Commentary / Japan

Study of Okinawan history falls casualty to COVID-19

by Robert D. Eldridge

Contributing writer

Japan as a whole has seen a huge decline in tourists due to the outbreak of COVID-19 and the related travel restrictions, but the impact on Okinawa, heavily dependent on tourism, has been even more staggering.

Okinawa is facing a triple punch economically due to the global pandemic. First, the number of international tourists has declined dramatically. Second, the number of domestic travelers to Okinawa has similarly declined. Third, the contributions of U.S. military personnel and their family members within Okinawa have dropped dramatically due to their inability to frequent stores, restaurants and other locations as in the past.

Okinawa had long been on a rising trajectory for tourism. In 2017, for example, Okinawa’s tourist numbers (9.4 million) surpassed Hawaii for the first time ever, an increase of 9.1 percent over the previous year. Moreover, that same year there were more than 515 port visits to Okinawa, many from Taiwan and China, which was an increase of 33 percent over the previous year.

In 2019, the number of tourists topped 10 million, with nearly 700 port visits, and all indications were that the pace of increase would continue. Numerous new hotels have been built in recent years and many dozens more were under construction. Car rental agencies had also invested heavily in new fleets of vehicles, and the prefectural government is in the final stages of finishing some of the monorail extensions as part of its third sector project to ease congestion on some of the roadways between Naha and Urasoe.

Earlier this month, I visited Okinawa for research, media appearances and other meetings. A few days before departing, I was informed the airline would be using a smaller aircraft, likely due to the decline in travelers. Even then, the plane was only 70 percent full. On top of this, there were only a limited number of flights during the day to choose from.

I could tell the difference upon arriving in Naha since my last visit nine months earlier. The airport arrival area was nearly empty, and the outside pick-up area quiet. There was less traffic on the streets, and the sidewalks of even the famous Kokusai Dori (International Street) were nearly devoid of tourists. Indeed, not a single foreign tourist had entered Okinawa directly in the weeks and months prior to this, according to Okinawa Prefecture Government statistics.

There was also a 90.9 percent drop in domestic tourists. Nationally, unnecessary movement between regions was discouraged, and in early April, Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki asked that mainland Japanese residents refrain from visiting the prefecture. He acknowledged that there would be a harmful impact on the tourist industry, which along with its related industries make up one of the largest sectors of the local economy, but stated “the top priority is to protect the health and lives of the prefecture’s residents.” Other opinion leaders have asked that visitors and others in the prefecture also avoid visiting the many dozens of inhabited outer islands due to their lack of medical services.

One of the key groups making up the domestic tourist customer base historically has been student groups — elementary school, middle school, high school and university students — who visit Okinawa as part of the studies to learn about the Battle of Okinawa (the anniversary of the end of which was recently held on June 23) and the continued presence of U.S. (and Japanese) bases on the islands — the so-called peace studies tour or heiwa gakushu.

These were some of the first groups to cancel their planned trips to the prefecture, which saw between 120,000 to 150,000 of its residents die in the battle. While they were not necessarily big-spenders themselves, they were a generally consistent market for the tourist industry (a severe, albeit temporary, decline causing student groups not to travel, had occurred after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, which ended up affecting the global travel industry).

During my recent “homecoming” to Okinawa, where I lived for eight years, I traveled to one of the sites that some student groups also visit: Kamejiro Senaga and the People’s History Museum. A short walk from the center of Naha and a quick ride from the airport, the museum, which opened in March 2013, saw on average 420 visitors per month (or more than 5,000 visitors a year). However, in the spring of 2020, the number of visitors was only a fraction of the above.

For example, in April, only 34 visitors (or 1/10th the previous month) came to learn about Okinawa’s prewar and postwar history, and in May, the numbers dropped even lower to a mere 22 (or practically 1/20th the same time last year). Unfortunately, the numbers for June have not been much better. I spent half a day there one Sunday, and only three people had entered.

This is too bad as the museum is one of the best in Okinawa, which already has several good ones to start with. Known locally as Fukutsukan (with fukutsu meaning “fortitude” or as I like to translate, “no surrender” — the motto of the most influential, activist politician in U.S.-administered Okinawa), describes the life and times of Senaga. In the museum, which has an amazing amount of photos and documents including original copies of his manuscripts, books, and letters, one can better understand the often-righteous resistance shown against the bases and the related draconian policies through the eyes of Senaga (who died in 2001) and his family.

It is made all the more real and authentic because the museum is run by Senaga’s younger daughter, Chihiro, who carefully preserved his papers and worked closely with archivists, researchers, local media organizations, and even movie directors over the years. Anyone with an interest in modern Okinawa needs to visit there.

Relaxation of travel within Japan will make it easier. However, due to the significant drop in revenue from visits (and sales of books, DVDs, T-shirts, and other items from the gift shop), the museum is in serious financial trouble. In order to support it, the Asahi Shimbun’s A-Port crowd-funding site has just launched a Keep Fukutsukan page, with a goal of raising ¥5 million by the early fall.

Regardless of one’s ideological stance, if you care about Okinawa, you will want to see this museum, whose creation I was strongly in favor of, be able to survive the economic and tourism downturn caused by COVID-19 and hope you will be able to join me in supporting it.

Robert D. Eldridge is a former political adviser to the U.S. Marine Corps in Japan and the author of the award-winning "The Origins of the Bilateral Okinawa Problem: Okinawa in Postwar U.S.-Japan Relations, 1945-1952" (Routledge, 2001).

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