Trouble in Okinawa

Opinions - December 3rd, 2012

Okinawa, writes Henry Watts, a British writer on world politics and Japanese society, needs your attention. US policy might be all wrong and its people are becoming increasingly frustrated with lack of progress.

OKINAWA is boiling up again. The last two months have seen two 23-year-old sailors allegedly rape an Okinawan girl, and a US airman break into an apartment and assault an Okinawan boy. It has been reported that since 1972, 5,700 crimes have been committed by US personnel in Okinawa, which suggests some grave failings of law and order for the US Marines of Okinawa.

It must be said that between January 2009 and November 2010, 7,508 Japanese were arrested in Okinawa (compared to 117 criminal cases involving US nationals in the same period). One would of course not expect faultless grace from the locals either, and it would be overwrought to denigrate all Marines on account of a foolhardy minority. But incidences of violent crime from Americans, even when they’re only allegations, evoke a much more visceral response from the locals because of the symbolism involved.

If ever a rape or an assault could engender more disgust than would otherwise be expected, it’s when the perpetrator is deemed an unwelcome occupier. Considering that for generations the Okinawan people have had to live in the shadows of a giant US military presence as part of a deal that was made without them, one can start to see legitimate reasons for strife there. Today US military bases cover almost 20 per cent of Okinawa, which makes up 75 per cent of all US military facilities in Japan. The barbed wire fences and the noisy depredation of Okinawa’s tropic environment are a constant reminder to the people of their subaltern status as a dumping ground for geopolitical baggage.


Recently declassified US documents have revealed that the US once wanted to turn the whole of the Okinawan island into one giant military base. The documents were written after the Battle of Okinawa in 1945 – a battle that cost Okinawa roughly one-third of its pre-war population and reduced its towns and farmlands to a slush of blood and debris. The Allied conquest of Okinawa at the time, was designed to provide a launch pad for a subsequent invasion on the Japanese mainland – a plan that was eventually aborted and replaced instead with the dropping of the atomic bombs only a few weeks after the Battle of Okinawa had ended.

The Americans have patrolled the island ever since that time. On September 8, 1951, Japan signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty and brought the Allied Occupation to an end everywhere in Japan except for Okinawa. In Okinawa this day is known as the “Day of Shame” – the day that Japan abandoned Okinawa. US control of Okinawa lasted for another 20 years after this, until its eventual reversion to Japan in 1972. But the post-war negotiations did much to lay the groundwork for an unequal relationship between Okinawa and the Japanese mainland.

Pulitzer Prize-winner and historian John W. Dower has argued that the San Francisco deal in this form had long been in the pipeline, writing that “both the Japanese government and the Imperial Household were willing from an early date to trade away true sovereignty for Okinawa in exchange for an early end to the Occupation in the rest of Japan”.

At this time, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) General Douglas MacArthur was trying to justify US control over Okinawa by declaring that “Okinawans are not Japanese”. Prior to its annexation by Japan in 1879, Okinawa was indeed the centre of the ancient and independent Ryukyu Kingdom with its own rich cultural heritage.

One of the most symbolic links to this history was the age-old Shuri Castle, which the Japanese appropriated for use as command headquarters in the Battle of Okinawa and which the US pummeled with shells to its eventual destruction.

As Michael Molasky points out in his brilliant book The US Occupation of Japan and Okinawa: Literature and Memory, the desecration of this cultural Okinawan treasure “vividly encapsulates Okinawa’s sense of being trapped by two outside forces”.

But if MacArthur is right that Okinawans are not Japanese, wouldn’t it rather suggest that they be excused from Japan’s war responsibilities, rather than being dumped with the most burdensome of them? The Okinawans should either be acknowledged as a separate people and apologized to for being annexed and involved in imperialist wars, or, they should be embraced as fellow Japanese equals and treated as such. It certainly doesn’t follow that the island should be turned into one giant US military camp as was initially planned, and which was partially realised.

Instead the Okinawans have not been given even a token consideration in the allocation of bases and the subsequent bulldozing of their island. For the US-Japan Alliance the bases there are conveniently tucked away from the collective consciousness of the Japanese mainland majority, thereby relegating most opposition to the Alliance to the fringes.

The bases are also strategically convenient for the Alliance due to their location nearer to US ally Taiwan and other disputed territories in the region (notably the Senkaku Islands). Perhaps MacArthur had these factors in mind when declaring that the Okinawans are not Japanese. Of course one may only speculate as to the reasons why Okinawa was traded away in the San Francisco talks and militarized, but the fact remains that the Okinawans have been mere bystanders throughout it all, reduced to a disposable instrument of geopolitics.

The Okinawans are still struggling for their land 40 years after reversion. Nowadays, with the highest unemployment rate, the lowest salaries, and the fewest students finishing high school anywhere in the country, Okinawans would seem to have less and less to feel optimistic about. But after a breakthrough deal was made this year to relocate 9,000 Marines to bases either in Guam or Hawaii, there might well be long and overdue cause for celebration.

The deal is a testament to the tenacity of the pro-Okinawan lobbyists who have tried for so long to rebalance unequal relations between Okinawa and Tokyo as well as the unequal US-Japan Alliance.

The remaining 10,000 Marines on the island will still have to address their criminal tendencies of course, and questions remain over the relocation of the Futenma base – a base that former US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, while flying overhead in 2003 called “the world’s most dangerous base” on account of the its proximity to the densely populated Ginowan city. But in the process of trying to resolve these issues, the Okinawans will surely be wary of the 40 years since reversion that it has taken for them to secure a political victory and finally get recognition for the sacrifices they have made.

Henry Watts is a British writer on world politics and Japanese society. You can read more of his work on his blog – letterstoyoungbarbarians.

Main image: OKINAWA, Japan (Aug. 20 2012) Logistics Specialist Seaman Hope Lee, from Conroe, Texas, lowers the Navy Jack during evening colors aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6). The amphibious dock landing ship USS Tortuga (LSD 46) is moored in the background at White Beach Naval Facility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Michael Russell/Released)

(credit Official U.S. Navy Imagery)