Commentary | COUNTERPOINT

Understanding anti-base sentiment in Okinawa

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

The recent murder of a 20-year-old Okinawan woman by a civilian employee of the U.S. Kadena Air Base on Okinawa has inflamed local antipathy toward the U.S. military’s presence. Sadly, this horrific crime fits into a larger pattern of sexual violence that has become all too familiar to Okinawans and stokes anti-base sentiment.

The vast majority of Okinawans are opposed to hosting the U.S. bases and the current plan to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to the pristine Oura Bay adjacent to Henoko. Yet despite long-standing opposition, Okinawa still hosts 74 percent of U.S. military facilities in Japan, which occupy more than 18 percent of the main island’s land mass.

How has it been possible to sustain the U.S. military presence over the decades given this inhospitable situation? Ignoring the will of the people is one compelling answer. Sarah Kovner, a senior research scholar at Columbia University, raises some other important factors in her February 2016 article in The Journal of Asian Studies, titled “The Soundproofed Superpower: American Bases and Japanese Communities, 1945-1972.” She argues that Tokyo and Washington try to insulate Japanese society from the negative impact of U.S. bases, including literally soundproofing nearby homes and schools and otherwise discrediting and marginalizing anti-base protests and grievances. And most mainland Japanese enjoy the soundproofing of distance, ensuring that Okinawa’s burden is out of sight and out of mind.

Kovner’s historiographical essay probes the yawning divide between the policy studies community — which broadly views Okinawa and its discontents from a geopolitical perspective, emphasizing strategic imperatives and the necessity of the bases — and the scholars, who focus on local activism against U.S. bases and promote a more critical examination of the U.S. military presence and its impact on local communities.

She notes that some leading policy experts remain in denial about Okinawan anti-base sentiments. These experts claw about for scattered evidence to prove that locals really don’t mind and that the economy benefits from the military presence.

However, not many Okinawans are duped by the soundproofing. Reversion of Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty in 1972 was based on diplomatic trumpery, and locals understand that the Occupation has not really ended, and they resent it.

Kovner notes that public anger about the U.S. military presence tends to focus on sexual violence rather than environmental damage or accidental deaths. She points out that the 1956 Prostitution Prevention Law was part of the “soundproofing” that helped make “the most humiliating aspect of the American presence … less noticeable and more tolerable.” But numerous violent crimes by the U.S. military forces in Okinawa have overcome this soundproofing.

While Kovner takes other scholars to task for ignoring various aspects of anti-base protests and sentiments, she overlooks the powerful legacy of the wartime horrors, when as many as 150,000 Okinawan civilians — about a third of the population — died during the U.S. invasion. This history can’t be silenced, reverberating loudly among a traumatized people whose memories are consecrated in museums, monuments, rites of collective commemoration and family lore.

Oddly, she leaves out the biggest 21st-century protest in Okinawa, which occurred in 2007 in reaction to the Ministry of Education’s directive to textbook publishers requiring them to refrain from suggesting that Okinawan group suicides in 1945 were instigated by Japanese military forces. This revisionist whitewashing, disregarding eyewitness testimony by survivors, precipitated a firestorm among Okinawans. It smacked of Tokyo trying to erase a memory that is part of islanders’ collective identity, stoking further resentment toward the mainland.

Contemporary pacifism and anti-base sentiments draw on local rancor about being used as sacrificial pawns in a war that, by the time the invasion was launched in April 1945, was already lost. Locals comprehend what can go wrong when caught between larger, distant forces pursuing agendas at odds with Okinawan interests. As tensions with China ratchet up, many islanders feel as though they are being caught once again.

The blistering and haunting 2015 documentary “Okinawa: The Afterburn” by longtime Japan resident John Junkerman shows why the U.S. military presence is not out of sight or mind, dwelling at some length on how the wartime maelstrom resonates today. The “Afterburn” of the title refers to the enduring trauma of war.

Junkerman’s deft splicing of wartime footage and contemporary interviews helps place anti-base sentiments in context, and underscores why wartime devastation remains a defining memory for islanders. He also interviews U.S. veterans of the Battle of Okinawa and subsequent Occupation, but it is the interview with Marine Pvt. First Class Rodrico Harp, who was involved in the gang rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl in 1995, that lingers.

Opposition to the Henoko relocation plan is nearing its 20th anniversary and in Junkerman’s view, for mainlanders, “that time span has made it possible for the message to hit home.” They are made to “confront the fact that they subconsciously harbored discriminatory attitudes toward Okinawa. It made them also confront their own complicity in allowing Okinawa to bear the burden.”

He says he made the film to focus on U.S. projection of its military power around the globe, what Chalmers Johnson called “America’s empire of bases.” This presence, Junkerman adds, comes at the expense of, “the sovereignty and welfare of the people in host countries.”

In his view, too few Americans are aware of the bases and too many Japanese avert their eyes from the disproportionate burden foisted on Okinawa. He interrogates the delusions implicit in American exceptionalism — the belief that the U.S. is uniquely virtuous and endowed with a mission to transform the world for the better.

Okinawa is the frontline where he says the, “contradiction between Japan’s peace Constitution and the U.S.-Japan security treaty” is most evident.

The U.S. military presence in Japan has lasted 70 years, an encroachment that remains the unfinished business of World War II and a constant reminder to Okinawans of their shared nightmare in 1945. During this prolonged occupation, no amount of soundproofing can quell the inescapable reality of discrimination.

“Once people realize that the position they have been placed in is a result of discrimination,” says Junkerman, “there is no way to retreat from opposition; you can no longer say, ‘I am willing to acquiesce in my second-class citizenship’ … this is a big part of the current surge of opposition.”

The Japanese version of “Okinawa: The Afterburn” is available at www.cine.co.jp. For inquiries about versions subtitled in English, e-mail siglo@cine.co.jp.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.