As sometimes happens when a news story that has nothing to do with Japan becomes topical worldwide, the Japanese media tried to find a local angle for the Sept. 18 Scottish referendum. The coverage fell into two categories: greater autonomy for Okinawa, and the use of referendums.

What impressed the world about the Scottish vote was that it happened at all; that Great Britain would actually allow one of its constituent nations to decide if it should break free. Self-rule referendums are usually carried out by colonies, and one of the founding precepts of the United Nations is that all colonies have a right to seek independence. Like Scotland vis-a-vis Britain, Okinawa was never technically a colony of Japan, but in 1872 the new Meiji government did annex the archipelago, which at the time was its own loosely defined kingdom with a tributary relationship to China.

According to an article in the Tokyo Shimbun, Okinawans have been discussing independence ever since the United States returned the islands to Japan in 1972. Kinsei Ishigaki, a founding member of a group studying independence for “the Ryukyu people,” told the paper that Okinawans thought at the time they could finally enjoy “peace and economic stability” when they returned to Japanese rule, but it didn’t happen. Having been “sacrificed” to the Imperial cause at the end of World War II and then treated as second-class people by the U.S. military, they found that things didn’t change substantially after 1972. American bases continued to affect their lives and the Japanese government treated the prefecture as a kind of bargaining chip.

Though Okinawa represents only 0.6 percent of Japan’s land mass, it hosts 74 percent of the American military personnel stationed in Japan. The aim of the study group is for Okinawans to “get out from under colonial rule” and decide their own fate. That’s why Ishigaki’s group sent a member to Scotland to see how the referendum was carried out.

The group’s purpose would seem to represent a minority opinion. The local Ryukyu Shimpo newspaper conducted a survey in 2011 that found 62 percent of Okinawans wanted to stay with Japan, 15 percent favored some kind of autonomy and only 5 percent desired “independence.” But the paper’s editor told Tokyo Shimbun that objections to a new base at Henoko remain strong for about 80 percent of the prefecture’s residents, and the central government’s stubbornness in “forcing” Okinawans to accept it is making people more open to the idea of at least debating independence. For that reason, Ryukyu Shimpo also sent a reporter to Scotland to cover the referendum.

In his Sept. 12 Tokyo Shimbun column, Masaru Sato, whose mother is Okinawan, compared Britain’s conservative government to Japan’s. In line with the Scottish belief that “the English don’t understand their feelings” and were thus shocked when the vote got as close as it did, the vast majority of Japanese have no clue as to why Okinawans feel exploited by the central government. Local coverage of the Scottish referendum should be shaped in such a way that Okinawans’ dissatisfaction with their lot be made clearer to the average Japanese person. If it isn’t, says Sato, then Okinawans will just become more alienated from the rest of the country.

Philosopher Kojin Karatani was even more critical in his recent review of a new book on Okinawan independence that appeared in the Asahi Shimbun, bluntly stating that the central government set out to “destroy” Okinawa’s traditional culture after 1972 by making the prefecture economically dependent on Tokyo. Karatani says Okinawa has an obvious “colonial relationship” with Japan, so “it is only natural” that Okinawans would consider breaking free.

Meanwhile, the central government remains oblivious. Interviewed by Jiji Press on Sept. 17, Toshikazu Yamaguchi, the minister in charge of Okinawan issues, admitted he had “never heard of” Okinawan independence, and though it might warrant “study,” the government has no intention of ever calling a referendum. Independence is still a pipe dream to its supporters, but this dismissive attitude will only drive more of the prefecture’s residents to their cause, since it reinforces the notion that the government does not care what they think and believes all problems can be solved with money.

A more practical obstacle is the fact that referendums haven’t seen much success in Japan. In another recent article, Tokyo Shimbun described how in May 2013 a civic group in Kodaira, Tokyo, collected enough signatures to conduct a referendum to find out voters’ opinion on a proposed road that the group says will destroy much of the city’s natural environment. The local assembly approved the referendum, but it would not be valid unless voter turnout exceeded 50 percent. Only 35 percent of eligible voters turned out, so the city didn’t even count the ballots. Supporters accused the assembly of purposely putting the referendum at a disadvantage by not giving them enough time to campaign for it, and felt it undemocratic to not count the votes and reveal the will of those who did fill out a ballot.

In any event, referendums are not legally binding in Japan: Local assemblies can ignore them if they want to. Interest groups have tried to use referendums to block construction of nuclear power plants or halt U.S. base expansion, but if assemblies have already decided these matters they just disregard the results. Regional governments are beholden to the central government for funds, and rarely do anything to displease their betters in Tokyo.

In a perfect world, citizens elect representatives who do their political bidding, but local politicians may have other priorities. Referendums would go far in correcting this imbalance by giving localities more power to solve their own problems. They might also, as in Scotland, move people to become more involved.

“I envy the Scots,” as one woman working on the Kodaira referendum told Tokyo Shimbun. “They talk about politics on the street.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.