Flag-burning Okinawan activist fights to give U.S. bases the boot


An antiwar activist in Okinawa convicted of torching the Hinomaru flag at a 1987 national athletic meet in his hometown is determined to continue his battle for “peace and equality” in the island prefecture, where the U.S. military maintains a heavy presence 40 years after its reversion to Japanese sovereignty.

Shoichi Chibana, a 64-year-old Buddhist monk from the village of Yomitan, says there is a “grim reality” in Okinawa: The heavy U.S. military presence compared with other parts of Japan means islanders still suffer from “structural discrimination.”

Chibana recalls crying on May 15, 1972, when Okinawa reverted to Japanese control, because local antiwar protesters’ hopes for a prefecture without military bases had been dashed.

“In a downpour, we took to the streets in Naha to protest the pact on the reversion of Okinawa (signed by Japan and the United States in 1971), while a ceremony organized by the prefectural government to celebrate the return was held nearby,” Chibana said.

“The frustration and disappointment that caused us to shed tears at that time are still with us,” he said. “Forty years later, we remain alarmed” by crimes and accidents involving U.S. service members in the prefecture.

As a college student involved in a campaign to seek Okinawa’s return to its “fatherland” — Japan — Chibana had often carried the Hinomaru, which was widely regarded as the national flag despite having no legal basis at that time.

But, appalled at the 1971 reversion accord that allowed the U.S. to continue using bases in the prefecture, Chibana said he decided to “abandon” the flag associated with Japan’s history of militarism, as local residents’ desires for peace had been “trampled upon” by the central government.

The Hinomaru and “Kimigayo” anthem, unofficially translated as “His Majesty’s Reign,” were officially designated as Japan’s national flag and anthem under a 1999 bill.

But many Okinawan locals retain a sense of ill will toward the flag and song. In 1945, some 94,000 civilians, about a quarter of the prefecture’s residents at the time, died during the three-month Battle of Okinawa between Japanese and U.S. forces. The total death toll in the battle through June 23 amounted to about 200,000.

Okinawa was the only inhabited area of Japan where ground fighting occurred in World War II.

Chibana, a local supermarket operator at the time of the Hinomaru torching, said he set the flag ablaze during the opening ceremony for a softball game, as he believed it “represented the unilateral and forcible use of authority” by the central government.

“The flag was hoisted despite strong opposition from Yomitan villagers, village assemblymen and the mayor at the time. The Japanese government has the same mentality to this day,” said Chibana, who served as a member of the Yomitan assembly between 1998 and 2010.

He was found guilty of unlawful entry into the venue of the athletic meet, destruction of the Hinomaru flag and obstruction of the opening ceremony, and was sentenced to a suspended one-year prison term.

As an activist, Chibana has also expressed his anger over the U.S. plan to deploy MV-22 Osprey vertical takeoff and land transport aircraft to the prefecture, possibly in July, despite local opposition. The aircraft has a history of fatal crashes during test flights.

Washington had been thinking of temporarily stationing Ospreys in places such as U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture and Camp Fuji in Shizuoka Prefecture prior to their deployment at Okinawa’s Air Station Futenma to demonstrate their safety to locals there, sources said.

However, this plan was later abandoned due to strong local opposition from mainland municipalities, the sources added.

“Why do they think Okinawans can accept what residents in Iwakuni and Shizuoka rejected?” Chibana asked.

Okinawa has been experiencing a “fourth Ryukyu disposition” since May 2010, when then-Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama gave up on his pledge to seek the removal of Futenma from the prefecture, he said.

Hatoyama, who became the Democratic Party of Japan’s first prime minister after the party swept to power in September 2009, tried in vain to ease the base-hosting burden on Okinawans by pushing to change the existing Japan-U.S. accord on the Futenma transfer within the prefecture. This accord had been upheld by successive governments of the Liberal Democratic Party.

In 1872, the Ryukyu Kingdom was abolished and the Meiji government established Okinawa Prefecture in 1879, officially annexing the territory, effectively ending the 500-year history of the kingdom.

Chibana said that on top of that historical event, the “Ryukyu Disposition,” the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty and Okinawa’s reversion to Japanese rule in 1972 with a remaining U.S. military presence should be remembered as the “second and third Ryukyu dispositions.”

The San Francisco treaty put Okinawa under U.S. administration while ending the Allied Occupation of Japan.

Chibana said he recently became a monk of the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist sect recently after undergoing training in Kyoto.

“As a monk, I will continue my efforts to realize peace and equality in Okinawa, which suffers from U.S. bases and structural discrimination,” he said.