Still shy of reversion after all these years


NEW YORK — Just about the time Yukio Hatoyama resigned as Japan’s prime minister, apologizing to the Okinawa people in tears, I was writing about the last day of Yukio Mishima’s life — Nov. 25, 1970.

I noticed there was one thing in common between the two Yukio’s: concern about Okinawa’s fate.

“What is Okinawa reversion?” Mishima asked on the day of what Donald Richie has called the coup de theater. “What is the responsibility for defending our homeland? It is self-evident that the United States will not be happy with Japan’s truly autonomous military defending its homeland. Unless our Self-Defense Forces regain their autonomy within the next two years, they will end up as America’s mercenaries forever, as the leftists say.”

In truth, that day at the Ichigaya Army Base, Mishima probably failed to say this in his speech to the troops before disemboweling himself. Things hadn’t worked out according to plan, and he was heckled and taunted in a manner he had not anticipated when he stood on the balcony and started to harangue. Helicopters clattered about over him. He was forced to skimp on his speech. But the script — the manifesto (geki) written on two large cloth sheets and hung from the balcony — had these words.

Yes, at the time, Okinawa was still a U.S. possession. Mishima brought up the “reversion” in the context of his argument that the SDF was unconstitutional, so for the forces to exist properly, the Constitution must be revised. He harangued the troops to rouse them to demand a constitutional revision. He had not believed for a single moment that he would succeed in any way, but he was serious about the Constitution.

Getting Okinawa back had become a pressing matter by the late 1960s as the Vietnam War raged on. One focus of Japan’s antiwar movement of the decade was the U.S.-Japanese Mutual Security Treaty, and America was using Okinawa as its main base and arsenal as if it were its birthright.

The Okinawa people’s demands that the U.S. return Okinawa to Japan had started soon after the San Francisco Peace Treaty, which came with the security treaty, took effect in 1952. The Occupation ended, and Japan became independent, but a special provision in the peace treaty cut Okinawa off from Japan to allow the U.S. to keep it as part of its territory. That violated international law. To counter it, the U.S. government issued a series of domestic orders to enable its military to do whatever it pleased in Okinawa.

From Mishima’s perspective, the coupling of the peace and security treaties had put the Japanese military in an untenable position as much as Article 9 of the Constitution did. To that extent, he agreed with the antiwar leftists who opposed the security treaty.

Okinawa had a special meaning for Mishima. It was during the Battle of Okinawa that Japan used en masse what today might be called, with a touch of contempt, “flying suicide bombers.” But to Mishima, then 20 years old, “the special attack corps” embodied a transcendental “annihilation of modernity.”

Three years before his own suicide, in November 1967, the Japanese government had finally worked out an agreement with the U.S. government that included a future return of Okinawa to Japan. But the Sato-Johnson communique had not specified the date. That roused 70,000 Okinawans to protest.

Many, including those who know of the U.S. treatment of Okinawa as a colony, may be surprised to learn that it was not until a year later, November 1968, that Americans permitted popular voting — routinely promoted as the crucial means of achieving American-style democracy — in the selection of the head of Okinawa. The winner of that first election, Chobyo Yara, advocated “a total, unconditional reversion of Okinawa.” Despite the august title America had conferred upon it, “the Chief Executive of the Government of the Ryukyu Islands,” the position had little power, executive or otherwise.

The same was true of the mayor of Naha, the Okinawa capital. Ryosho Taira, who was elected in December to that position on the same plank as that of Yara’s, served four 4-year terms consecutively, until 1984, and during his tenure he pushed for a total removal of U.S. bases, to no avail. The Japanese government, ever aware of its tributary status vis-a-vis the U.S., never helped.

Indeed, the return of Okinawa to Japan, finally agreed upon in 1971, had entailed the usual shenanigan: a secret agreement. It was leaked, denied, those involved punished, but proved to be fact three decades later.

The only sad part of the story, known as the Nishiyama Incident after the reporter who got hold of the secret, was the content of the agreement: The Japanese government would take on the costs of restoring the lands vacated by U.S. facilities to the original state. The bases themselves stayed, and grew.

The secret agreement makes me dread: If the U.S. military decamps, two or three decades from now perhaps, it will likely leave its bases as sites requiring something like a Superfund cleanup. A recent example is the U.S. Naval Air Station in Alameda, closed a dozen years ago. The military, with its extravagant use of land and other resources, is known to be one of the worst environmental offenders.

Among the articles I’ve read on the Obama administration’s callous treatment of the Japanese leader Yukio Hatoyama was one by Daniel Sneider for Slate: “Did Washington Bring Down the Japanese Prime Minister?”

Sneider, who visited Oura Bay, Okinawa, in March, described it as an idyllic place with “a postcard view of green islets set in azure waters.” If it becomes the relocation site for the Futenma Air Station, “the sparkling bay” will be buried under “a massive landfill covered with concrete runways, aprons, and sheds for Marine transport aircraft and helicopters.”

It is Greg Girard who has voiced the core question. In his photo-slide essay on the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) for Time — titled “The U.S. Military in the Pacific” — Girard recalls going to Japan in the 1970s and, when he discovered large U.S. military bases dotting the island nation, wondering: “Still?”

That was 30 years after the U.S. vanquished Japan. Now it’s 65 years since. Yes, the question, with increasing potency, is: “Still?”

Hiroaki Sato is at work on the biography of Yukio Mishima.