Troubles Resurface in Okinawa
American bases have proliferated across the globe following the conclusion of World War II. The number of bases today has ballooned to nearly 700, costing taxpayers between 85 to 100 billion dollars per year. Okinawa, a small island province of Japan, hosts one of the larger bases due to its geopolitical importance. Centrally located between the South China Sea and the Yellow Sea, it allows the U.S. to have a strong foothold in the Asia Pacific Region.
A recent referendum was held in Okinawa concerning the relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan City to Nago. The Japanese government sought to appease Okinawans by moving the air base away from populated areas while maintaining their security agreement with the U.S. The results returned a 72 percent rejection of the relocation. Voters largely were against the relocation in protest of an American presence on the island rather than simply the transfer of the Futenma base. It represents a movement against military bases on Okinawa entirely. The history of crimes perpetrated by American soldiers, persistent noise pollution and vehicular accidents have soured Okinawan sentiment towards the continued U.S. presence since its inception. From 1972 to 2015, there were a total of 574 convictions of U.S. personnel for crimes such as rape, murder and burglary. This has culminated in a strong and growing sentiment that the U.S. has become more of a nuisance than a protector.
Despite the results, the Japanese and American governments continued with the relocation, as the vote results were non-binding, likely due to the enduring importance of American bases in Okinawa. The strong relationship between the two nations was built upon this security agreement, allowing Japan to divert funds elsewhere and enjoy military protection from China and North Korea. Okinawa occupies a unique position as the ideal location for accessing East Asia, a region that has proven to be a hotbed of potential conflict over the decades. American bases in Okinawa were used as a staging point for both the Korean and Vietnam Wars. While no wars rage over the region today, bases in Okinawa allow the U.S. to challenge a rising China and an unpredictable North Korea. The value of Okinawa lies in its ability to preserve American influence in the region.
The continued apathy toward Okinawans exemplifies Japan’s enduring view of them as an exploitable colony rather than as an inseparable part of the nation. Okinawa was originally ruled by the Sho Kings of the Ryukyu Kingdom until the invasion by the Japanese Satsuma clan in 1609. This began the protectorate status of the island until its complete annexation by
Japan during the Meiji period, in which the country was focused on modernization and imperial expansion. The aftermath of Japanese annexation saw widespread suppression of Okinawa’s original Ryukyuan culture in a program of forced assimilation. The six different languages of the island were banned and replaced with Japanese. What then followed was a period of hardship, in which Okinawans were exploited for their labor in Japan’s then burgeoning textile factories. World War II only proved the province’s colonial status when it was essentially sacrificed by the government in Tokyo to slow down Allied movements across the Pacific.
American occupation of the island began in 1945. The U.S. seized civilian land and established bases throughout Okinawa that were within bombing range of communist targets in China, Vietnam and North Korea. Individual rights became a thing of the past, as the American government prioritized its military interests over Okinawan freedoms. The post-war expansion of American bases across the island also brought rising crime. Even as the island was finally returned to Japan in 1972, the entire post-war period was like an extension of pre-war colonial rule. Although on paper Okinawans were now entitled to the same rights as other Japanese citizens, the continued American presence stifled any sense of emancipation. Anti-American attitudes grew out of this animosity toward American bases in general. This, coupled with centuries of Japanese mismanagement, spawned an Okinawan independence movement. Today, the movement is growing, with a poll revealing that 88 percent of islanders are seeking greater self-determination, and 8 percent are seeking complete independence.
The recent circumvention of referendum results has only alienated Okinawans even further. While the results were non-binding, the government still has a duty to act on the wishes of its citizens. Okinawans have demonstrated their hostility toward the base in Futenma, but their opinion was ignored. The disregard for Okinawan sovereignty is insulting to democracies worldwide. Their culture was extinguished by the Japanese in a policy of integration. UNESCO declared in 2009 that the six Okinawan languages could be extinct by 2050. Many therefore seek greater authority under the boot of the government in Tokyo. Despite their official incorporation into Japan, the province still lacks control over its future.
Okinawa’s history is a tale of hardship. Its sovereignty was stripped away by Japanese conquest centuries ago, and it still struggles in its quest to gain autonomy. The indifference of Tokyo toward the referendum only cements the idea that the voices of Okinawans do not matter.