Sunday, March 10, 2013

Okinawa Independence #4: Dealing with Myths


Yasukatsu Matsushima is a strong, but polite voice for Okinawa's Independence. I first met him last year while he was in Guam doing research. I took him and Ed Alvarez, who was showing him around the island, on a hike to Pagat. I later met him again when we both spoke at a conference on decolonization in Guam and Okinawa at Okinawa International University last May. He returned to Guam in July of last year with Masaki Tomochi another Okinawan professor, and I took them and two Japanese professors on a rainy hike to Pagat. I am fortunate that this trip our paths crossed again.

Yasukatsu may seem unassuming and quiet when you first meet him, but make no mistake, he is very determined and very assertive in his advocacy for Okinawa's independence. In both Okinawa and Guam independence is something considered impossible, taboo or anti-Japanese/American. It is something that is crazy and worse yet something that would disrupt the existing dependent relationship to the colonizer. Trying to argue in favor of independence can be difficult since people have trouble participating or even allowing the most simple of discussions about it. 

Instead of discussing the merits of Guam or Okinawa becoming more autonomous and more self-reliant or having the ability to try design what government, economy, laws and so on would best suit the people, you get stuck in terrifying fantasies of what life would be like if you were not dominated by either the US or Japan. You have trouble talking about independence since most people tend to imagine it in frightening and unrealistic ways. Independence doesn't mean you can never have relationships with other countries. It doesn't mean that you have to grow all your own food. It doesn't meant that you can't travel anywhere. It doesn't mean that enemies of your colonizer invade you the next day. But these fearful fantasies get in the way and prevent any substantive discussion from taking place.

It can be incredibly frustrating to deal with this, since it requires so much work to just get someone to talk about the topic, much less really think about it. You have to cut down and clear away so many myths, misconceptions, unwarranted fears, and also the ignorant loyalties that people sometimes offer as patriotism. 

Independence is not scary; or rather it should not be a scary concept. Like the other two common political status options, free association and statehood (integration), it has its own positives and negatives. There are very good reasons to support it as a future status for Guam, and there are reasons to be wary of it and critical. One of the best ways that I find to promote independence as a political status option is to discuss it in a very normal and regular way. The naturalness is something that can help many people who may not actually be against it, but merely feel as if they are supposed to resist it or be against it, give it an intellectual chance. 

Yasukatsu’s presentation was meant to dispel the “misunderstandings” about the possibilities for Okinawan independence. He did a very good job in the sense of the way he presented a topic that, most people in the audience might reject the moment the words enter their ear canals. 

When people hear things such as independence they tend react to it in a narrowing sense and interpret the concept in a very insular, isolated, cut off sort of way. Independence is seen as breaking away from the world, shutting it out, cutting yourself off, leaving behind everyone else, including the colonizer who sometimes you feel loves you sometimes you feel hates you sometimes you feel has no idea who you are. The world of possibility crashes down around this concept. 

Yasukatsu presented the concept in a much more expansive and inclusive way. He presented the history of other places similar to Okinawa who have achieved their independence already. He also gave the historical context for places like Guam who are currently seeking decolonization, for which independence is an option. He also politely reminded people that independence is a very normal thing. There are close to 200 independent countries in the world today. Independence can be difficult but it is nothing scary or terrible. It is something to discuss because it may have benefits for Okinawa, and when you look at world history it appears to be a natural evolution from colony to sovereignty. 

This is a point that I often make to people on Guam. Why have so many other places become sovereign and independent? Why can’t Guam? Every colony has to contend with an idea that they are inadequate and inferior. A discourse is planted in the colonies that creates feelings of dependency and a fear of becoming independent. It has nothing to do with smallness or with being an island or with having a certain history. There were Indians who felt that if they were no longer a colony everything would fall apart and they would never survive. There were people in Hong Kong who said that if they weren’t under the British it would be a nightmare. They all have to confront feelings of not being good enough, or their culture holding them back, or the terrors of the world that colonialism insulates them from. There may be elements of truth to these feelings, but they are also fantasies and fictions. You draw identity and meaning from these fantasies, but they serve to fundamentally disempower you.  

There is no fundamental reason why Guam and Okinawa cannot become nations. There are economic issues, political issues, social issues and so on, but there is no impossibility involved here. That is why the discussion is so important. To get people to the point where they can discuss independence as a possibility. In order to get there you must constantly beat into peoples’ heads that: Independence does not mean isolation, but it means entering a new network of interdependence. 


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