Friday, May 03, 2013

An Island of War

I gave several talks while in Okinawa recently. Below is the text for one of them. I was asked to address the topic of Japan's sovereignty. There were several possible ways to address this question. First and foremost, is Japan even a truly sovereign country? With so many US bases there can they ever truly be sovereign? In the case of Okinawa, is it truly sovereign Japanese territory with so many American forces there? Whose interests are truly dominant? What happens if the interests of the US and Japan diverge? Furthermore there is the question of what type of government a sovereign Japan should have? Should it continue to subordinate to the United States? Should it assert its own interests? For example if the US is pushing for war and Japan wants peace, how well can Japan assert its own sovereign interests when the US can still use its bases as it sees fit?

I decided to address the question of Japanese sovereignty with a focus on Okinawa. Is Okinawa just like any other part of Japan? Can it afford ti simply accept this as the truth of its reality and just move on with its life? Or is there something peculiar about Okinawa and its relationship to Japan that should make it question its place in Japan? The obvious answer is yes. By being the place where Japan and the US hide so many of their bases, Okinawa similar to Guam cannot simply pretend it is just like any other prefecture or piece of the nation that claims it. A particular destiny is forged for it and it does not have any say in whether or not it wants this destiny.

I've included the text from my speech below:

“Japanese Sovereignty and its Relation to Okinawa”
Michael Lujan Bevacqua
April 27, 2013
Okinawa International University

On the question of Japan’s sovereignty and its relation to Okinawa I first want to talk a little bit about my island and how it bears a similar status as Okinawa. 

Guam is known as “the tip of America’s spear.” It gets this title in recognition of its value to the United States. Guam is a small island in the Western Pacific, right on the edge of Asia, and 28% of its 212 square miles host United States military bases. If you imagine a long American spear stretching across the Pacific, my island is its point, closest to any potential threats from Asia. Like the long spears of so many human wars and militaries, it extends forward to strike first, while the warrior remains at a distance.

Okinawa serves a similar purpose for the United States. As the “keystone of the Pacific” is has its own role in asserting American power in this part of the world. While Guam bears a forward, vanguard-like metaphor, Okinawa is given one of centrality or necessity. Okinawa is a key point that is required for the offensive and defensive postures of the United States to be effective.

Our islands are both important weapons in the arsenal of the United States. In any war with Asia we will be the weapons for the United States to wield against its foes. But as our islands are gripped tighter in anticipation of combat, we also become more visible as targets for those wanting to attack and weaken the United States.

The United States claims that we are both important to keeping peace in Asia. They claim that they must not only have bases in Guam and Okinawa, they claim that they must have many bases in order to ensure the region is “stable.”

In response to recent threats from North Korea, the United States has assured the people of Japan, Okinawa and Guam that they are safe and that they will be defended.

Because of our similar histories and the way that the United States and Japan have treated us before, there is a very serious question that we should ask ourselves: When the United States and Japan defend themselves, are they defending our islands? Or are we the weapons that they will use to defend themselves?

History has already shown that we should we wary of how these nations defend themselves. Guam as a lonely, distant outpost tactically exists as a forward projection point, but also a buffer, something to be sacrificed to protect the homeland. In the signing of the Treaty of San Francisco, the government of Japan gave the island and people of Okinawa as a gift to the United States, in exchange for their sovereignty. The United States established their many bases there and controlled the island from 1952-1972.

On this most recent trip to Okinawa I had the change to visit the Peace Memorial Museum in the Southern tip of the island. I greatly touched at the way the museum told the story of Okinawa’s suffering and struggles. It did not shy away from the brutal truth of the war and the discrimination of Okinawans by the Japanese and the United States.

Outside the museum I walked amongst the rows upon rows of stones filled with the names of those who had died when the island became a hell on earth. At the end of these rows, near the cliffs there was a large stone. The stone was called “The Cornerstone of Peace” meant to remember all of those who died in the Battle of Okinawa. Throughout the museum there were several mentions to peace and Okinawa learning the lesson of war and becoming “an island of peace.”

One of the poems who will find in the museum is as follows:

Whenever we look at
The truth of the Battle of Okinawa
We think
There is nothing as brutal
Nothing as dishonorable
As war

In the face of this traumatic experience
No one
Will be able to speak out for or idealize war

To be sure
It is human beings who start wars
But more than that
Isn’t it we human beings who must also prevent wars?

Since the end of the war
We have abhorred all wars
Long yearning to create a peaceful island

To acquire
Our unwavering principle
We have paid dearly

This commitment and this desire for peace inspired me, but also saddened me. What a beautiful notion, the idea that this island that suffered so much, with 1 in 4 civilians dying when the island was hit by a “typhoon of steel,” could become an island of peace. It could become a place where people understand why war should never happen again and look to prevent wars in the world.

I was saddened because the truth of Okinawa today is that so long as Japanese sovereignty reigns over the island and the United States has its bases there, it will never become “an island of peace.” The tragic fates for both Guam and Okinawa is that while we should have each learned the lesson that war is pointless and should be prevented at all costs, our islands are strategic locations where the United States and Japan love to hide their bases. Regardless of what we might want for ourselves and for our islands, their sovereignty over us means that we will always be their keystones, their spear tips, their weapons. Until Okinawa can assert its own sovereignty, and seek its own destiny as an island of peace, it will be dragged into whatever wars the United States is fighting. It will be used as a place from which planes carrying bombs take off and troops carrying weapons are stationed. Until Okinawa can achieve its own independence it will always be made into an island of war.

Nife deberu

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