Chie Mikami’s new documentary, “Ikusabanu Todomi” (which loosely translates as “Bring the War to an End”), is about the protests against the new U.S. Marine Corps base in Henoko, Okinawa. Her previous film, “Hyoteki no Mura” (“The Targeted Village”), was about protests against the deployment of the controversial Osprey aircraft on the island.
Mikami was born in Okinawa but raised on Honshu, and returned to the archipelago as an adult to take a job as a reporter for Ryukyu Asahi Hoso in 1995. As she has stressed in promotional interviews, it is impossible to live on Okinawa “without thinking about the U.S. military” every day, because the bases affect everything. She estimates that three or four days a week during her 19 years at the TV station, she worked on base topics, but when she dispatched these reports to Tokyo, they were never picked up by other news shows. She quickly came to realize that “the top news in Okinawa is no news everywhere else.” That’s why she quit her job and started making documentaries she could distribute independently of the mainstream media.
This column has already discussed how the Okinawan media and the media from “Yamato” (what Okinawans call the rest of Japan) treat news about Okinawa differently. This disparity has been especially remarkable with regard to the coverage of Okinawan Gov. Takeshi Onaga’s recent trip to the United States. Tokyo’s mainstream press said Onaga’s purpose was to convince powerful people in Washington that the Okinawan people did not want the Henoko base and its construction should be halted. Since work is continuing despite active protests by locals, Tokyo concluded the trip was a failure. However, the Okinawan press thinks it was a success. The difference has something to do with the Tokyo press corps’ misinterpretation of Onaga’s purpose, but it also points to its ignorance of American politics.
One of the only mainstream media to get it was Nikkan Gendai, a tabloid that normally trades in sensationalism. For what it’s worth, the paper’s reporter, Hajime Yokota, seems charmed by the “beautiful female lawyer” (bijin bengoshi), Sayo Saruta, who is licensed to practice in both Japan and the U.S. and has extensive experience with Washington lobbyists. She is helping Onaga navigate the city and its denizens.
Yokota’s article points out that other Japanese media assume “American politicians believe the move to Henoko is the only solution” to the problem of what to do about the closure of the marine base in crowded Futenma, “but such a belief is only the default opinion of Japan’s U.S. alliance mafia and America’s Japan handlers.”
Saruta’s aim is to steer Onaga toward others whose view is “wider.” To that end she has set up a think tank in the U.S. capital dedicated to Okinawan issues. Yokota thinks, based on Saruta’s strategy, the mission could be successful, because “the U.S. may decide it does not want to build a base in a place where local residents are opposed to it.” The trick is to make them see the real situation.
Saruta herself elaborated on this matter on the independent web channel DemocraTV, in which she made it clear that the Henoko story is being written by the Japanese government, which has convinced the mainstream press that there is no alternative, a stance that takes advantage of the media’s laziness. When reporters asked Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga about Onaga’s trip to Washington before he left, Suga dismissed it out of hand by saying that if the government was forced to “cancel the landfill work,” which Onaga is trying to do, it means that the governor “accepts the reality” that the Marine base will have to remain at Futenma, setting up a false dichotomy that the reporters bought.
Keeping the press clueless is important to the government, according to Saruta. On DemocraTV she explained that there are about five American experts on bilateral relations who control the message, and maybe another two dozen politicians who have knowledge of Japan. When the Japanese press needs a quote from the American side, they go to former State Department official Richard Armitage, Harvard University professor Joseph Nye or Michael Green, vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All three want to maintain the status quo on Okinawa, but they get their latest information from Japanese parties, mainly the Foreign Ministry, which has an interest in the status quo. So when the Japanese media conveys what they say back to Japan, their opinions mimic the Japanese government line and are magnified out of proportion.
Saruta points out that even Armitage believes that alternatives to Henoko should be explored, but this sentiment is rarely picked up by the media. Bucking the trend, the Asahi Shimbun last week interviewed former Ambassador to Japan Michael Armacost, another hawk who nevertheless said the marines don’t need to be in Okinawa, but they get support in Washington because they have good public relations.
It is Onaga’s mission to expand the conversation beyond the usual suspects through Saruta’s established network. The purpose of the governor’s visit was to establish a base for that mission, which requires money and time, and in that regard it was a success, but the mainstream press didn’t see any immediate changes so they deemed it a bust.
On DemocraTV, Saruta related an anecdote that implies she has her work cut out for her. When Yukio Hatoyama was about to resign as prime minister due to his failure to keep his promise about closing Futenma, she discussed it with a member of the U.S. Congress’s House Armed Services Committee whose brief was Asia. He asked her how many people live on Okinawa, and when she didn’t come up with a number right away, he said, “What, maybe 2,000?” The population of Okinawa is 1.42 million.
The fact that a politician whose job it is to help formulate policy toward Okinawa knows nothing about the place may sound discouraging, but Saruta thinks it shows potential. When you start from nothing, you have nowhere to go but up.
“Ikusabanu Todomi” opens July 11 in Okinawa, July 18 in Tokyo (Polepole in Higashi Nagano) and nationwide thereafter.