Okinawa stated its case to world at G8

by Yoichi Kosukegawa


On the tip of Cape Busena on the coast of western Nago, northern Okinawa, stands the $27 million Bankoku Shinryokan convention center, the venue for the just-ended Group of Eight summit.

Near the Henoko fishing port on the eastern coast of Nago, meanwhile, there is a small prefab house where local residents — many of them elderly — are staying to protest the planned construction of an offshore U.S. military heliport.

They represent the two faces of Okinawa — the subtropical resort island seeking to boost its international profile through the summit, and the island suffering the burden of hosting the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan.

Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine said he was pleased to have the chance to introduce Okinawan culture, art and products to the leaders of Japan’s G8 partners, and therefore, to the world.

The summit, which ran for three days until Sunday, also raised awareness in Japan about Okinawa’s heavy military burden, Inamine said.

From the end of World War II until 1972, Okinawa — the only part of Japan that experienced fighting on the ground during the war — was under U.S. administration.

The island accounts for only 0.6 percent of Japan’s total land area but some 75 percent of the land that U.S. military facilities occupy in Japan.

The Okinawa summit was the first hosted by Japan outside of Tokyo. A senior Japanese government official admitted there was hesitation within the government about hosting the summit in Okinawa, for fear of objection from the U.S.

“To be sure, it was very risky for Japan to host the summit in Okinawa,” the official said, adding, “I think the U.S. must have had strong reservations about the venue.”

The late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi designated Nago as the G8 summit site in April 1999. Obuchi selected Nago to regain Okinawa’s trust in the government concerning problems facing the island, including the base issue, the official said.

Many local residents, however, believe the selection was a carrot to make Okinawa accept the proposed relocation of an airport for the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station, now in central Okinawa, to the Henoko district of Nago.

Speculation on Obuchi’s real intentions aside, Okinawan residents seem to have accepted the summit as an opportunity to show their situation to the world.

“The summit provided a good opportunity for Okinawa to tell its situation,” said Masaru Yonaha, who works for the Yambaru Peace and Information Center, an office opened by local civic groups including those opposed to the U.S. military presence in Okinawa.

“It is also a good chance for local children to feel the world is closer,” he added.

Okinawans particularly wanted U.S. President Bill Clinton to see firsthand the military presence and to consider the issue not only from the viewpoint of security but also from the viewpoint of the lives of local people.

Clinton, the first U.S. president to set foot in Okinawa since its reversion to Japan, visited the Cornerstone of Peace monument.

The monument, built on cliffs above the island’s southernmost shore, is inscribed with the names of all who died in the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, regardless of nationality.

During the 82-day battle, which took place during the final phase of World War II, nearly 240,000 died, including some 220,000 Japanese and 14,000 Americans.

Delivering a speech at the monument, Clinton said, “We are going to continue to do what we can to reduce our footprint on this island.” Clinton also said he has tried hard to understand Okinawa’s concerns about the U.S. military presence there.

At the same time, however, he stressed the importance of the U.S. military presence in Okinawa for peace in Asia.

Former Okinawa Gov. Masahide Ota said he was disappointed with Clinton’s speech.

“Given a series of crimes recently committed by U.S. service people, I wished Clinton had unveiled drastic measures to improve the military base issue,” Ota said.

“But the speech was disappointing. It did not take a step forward from (Washington’s) traditional way of thinking,” he said.

Osamu Kiyuna, who also works for the Yambaru Peace and Information Center, said: “Clinton said the U.S. bases are for security in Asia, but Okinawa has been used only for the interests of the two governments. If U.S. military bases are beneficial, why don’t other prefectures invite them?” he asked.

With the end of the summit, the focus of attention in Okinawa will shift again to the proposed construction of the U.S. military heliport off the Henoko district.

Okinawa Prefecture accepted the construction plan on condition that the U.S. leave the new facility within 15 years of its completion. The time limit is opposed by Washington.

“The evaluation of Clinton’s speech in Okinawa depends on what action (the U.S.) will take after the summit,” Yonaha said.