Two days in Okinawa
TWO DAYS IN OKINAWA: REFLECTIONS ON WAR MEMORY AND IDENTITY IN CONTEMPORARY JAPAN
Miriam Grinberg, Politics and International Studies
For those who visit Japan, the Okinawa prefecture is unlikely to feature on most travellers’ holiday itinerary. Okinawa is where the United States has developed its presence, and military bases in the region, and the presence of American soldiers in the prefecture has impacted upon the lives, businesses and culture of the local Japanese people.
Once the independent Ryukyu Kingdom, Okinawa was first conquered by Japanese warlords under the Tokugawa shogunate (1600-1868) and finally subsumed as an official prefecture under the Japanese state in 1879. In spite of this inclusion, the islands’ inhabitants—with a language and culture distinct from the Japanese mainland—were often treated as foreign and thus continued to maintain a separate identity. At the end of the Second World War, following the devastating Battle of Okinawa in 1945 in which more than 100,000 Okinawan civilians were either killed or forced to commit suicide, the prefecture fell under US military rule under Article III of the peace treaty between Japan and the United States. As Okinawa lies 500 miles from China and Taiwan, it was seen as an ideal location from which the US could launch its troops in any future combat in the Pacific.
In the post-war period, the US military took over many former Japanese military bases in Okinawa, building on and expanding these sites into areas formerly occupied by Okinawan residents. Thus, when these residents were permitted to leave wartime internment camps, many found that their homes had been converted into sprawling base complexes. Reliant on these new bases for food, shelter and employment, the Okinawan economy suffered in comparison to the Japanese mainland in the post-war period. This stagnation continued even after the islands were ‘returned’ to the Japanese government in 1972, and while the total land area taken up by US military installations has been reduced overall, the prefecture continues to host 75 per cent of all US military forces in Japan.
Given this uneasy history, it may come as no surprise that when incidents have occurred between US service members and the local population—including sexual assault, robbery, military accidents, and environmental pollution—the response from many residents has often been one of intense resentment towards the US military presence. In fact, the widespread civilian protests provoked by these incidents have, on more than several occasions, been collectively named the ‘Okinawa problem’ in the news media, and this ‘problem’ has often been cited as a source of tension in the US-Japan alliance. This is not to say, however, that the bases are not without their supporters in Okinawa; due to the number of residents who rely on the bases for their livelihoods (such as landowners leasing properties to the US military) or for the promise of future employment, there has not always been consensus on the future of the bases in Okinawa.
Gates of Camp Kinser base in Naha
The ‘Okinawa problem’ is particularly evident in the case of US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma—the case study in my doctoral research on security alliance persistence—which the US and Japanese central governments have been unable to relocate from its current location in the centre of Ginowan City, Okinawa, to the more sparsely-populated Henoko Village in Nago City, located in northern Okinawa. For over fifteen years, local activists have been pushing for Futenma’s relocation out of Ginowan, while their counterparts in Henoko have been protesting its relocation to Oura Bay, an area with diverse wildlife (including the ‘dugong’, relative to the manatee, a local endangered species which has served as a kind of mascot for the anti-base movement in Nago). Activists in both areas have insisted that the base should be moved out of Okinawa altogether, pointing to Guam or Hawaii as alternative locations. While the US and Japanese governments have resisted this specific request, they have nonetheless made several reassessments of the base realignment plan since the original proposal was floated during the Special Action Committee on Okinawa (SACO) in 1996.
I had the opportunity to visit Futenma, along with many other US military instalments, during my trip to Okinawa with a group of about ten other academics, doctoral students and local officials on the theme of ‘Militarization and de-militarization from a comparative perspective’. I also presented my research, on this theme, at the International Geographical Union (IGU)’s Kyoto Regional Conference, held from 4-9 August at the International Conference Centre in Kyoto, Japan. The post-conference trip to Okinawa illustrated the points raised on Okinawan identity, the construction of border towns and the role of the ‘Okinawa problem’ in the US-Japan alliance. Its organiser, Professor Takashi Yamazaki of Osaka City University, introduced me and the other participants to the unique culture of Okinawa – how the US military presence has mixed with that culture and how the Japanese government has responded to changes in prefectural attitudes towards the US military.
The first day of our trip began in Naha, the highly urbanised capitol of the prefecture. Just a few minutes’ drive from Naha Airport, it became apparent how visible the presence of US forces were as we passed by US Navy destroyers and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF)’s combat support ships stationed in Naha Port. However, it was not until we arrived at our first stop on the tour—Okinawa International University (OIU)—that we encountered some of the more unfortunate consequences of the US bases. Located in Ginowan, right next to Futenma, we were given a brief tour of the campus by OIU’s Professor Yasushi Sakihama, who gave us a bird’s-eye view of Futenma’s runway from atop the roof of the University’s library. It was incredible to see just how close the base was to the densely-populated surroundings of Ginowan and, when Prof Sakihama took us to the campus memorial on the site of a US military helicopter crash in 2004, it was easy to understand how such an accident could occur due to the University’s close proximity to Futenma.
From OIU, we proceeded to an observatory atop Kadena Town’s local highway stop, about 23 kilometres away from Naha, which looks out on the runway of US Air Force Kadena Air Base. Anti-base graffiti was visible on the highway outside, and within the gift shop of the observatory, both replicas of US Air Force jackets and anti-base protest shirts were available for purchase. Like Futenma, Kadena has run into problems with its surrounding residents, in large part due to the noise pollution caused by military aircrafts. In fact, in 1998, a noise pollution lawsuit was filed by residents against Kadena; however, due to the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) under the US-Japan Security Treaty, which has made it difficult for the Japanese government to prosecute base-related crimes or pollution, the case was dismissed. Nonetheless, two more suits have been brought before Japanese courts since then, with the latest having been filed in 2011.
Miriam Grinberg is a first year Politics and International Studies PhD student and an East Asia Research Fellow at the University of Warwick. Her research interests are centred around issues relating to the US-Japan alliance, including US and Japanese foreign policy, US military bases, and security in the Asia-Pacific. Prior to her PhD studies, Miriam graduated from Gettysburg College with a BA in Political Science in 2011 and an MA in International Politics and East Asia from Warwick in 2012. Her thesis is titled 'The US-Japan alliance and the relocation of Futenma: Sites of discursive exchange in the reproduction of security alliances' and is being supervised by Professor Christopher Hughes and Dr Nick Vaughan-Williams. Miriam is a members of the University of Warwick's East Asia Study Group (EASG). The EASG is a forum for discussion where Politics and International Studies academic staff and doctoral researchers can discuss a range of issues relating to East Asia.
Lead Image: The Directive by Jayel Aheram (via Flickr)
Edited by Gareth Jenkins
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