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Okinawa’s story told differently in Tokyo


Special To The Japan Times

Last week, at the end of a report on the TBS newsmagazine show “Hodo Tokushu” about protests against the proposed U.S. Marine Corps base at Henoko in Okinawa, the show’s host mentioned that in response to charges from local press that it had violently repelled sea-borne demonstrators, the Japan Coast Guard provided one statement for local journalists and another for mainland reporters. Tokyo-based newspeople were told that their Okinawan counterparts had reported “wrong” information, but when responding to Okinawan media, the coast guard ignored these assertions.

An announcer on the show observed that this discrepancy reveals why “Okinawan opinions” are not properly understood by the central government, which might explain why the current administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has become so intractable about Henoko. Veteran TBS reporter Shigenori Kanehira admitted that “the Tokyo media hasn’t adequately conveyed what is really going on.”

The central government knows exactly how the people of Okinawa feel about the U.S. Marine base construction. In the last general election local voters roundly rejected any candidate backed by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, as well as the prefecture’s governor, who had approved the Henoko project. What bothered Kanehira was that the mainland media has not made the rest of Japan understand what’s at stake. The information delivered by the mainstream press has perpetuated a myth that works against the interests of Okinawans, and while most Japanese people may sympathize with what they believe is a vocal minority’s displeasure at living side-by-side with the American military, it can’t be helped because, the story goes, Japan relies on the U.S. for security and the prefecture’s economy depends on the central government.

According to a recent discussion on the independent Internet news channel DemocraTV (DTV), this two-pronged belief underlies almost all the reporting about the anti-base movement in Okinawa. With the exception of the “Hodo Tokushu” report and some articles in the Asahi Shimbun, the national networks and dailies always give the impression that the protests constitute an impassioned movement pushing against an unmovable object. The Okinawan press, however, views the U.S. military as an occupying force assured of its own entitlement by the Japanese government.

In the last few weeks, as preparation for base construction commenced, the situation became difficult to ignore thanks to reports that the coast guard, in addition to repelling demonstrators by means that, as one lawyer put it, “amount to an abuse of authority,” has gone out of its way to prevent the media from observing these interactions. A boat owner told the Ryukyu Broadcasting Corporation of Okinawa that the coast guard demanded he and other owners not give rides to reporters.

The journalists who took part in the conversation on DTV echoed Kanehira’s point about the mainland media missing the significance of the protests. They focused on the Feb. 22 arrest of two protesters in front of Camp Schwab, the closest U.S. facility to the planned Henoko base. Eisaku Miyagi, a reporter for the Okinawa Times, described how since the election of the new governor and the announcement that construction would begin, local police and other authorities have been “prepared” for a larger contingent of on-site demonstrators.

However, the police were not involved in the arrest of Hiroji Yamashiro, who was leading the demonstration at the time. They did nothing when Japanese security personnel working for the base grabbed Yamashiro by the legs and dragged him onto base property. They said he had “trespassed,” but eyewitnesses state that he was standing on the other side of a yellow line that had recently been painted to delineate the base border. In fact, at the time the guards grabbed him, he was making sure protesters didn’t cross it.

The Okinawan press said that the security guards had no authority to detain anyone. Later, the U.S. handed the two men over to the Nago police department, thus suggesting that the Americans were taking matters into their own hands and no longer thought the Japanese side could handle the demonstrations.

DTV host Makoto Uchida commented that the arrest was “barely” covered by mainland media, “even though it’s obviously a big story.” He also pointed out that in recent months, Americans with a stake in Henoko have become more aggressive, accusing protesters of being “paid by communists” or exaggerating the violence they allegedly received at the hands of police and the coast guard. “This has never happened before,” he said, and another commentator added that such remarks show the U.S. military’s “contempt” for the Japanese government. “The old LDP wouldn’t have stood for (the protest movement),” he said, and conjectured that the government is caught between pleasing the U.S. and fear of wider unrest that could end up “closing all the bases” on Okinawa.

It’s difficult to imagine that happening, which isn’t to say Okinawans aren’t capable of such concerted action, but rather that the U.S. military, which pays lip service to local “self-determination” whenever it embarks on overseas adventures, is not so foolish as to force on a native population a situation that Americans themselves would never tolerate. Moreover, as Uchida said during the DTV discussion, the strategic importance of Henoko has always been in dispute,  even among Americans with knowledge about the issue.

The more immediate mystery is why the central government is so intent on going through with Henoko. The new governor, Takeshi Onaga, has tried to meet with Abe since he was elected. Reportedly, he has a plan that would offer a compromise on U.S. presence in Okinawa if the rest of Japan accepted more of the base burden. Given that Abe has refused to see him at least four times, it appears the prime minister is through discussing the matter, and he trusts the press will help him avoid having to think about it, too.

  • John Davis

    I’m glad that someone has picked up on this. What Philip writes bears out with my observation. Onaga was elected on a landslide. His election platform is to move the bases out of Okinawa. He got in on that reason and that reason alone and, as I said, by a large margin.

    The majority of Okinawans want the bases off their islands. They know that if there were a strike by a foreign power that Okinawa would be the first place to be hit. This hadn’t been a problem. But now we have a mentally unstable PM with strong ties to the ultra-right crazies and to the Yakuza. These guys are the ones who are trying to rewrite the constitution. They are the ones who want another war.

    This situation also prevents entrepreneurs from investing in tourist facilities in Okinawa, because their investment would be likely to go up in smoke.

    There is, then, the anomaly of Okinawa, a born tourist paradise if ever there was one. With mild weather, beautiful beaches, a unique culture and warm and friendly people, it is ideal for tourist development.

    And revenue from tourism is increasing, year over year. The problem is that the US bases occupy the best land for development. They occupy so much of it – nearly 20%. Many tourists are unwilling to come to Okinawa because of the US military. They fear that they might be drawn into a fight, get raped and so on. And, let’s face it, US military planes are NOISY!

    When the US military does leave, after all the agent orange remnants and asbestos have been cleaned up, Okinawa will boom.

    I just wish they would hurry up and go.

    • Jonathan Fields

      Well said, sir.

      It would be great to get them out, or at least get the rest of the country to share in the burden… I’m afraid that will not happen any time in the near future, however.

      • John Davis

        Don’t give up, Jonathan. Abe is out of line on this. He is making a big mistake.

    • Mitch

      Okinawa has no resources, no trade, no jobs. The population consists primarily of elderly on pensions because the younger generations move to the mainland to get jobs. The prefecture relies upon subsidy payments from the central government because it is incapable of self-sustainment.

      Meanwhile, the US presence provides jobs and income to locals, and is effectively the only thing standing between the Chinese and the Senkakus, followed by the Ryukyus.

      Asking the rest of Japan to share the burden of defending its national security is reasonable. Blocking the movement of a busy air base from urban Futenma to a rural and less-populated region is folly and counterproductive.

      • Roronoa Zoro

        Do you have a stake in Henoko, Mitch? The wildlife there is endangered. Would you advocate building a base in the NW Hawaiian Isles Marine sanctuary, since now more people live around the bases on Oahu? And for what purpose does this new base really fill? So that the US and Japanese hawks can profit from war and/or the threat of said war? There is a difference between need and want. Those who stand to gain, want to take what doesn’t belong to them in the first place. THEY are the ones “incapable of self-sustainment.”

      • Mitch

        Your comment makes no sense.

        First, of course I would support a base in the NW Hawaiian Isles Marine sanctuary if that was the only location that could support Marine and naval aircraft as well as the construction of a deepwater port. Of course, this is not necessary because a naval port exists at Pearl Harbor and Hickam AFB.

        Second, how exactly is Japan profiting from war? What war are you talking about? Militaries today exist to PREVENT war, not wage it. Without the US-Japanese military alliance, there would be nothing to protect Japan from North Korean nuclear missiles, or to prevent the Senkaku Islands from being seized by the Chinese military.

      • Roronoa Zoro

        The people in the middle east sure are having so many wars being prevented with all those drone strikes? So would your say then that the Chinese and N. Koreans are also in the biz of preventing war?

    • KingKooper

      i guess you haven’t been there because there is not much there especially in jobs. the US gives them a billion plus dollars every year and jobs they supply so i doubt they want to give that up.

      • rod260

        The US gives the Okinawans nothing. The $2bln figure comes from Japanaese government aid to Okinawa. (This year it will be upwards of $3bln IF the Okinawans cooperate with the Marines in building Henako. The Pentagon gets a subsidy from the Japanese government. The Marines have no mission in Okinawa and it does not have the space for proper training. They are there for the Japanese subsidy—mercenaries.

  • David Christopher

    Lets see…japan purposely provokes everyone including nuclear superpowers. Then says they are scared of being attacked..then use that threat to shrug off a constitutional ban on rearming.(that many men died to provide them).then conduct a massive goodwill tour?

    Whats next?

    • Mitch

      Provokes who? The nuclear-armed communist neighbors in northern Asia (Russia, DPRK, PRC)? Yeah those states have clear history of respecting human rights and territorial sovereignty.

  • GBR48

    Honest reporting is always a good thing, but here, I’m not sure it would make a great deal of difference.

    I suspect that the Okinawans are destined to discover the hard way that when push comes to shove, democracy is the tyranny of the majority.

  • At Times Mistaken

    I think Brasor might be a little off base here when he says, “the U.S. military… is not so foolish as to force on a native population a situation that Americans themselves would never tolerate.”