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Okinawa seen through the summit prism


It’s a common belief that the annual G-7 or G-8 summits accomplish little more than allowing the leaders of the industrialized world to get together and make a show of global unity. Consequently, the only thing you can count on in the post-summit analyses is that they will dwell on what wasn’t discussed, which, in the case of the recent Okinawa wing-ding, was the promise made at last year’s summit to forgive Third World debt.

That’s what the foreign media talked about. The Japanese media were more interested in the summit-as-festival, which is understandable considering how much the thing cost (the government denies the oft-reported 80 billion yen price tag, but in any event, it was considerably more expensive than past summits) and the fact that it was held where it was held. The Japanese media at times gave the impression that the summit would force the United States and, by extension, the world to acknowledge the issue of U.S. military presence in Okinawa, despite the fact that it had no place on the agenda.

Some local commentators claimed that President Bill Clinton was actually trying to avoid coming to the summit so as not to be put into the position of having to talk about the recent molestation of a teenage girl by a drunken marine. Though it’s true that Clinton didn’t address the alleged crime directly, he did acknowledge in a roundabout way that the Okinawans bear a disproportionate burden of Japan’s support for the U.S. Far East troops.

If he “got away” with avoiding the touchy subject it’s because the international media didn’t play it up as much, treating it as tangential to the matters that should have been discussed. No matter how much the Japanese media tried to make it otherwise, the summit was not about Japan, much less Okinawa.

BBC commentators, for one, complained that the Japanese hosts had spent too much on the get-together, which is not much of a revelation to people who live here. Both the Japanese government and the national media publicized the event as something along the lines of the Olympics: It’s an honor to host an international event, so it’s only natural to overspend.

This way of thinking characterized the saturation coverage of Okinawa over the past few months, especially on TV. Japanese TV’s penchant for travel programming assured that a light would be shone into every nook and cranny of Okinawan tourism. The Japanese not only know more about the base issue than they have before, but they now know every resort on the island, every indigenous dish and the name of every person who can play the sanshin.

The typical evening news report during the week prior to and during the summit was shot on a pristine beach at sunset with stunningly beautiful cloud formations in the background. The news anchors would then switch to videotape of base protests, on-the-street interviews with Okinawan citizens or profiles of colorful locals or customs — all of it blending together in a mash of indistinguishable info-overkill.

Though the foreign media were treated grandly, they couldn’t be bothered with these tourist destination themes. They covered what was and wasn’t discussed and the complaints of NGOs who had come to the summit to make sure the world leaders stuck to the issues at hand.

The NGOs were disappointed that IT was given priority over the real day-to-day concerns of the developing world, and some of their disappointment spilled over onto the Japanese hosts, who seemed determined to keep the leaders diverted. In an interview with the BBC, one activist referred to Okinawa as the “lobster and caviar summit.”

Despite an occasional veiled complaint about cost, the Japanese coverage seemed to take the lavishness for granted. Switching back and forth between CNN and Asahi TV, I could tell that the same event was being covered, but it was as if the two media giants had been given totally different assignments.

The late Keizo Obuchi suggested Okinawa for the summit for reportedly romantic reasons: He spent an idyllic time there once during his youth. It’s why an Okinawan motif is included on the Obuchi-inspired 2,000 yen bill. The media scrutiny from greater Japan emphasized this romantic relationship, stressing the fact that the island was once a separate kingdom that just happens to speak the same language . . . or almost the same language.

So while the value of the Okinawa summit for the world is still open to debate, its value to the Okinawans themselves and the rest of the Japanese people was to further illuminate their problematic relationship. The two aspects had nothing to do with each other, and just as the summit didn’t result in much except some well-meaning but basically empty promises, in the end the Okinawan coverage showed Tokyo that Okinawa’s culture is just as colorful and its problems just as intractable as they’ve ever been.