One of the people that I’ve really enjoyed talking to and listening this trip to Okinawa is Usii Chinin.
She is a writer and strong voice for both decolonization and independence for Okinawa. She was on a panel with me during the first day of the decolonization symposium at Okinawa International University. The second day she was a moderator for another panel that I was on. Over the course of my time here she has been interviewed several times by mainland Japanese media interested in this idea of “Okinawan Independence.”
During the question and answer period one of the audience members criticized Usii. Every member of the audience was given a sheet of paper to write their questions or comments on. One such sheet asked Usii why she was dressed in such an uncool and outdated way and also commented on her hair looking too old-fashioned. I should note that this phrasing comes from someone who translated for me and so I don’t know exactly what was said or how it was crafted, but the gist of it was that someone was mocking the way she looked.
Usii came to the symposium dressed in traditional Okinawan clothing, with her hair tied up in a traditional style as well. When she spoke she would sometimes resort to using the Okinawan language. On one occasion a member of the audience yelled in the middle of her speaking that she should speak Japanese instead since he can’t understand her. An activist from the audience yelled for her to keep speaking Okinawa as he would translate for this Japanese guy he was sitting next to.
Even though she was discussing very controversial issues, Usii seemed to talk about them in very practical and commonsense ways. For example when speaking about the subordinate status of Okinawa, she doesn’t simply list things wrong with the relationship but reframes it in terms of whether or not Okinawa is unique in this regard (amongst Japanese prefectures) and if so, why? What about Okinawa’s past or present makes this possible? First of all, that is a good way to start to understand what the colonial difference is for Okinawa and how these colonial distinctions therefore affect reality. Secondly, it is an important starting point for thinking about decolonization, a mapping out of the barriers that exist to preventing decolonization.
In another example while many people may think of the base issue in Okinawa as an all or nothing equation, where you either have the bases and enjoy their “benefits” or you have them all close up and every soldier leave, Usii reminded everyone that there was another option. An option that you could consider to be both practical, even-handed and as a result something abhorrent to most people to even be discussed. Usii is part of a group that asserts, in a very strategic way that the answer to the base issue in Okinawa is to move the bases to mainland Japan.
The truth is something that everyone says they want, but in truth don’t generally like when it stares them in the face. Especially when that truth implicates them in a way they don’t want to admit to.
The majority of people in Okinawa do not want US bases in their island. The majority of Japanese people however want US bases somewhere in Japan, preferably just not near where they live. The Japanese government wants to keep good relations with the US and do its best to honor the security alliance the two countries have, and this is one of the reasons why the Okinawa base issue has become to thorny and delicate. Okinawa becomes the warehouse for quite a few things that the Japanese government and people don’t want to admit to or deal with. As a place that is far away from mainland Japan, historically seen as being inferior, and something already occupied by the US prior to Japan’s surrender, Okinawa was perfect for hosting a crapload of US bases. The rest of the Japan would not be inconvenienced by the bases, but Japan could benefit from having a close relationship with the US. Okinawa would even get extra funding from the central government for shouldering this burden. It seemed like a win-win for just about everyone.
But if we get rid of all the particularities of history, then all we have is a grossly unequal burden being shouldered by only 0.6% of Japan. We have all the risk, all the danger, all the taxes upon the land and the environment that bases create being concentrated on one island and the people there. The truth of this position is that if the people of Japan do want this security alliance and do want US bases somewhere in Japan, shouldn’t they be all over the country instead of all in one place? Shouldn’t more communities experience part of this burden instead of one community taking on close to all of it? The fact that the bases are in Okinawa becomes another way in which the twisted course that history takes stands in as a silent excuse for a continued injustice. Just because a base is there doesn’t mean that it should be there, or that where it is at is the best place for it. Every excuse that you could make for why bases should stay in Okinawa and not be moved to mainland Japan can be easily reversed or effortlessly countered. Every argument about how Okinawa gets so much money for having the bases there can be countered by offering the money to whatever prefecture wants to take the bases instead. Every argument that says that the bases are already there and so they should just remain there can be countered with the argument that if they are so good and so important for everyone in Japan, why would other prefectures not want to share in that wonderful hosting? If the bases are so excellent why does only Okinawa get the honor of hosting so many?
In truth, Usii and her allies would prefer the bases to be out of Japan completely, but the argument of US bases moving to Japan is a creatively strategic one, a ploy designed to get mainland Japanese people to confront their own complicity in Okinawa’s colonization.