Sunday, November 27, 2011

Okinawa Dreams #4: Three Arguments

I have written before, on this blog and elsewhere about any large scale gathering such as the conference I am attending in Okinawa this week, can result in a very skewed image of reality. Most gatherings of that sort bring together people who are of similar minds of certain things, and as such the discourse, the discussion and the assumptions that emerges will be hegemonic for those in attendance, but most likely not for anyone else. For example, if you were to go to Japan and attend one of its annual conferences against nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, you might get the impression that all Japanese are anti-nuke peace loving activists.

This is hardly the case of course. Although the peace movement is strong in Japan, it is far from the norm. Not everyone is incredibly critical and not everyone has the same ideas of what would be peaceful and not everyone wants a world without nuclear weapons. In fact, if you were to talk to a random Japanese person there is a good chance they might even argue that nuclear weapons are important and a critical protection for the Japanese people.

You can see this even in the way the peace movement itself could be said to be broken down ideologically, and how people support or don’t’ support the relocation of Marines from Okinawa to Guam.

A large number of Okinawans support the closing of Futenma base in the middle of Ginowan city because of the potential problems it presents to the city surrounding it. This base, known amongst activists as the “most dangerous base in the world” is supposed to be closed and a new facility opened in the north at Nago city, Henoko Bay. For this large number of Okinawans the presence of the bases is a mixture of minaolek yan binaba, good and bad. It brings jobs, it brings “sympathy money”, and it provides protection from nearby communist countries. The issues the bases represent are small and can be resolved, since this ideological position does not actually challenge Japan US relations, but only has issue with where those relations place bases. If there could just be some changes to the SOFA, and if only some bases could be moved, then everything should be fine.

But an increasing number of Okinawans are expressing not just minor frustration with the bases, but major discontent. It is an anger that has been building for decades. It is derived primarily from the way Okinawans experience their colonial difference. Okinawa, because it is far away and because it is culturally different and was long considered to be inferior to the rest of Japan is an ideal place for the majority of US bases in the country. The Japanese government, similar to the US Federal government, compensates by providing a disproportionate amount of money to the island in order to appease and silence it. The money only goes so far, as Okinawa despite the presence of so many bases and the assistance of the mainland government is still one of the poorest prefectures in the Japan. More and more Okinawans are seeing that this is not an issue of moving the base in Futenma to somewhere else on the island, but that it has to be moved somewhere else entirely. The Roadmap for Realignment created years ago placed Guam as the location for where some Marines would be moved as part of the change of bases from Futenma to Henoko.

In the minds of these Okinawans the presence of the bases is an affront to national identity in general perhaps, but in particular Okinawan nationalism. These are US bases, that exist for US interests, they should be on US lands. In this context, Guam is considered to be US property and as such it is ideal for hording US troops, bases, infrastructure and interests. Guam is close by and that means that the US could still be counted on to be just around the corner in case of any natural or manmade emergencies. This would be perfect for everyone since, the troops could remain in the region, but no longer transgress the sovereignty of the Japanese.

This interpretation ignores Guam’s colonial status and ignores also the idea that even if Guam loved the idea of having a drastic increase in US presence, it has no role in the process. It is a distinct political entity, but is deprived any role in the process upon which it can article its own distinct interests in the realignment issue. But this is one of the values that Guam has to the US. When you move troops there, it makes no sound, causes no waves. The island has become so naturalized as a site of war and of US control that the US can do whatever it wants to Guam and few would question its actions.

There is in Okinawa a further, final layer to this issue. It is far from the most significant or influential, but it grows the more Japan learns about Guam. This position recognizes that Guam maybe a part of the US, but it is not a full and equal part of the US, and until Guam has achieved self-determination and is either fully incorporated into the US or sovereign and independent, to unilaterally move troops to Guam would be immoral.

On the first day of the conference, an elder Japanese peace activist stood before the International Forum of the conference, and after welcoming the delegates from Guam to Okinawa, reminded everyone else that it was not too long ago that Japan had waged war against these islands and had seized them as part of its imperial ventures. He state that Japan once humiliated Guam in war, and now by forcing it to take on the Marines of the US, it is helping the US humiliate it again. This position was not repeated very often, as many wanted to focus more on the ambiguous position of stating that the bases should just leave Japan, and go home, choosing in the company of people from Guam, to not define what “home” refers to. Despite this, at least hearing a handful of activists admit openly this critical position and attempt to remind their fellow peace fighters about Guam, was refreshing to hear.

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