Books / Reviews

Okinawa: between a rock and a hard place

by Jeff Kingston

Resistant Islands: Okinawa Confronts Japan and the U.S., by Gavan McCormack and Satoko Oka Norimatsu. Rowman and Littlefield, 2012, 312 pp., $29.95 (hardcover)

T his year marks the 40th anniversary of the U.S. reversion of Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty, but the long-standing disputes about the U.S. military bases and controversies ranging from war memory to crime and the environment have politicized the Okinawan people and ensured this remains a fraught triangle. “Resistant Islands” charges that there is little to celebrate about a “Reversion … [that] was built on deception and trumpery, bribery and lies.”

Moreover, despite the end of the Cold War, there has been no peace dividend in Okinawa and the U.S. military bases have become a lightning rod for wider discontents. Here, the antibase movement is portrayed as an assertion of identity in the margins of empire and a challenge to a status quo in which the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty trumps Japan’s postwar constitution. Successive Japanese governments, viewed in Washington as the “branch office,” have been prevailed on to neutralize Okinawan sentiments, usually involving lavish financial inducements. The authors argue that this formula underestimates the fierce determination among Okinawans to find dignity and regain sovereignty through their resilient struggle.

The governments of Japan and the United States, responding to Okinawan outrage over the 1995 kidnapping and rape of a 12-year-old by three U.S. servicemen, took a decade to negotiate a plan aimed at reducing the U.S. military footprint in Okinawa. This 2006 road map has been overtaken by events, and stymied by local resistance, but Washington continues to pressure Tokyo to relocate the Futenma U.S. Marine Airbase, located in the midst of densely populated Ginowan, to a promised facility in northern Okinawa. Due to strong opposition, this planned air base in Henoko will not be built anytime soon, if ever. Meanwhile, the Marines are planning to deploy the Osprey aircraft at Futenma this year, although a recent crash has reignited concerns about its operational safety.

In 2011 three influential U.S. Senators on military issues (Levin, Webb and McCain) declared the 2006 Roadmap unviable, indicating that someone in Washington is paying attention. But the Obama Administration and Pentagon continue to insist on the Henoko relocation, putting the Japanese government in an untenable position because there is no tenable ground between U.S. obduracy and Okinawan opposition.

Chalmers Johnson famously referred to Okinawa as Cold War islands, ones bristling with garrisons that lost their strategic role following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Gavan McCormack and Satoko Oka Norimatsu call them “islands of ambiguity,” drawing attention to Okinawa’s unique cultural heritage, previous dual sovereignty status under Satsuma (southern Kyushu) and China until 1872, and subsequent struggle for dignity and a say over their destiny under Japanese rule and during the American interregnum, 1945-1972. Reversion was tainted by payoffs and secret deals on nuclear weapons that compromised Japan’s nonnuclear principles while more recently WikiLeaks revealed that Japanese Foreign Ministry officials were undermining former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama by encouraging the U.S. not to relent on Futenma. The authors suggest that Japanese diplomats unnecessarily conspired against the elected leader of their country as Washington acted the part of the colonial overlord dealing with satraps. These incidents are portrayed as part of a broader pattern of betrayal that stokes a populist backlash.

“Resistant Islands,” gives voice to local opponents of the U.S. military presence in Okinawa in this David vs. Goliath narrative by focusing on the anti-base movement in Nago City, the reluctant host for the Henoko base project. With a population of nearly 1.4 million, Okinawa Prefecture constitutes just over 1 percent of Japan’s total population, but in the U.S. alliance it plays an outsized role because it hosts 75 percent of U.S. bases that cover nearly 20 percent of the main island. While Okinawa is usually portrayed in the media as a stumbling block for Tokyo and Washington, we get a glimpse inside a grassroots democratic movement that is taking on two governments and persevering against the odds.

Okinawans remain resentful over how their islands were needlessly sacrificed in mid-1945 to buy time for defense of the main islands. The war was a lost cause, so the death of an estimated 142,000 local residents during the invasion, perhaps one third of the population, rankles all the more. The battle left lasting scars and serves as an inspiration to the current anti-bases campaign.

Five years ago the Shinzo Abe government rewrote the history textbooks and infuriated Okinawans, sparking mass protests that highlight how issues of war responsibility continue to resonate powerfully among the islanders. This effort to whitewash the Imperial armed forces’ role in instigating and coercing mass suicide by Okinawans denied eyewitness accounts and exonerated Japanese troops. The authors argue that this whitewashing is “part of a systematic attempt to revise the record of Japanese aggression during WWII.” They also suggest that the time is ripe to reconsider existing alliance arrangements that render Japan a client state and subordinate Okinawan aspirations. Although Article 9 of the constitution transformed Japan into a “peace state,” Okinawa has remained a “war island,” an outsourcing that riles many Okinawans. “Resistant Islands” is a powerful critique of the received wisdom regarding Okinawa and U.S.-Japan relations, presenting the back story to the headlines ranging from Henoko to the Senkaku disputes, and as such is essential reading.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan