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.