert, who knows the ropes, to save you from contumely. In this instance, I was supported, in the part of the program I appeared on—a two-hour zadankai, done on stage in front of everyone—by just the right person to take on the inevitable topic of the bases.

His name is Kenichi Ito, and I want to recognize him here, in this space, and thank him for sav­ing my bacon. Sure enough, the chair of our panel—an elegant lady from NHK called Atsuko Fukushima—steered the topic of the future of the U.S. bases to me, when the moment came for that part of our program.

This was the instant when Ito-san stepped into the breach and took on the task of saying to the locals that it’s really regrettable—I paraphrase—that Okinawans have this laid-back paradise of theirs and have to put up with the heavy-booted mili­tary presence in their midst (Japanese as well as American, I hasten to add). Ito-san thereby earned my eternal gratitude, and I wish him and the Japan Forum on International Relations that he founded 20 years ago and ran ever since, all the best of luck.

He serves, concurrently, as president of something called the Japan Center for Preventive Diplomacy. If you think that sounds like a short-hand for warning hot-headed Yanks off unwise maneuvers in parts of the world they know little about, well, you are right.

Conferences, be it said, never decide a darned thing. But I enjoyed meeting people down there. Thus, Origuchi-san of Goodwill told me he has just moved his head office into Mori Tower at Roppongi Hills. His neighbors are Rakuten founder Hiroshi Mikitani and Yahoo Japan president Masahiro Inoue—both men feature in books of mine.

Not that our gathering lacked the Cassandras—the guys who say that Japan is coming to an abrupt end, and about to dis­appear over the Niagara Falls and so on. How come, I asked, that foreign investors keenly compet­ed over here as net buyers of Japanese stocks, property and bad debts in each of the last five years—and are still buying? Are we being taken? Or do the likes of Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley know their oats? This remark was followed by a crash­ing silence.

Henryss@gol.com