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No one else wants Okinawa’s U.S. bases

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On Aug. 15, the 72nd anniversary of the Japanese surrender, there was a symposium in Tokyo about changing the Constitution. One of the panelists, documentarian Tatsuya Mori, pointed out that earlier that day Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had given remarks at an annual memorial event, and at no point did he mention or “apologize to” the Asian victims of World War II. All prime ministers have referred in one way or another to the victims of Japanese aggression when they made the memorial speech, even Abe in his first term. But Abe has not done so in his second term. Mori thinks this omission is indicative of something larger.

“My students asked if war wasn’t inextricable from human existence,” he elaborated, adding that he didn’t think so himself.

It’s a sentiment that was supported by interviews NHK conducted on the streets of Tokyo and broadcast on a May installment of its in-depth news show, “Closeup Gendai.” The question was whether Okinawa was taking on a disproportionate amount of the burden for Japan’s security by hosting about 70 percent of the U.S. military bases in Japan. The general opinion was represented by a woman who said, “If you think about Japan’s safety, we have to ask (Okinawa) to host the bases.”

Seventy percent is also the portion of Okinawans who, according to NHK’s survey, think the rest of Japan (hondo) doesn’t appreciate their situation. Protests against the U.S. base now being built in Henoko have been criticized by many Japanese. When Okinawans came to Tokyo to protest the deployment of Osprey aircraft in the prefecture, they were met by counter-demonstrators who called them “traitors” and yelled racist epithets.

The program also showed parts of a film made by Okinawan students in which the base issue is presented from all sides. The purpose was to gain understanding of their elders’ resentment of the bases, since the students weren’t alive during the U.S. occupation of the islands. Even before the movie’s release, however, the director received dozens of online messages accusing him of “trying to please China” and “having an empty head.”

NHK studied social media and found that in the past five years, during which the anti-base movement in Okinawa received more media attention, the image of Okinawa in the rest of Japan has gotten worse. NHK balanced these findings with the unsurprising intelligence that “not all Okinawans oppose the bases,” and concluded that many Japanese think Okinawans need the bases because “they can’t stand on their own.” But only around 5 percent of Okinawa’s economy is reliant on the U.S. military and tourism is on the rise.

In 2015, TV Asahi’s “Hodo Station” aired a 40-minute feature that explored the possibility of transferring facilities from Okinawa to other localities in Japan. Okinawa has not always been the main host. In the 1950s, 90 percent of U.S. military personnel were stationed on hondo, but Japanese locals protested their presence in much the same way Okinawans do now. Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, Abe’s grandfather, agreed to transfer many of the bases to Okinawa, which was completely controlled by the U.S. By the time Okinawa reverted back to Japanese rule in 1972, the ratio of hondo to Okinawa bases had gone from 9:1 to 1:3.

The Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement hasn’t changed much since it was first concluded in 1960, so for contrast’s sake, TV Asahi went to Germany and Italy, which also lost to the Allies in World War II and host American bases. In those two countries the U.S. military must follow local authorities. American planes cannot fly anywhere they want at any time, and American soldiers are subject to local laws and courts. In Japan, the American military is for the most part excluded from local control. Japanese courts have no jurisdiction over U.S. military activities, planes can fly wherever they want and soldiers cannot be prosecuted under Japanese law except under certain circumstances.

So why did the U.S., which, according to professor Kenji Isezaki of the Tokyo University for Foreign Studies, is sensitive to host countries’ resentments, not make the same arrangements in Japan that it made in Europe? Mainly, it’s because the Japanese government doesn’t support Okinawans, or, at least, not the way they supported the people of hondo in the 1950s. The central government, believing it needs the U.S. to protect Japan from China and North Korea, finds it easier to make Okinawans host the American juggernaut than risk the wrath of voters in the rest of Japan, who haven’t shown any willingness to accept more bases.

The media shares some of the blame for this perception, even though efforts have been made to explain the situation. At the Aug. 15 symposium, Mori mentioned a TV Asahi journalist who was frustrated in her attempts to cover the Osprey controversy, mainly because network executives think stories about Okinawa get low ratings.

Veteran TBS reporter Tadahiko Sako just released a 107-minute documentary called “The Man Most Feared by the American Military,” which chronicles late activist Kamejiro Senaga’s homegrown opposition to the U.S. during its occupation of Okinawa from 1945 to 1972. It shows how the Japanese government abandoned the archipelago to placate the U.S., which exploited Okinawans as a subjugated population with limited civil rights. Sako suggests this dynamic continues today, except that “mainland” Japanese take Okinawans for granted in the same way Americans did during the occupation. Most Japanese don’t know about Senaga, but TBS broadcast only some of Sako’s footage in the middle of the night, so he released it in its full length as a film that will be screened at “mini-theaters” and community centers.

There are groups from hondo advocating for bases to be moved out of Okinawa, but as the Asahi Shimbun pointed out in a July 26 article, though these groups have gained sympathy from some politicians, none want to find out if their constituents will accept bases. As one member of a Fukuoka group told the newspaper, “We’re on our own in addressing the lack of awareness about the base issue.”

“The Man Most Feared by the American Military” (“America ga Mottomo Osoreta Otoko”) is now playing at Euro Space in Tokyo, and opens nationwide in coming weeks. www.kamejiro.ayapro.ne.jp