In February, Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba assured the mayor of Iwakuni City and the governor of Yamaguchi Prefecture that Japan would not ask the people they serve to take on “any additional burden” from U.S. forces. Iwakuni already has a Marine Corps air station, and it is thought that the United States might transfer some troops from Okinawa to Iwakuni.
The major media covered the two local leaders’ relief without checking the other interested party, namely the people of Okinawa, who may have felt slighted by the remark. Perhaps the press thought it unnecessary since Okinawans are used to being condescended to by the central government. The implication, regardless of whether or not the assurance qualified as politics, was clear: We in the government are with you, “you” meaning the folks on the mainland.
There was no mention of the remark during the recent coverage of the 40th anniversary of Okinawa’s reversion to Japanese control. The commemoration offered an opportunity for reflection, and editorials in the vernacular national dailies rose to the occasion, though it was easy to get the feeling that the intended audience was, again, not the people they were mainly about. However understanding the editors were of Okinawa’s “pain” (itami) — a word almost all of them used — the inclination was to make the southernmost prefecture seem like a dependency rather than an integral part of the nation.
The Nihon Keizai Shimbun was clear about this distinction. After mentioning what made Okinawan life and culture special — hibiscus, red-brick houses, champuru, pentatonic scale — the newspaper claimed that Okinawan “customs” had become a part of “our” everyday life, and then elucidated the economic disparities, including the lowest per-capita income of any prefecture, about ¥1 million less than Tokyo’s, despite an injection of more than ¥10 trillion since 1972 from the central government, most of which went to public works “with no obvious results.” This money was a “reward” to the prefecture for hosting 74 percent of the U.S. forces in Japan.
The editorial said that Okinawa’s salvation lies in achieving economic independence, and mentioned plans by private concerns to construct an international distribution hub that takes advantage of the prefecture’s proximity to the rest of Asia. “Okinawa should make an effort to not depend on the central government,” said Nikkei, and then added that, due to the island’s strategic “value” (kachi), the security of both Okinawa and Japan would be at risk if “reduction of U.S. bases” is not implemented “carefully.”
This aim of balancing economic development with national security was advocated more bluntly by the Yomiuri Shimbun, which in the end said it was “indispensable” for the central government to “win the understanding of the prefecture and its residents toward the realignment of U.S. forces stationed in Japan,” a plan that included the transfer of functions from the Futenma air base to another Okinawan area, Henoko, a move locals strongly oppose. The essay used words such as “patiently,” “gradually” and “steadily,” but did not veer from its main editorial position, which is that Okinawa should own up to its responsibility by accepting the fact that Japan needs the U.S. military.
The more centrist Mainichi Shimbun and Asahi Shimbun mentioned the “discriminatory” attitude of “mainland Japan” toward Okinawa throughout history, especially at the end of World War II when the Imperial Army sacrificed the island to buy time in preparation for the expected last stand against the Americans on Honshu. This sacrifice continued after the war when the U.S. controlled the island. The reversion in 1972 was supposed to bring Okinawans back into the Japanese fold, “as local residents had wished,” but in any event American soldiers are still there.
The main difference between the Asahi-Mainichi position and Nikkei-Yomiuri’s can be found in the use of the term hondo-nami, which means that Okinawa’s situation should be “comparable to the mainland’s.” The two conservative papers implied this situation is framed in economic terms, while the other two said it really refers to what the Mainichi calls the “plight” of sharing space with U.S. forces.
Okinawa has never “reverted” to the same situation as the rest of Japan following its American occupation. In its own May 15 editorial, Tokyo Shimbun said that Okinawans will not be afforded the same rights that other Japanese enjoy as long as they are forced to put up with the bases against their will. The U.S.-Japan Security Treaty effectively trumps the Constitution. The U.S. is a champion of human rights, and yet America allows, even encourages the Japanese government to “remain indifferent” to the rights of some of its citizens because they happen to live in a place of purported strategic military importance. It’s impossible to imagine Americans putting up with the same indignities Okinawans tolerate in terms of noise, inconvenience and safety.
The treaty lets America off the hook, since it relieves U.S. military authorities from the obligation of talking to communities directly. Former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama recently told the local Ryukyu Shimpo that he tried to keep his campaign promise of transferring American bases out of Okinawa. The reason he failed is that the defense and foreign ministries had already decided that Futenma would move to Henoko and have done everything in their power to discourage any change. Hatoyama wanted to ditch the plan and start from scratch by negotiating directly with the U.S. The mainland media laughed at him for being naive. Who did he think he was, the prime minister? Oh …
Those negotiations could have been instructive. I doubt Japan would have asked the U.S. to leave, but it might have been interesting to hear how the State Department justifies Okinawan suffering for the good of Japan-U.S. security. It’s what diplomacy, and reassurance, is all about.