For people who know of Okinawa as just a military base or the islands south of Japan, this may seem strange to you, to be confronted with the fact that there are people in Okinawa seeking independence from Japan. But for those who are familiar with Okinawa's history and contemporary status, this really shouldn't surprise you. Guam and Okinawa share similar paths over the past century and a half. Both have been colonized, both have been destroyed in war and both are critically important to the US military and have become hosts to an obscene amount of US military bases given their sizes. But politically their paths diverge after World War II.
After the war both Guam and Okinawa came under the control of the United States military. Guam was added, due to international pressure to the list of colonies in the world, or non-self-governing territories, kept by the United Nations. Okinawa, which was a colony of Japan, became a military colony of the United States in 1952 after Japan was given back its sovereignty and the US occupation ended. Japan was pawned from one power to another, traded in backroom deals in order to ensure that both Japan and the US could get what they wanted. Japan would get its sovereignty again and the US would reduce its overall presence in Japan and focus it in Okinawa, rather than across the main islands. But while Guam's colonial status was recognized and formalized internationally through the UN, Okinawa's was not. The rest of the world looked the other way, even though Okinawa remained a US military colony for 20 years, accepting that it was an issue between the US and Japan and nothing more.
Okinawa was later "returned" to Japan, and while in the minds of most that resolves everything, if you consider Okinawa's history in a longer sense, it really doesn't. Okinawa is in a similar position as Hawai'i. It was once its own independent kingdom with diplomatic and political ties to sovereign and still existing nations. But along the way it was stolen and snatched up by another country, who then proceeded to create a series of formal sounding acts and laws and reforms meant to legitimize and erase that seizure. Hawai'i being a state of the United States doesn't mean that the overthrow of its government and it being stolen by the United States didn't happen or doesn't have any legal effect. To say that Hawai'i's status as a state is acceptable today is akin to saying it is ok for someone to steal another's house and then create a new deed for it in order to proclaim that it is now truly theirs.
But after decades of being told that the colonizer's power and boundaries marks the limits of your existence it is hard to break out of it. People who refuse to acknowledge the state status of Hawai'i sound like schizophrenics to those who accept the status. Such is usually the case for those who speak the hard truths, the truths around which everyone else's identity is built around suffocating and silencing. People wretch at the sight of you, they recoil at the sound of your voice, because they know it carries with it the stain of the truth, something which will mar the blissful pastel facade of life around them.
But you can't just blame people in general. The ways in which colonialism disappears in various societies around the world today are legion. So much of it is tied to the transformation of potential antagonism, possible political conflict into agonism, where all articulation, all negotiations, all apparent contradictions nonetheless accept a shared foundation, namely the colonizer's national boundaries. This is what we see in both Guam and Okinawa and the way people there assert that their problems with their political status. It normally does not manifest as a properly political problem, one requiring a revolution, a societal overhaul, a significant change in relations to be made. It is generally reduced to an irritation, a misunderstanding or it reeks of ignorance, discrimination and lack of respect. Even if people authentically argue that issues of colonialism come down to lack of respect or discrimination, the problem is that framing it in this way keeps you within those same boundaries. It makes it so that the problem is not large and colonial, where the only way to fix it is if a fundamental change takes place. If you frame it in that way it is simplified down to just mistreatment, not a matter of relationships or political realities, but just that something about life that exists above that colonial foundation isn't appreciated or isn't liked. When articulated like this, your points, your concerns, your argument about what is happening is already muffled and softened to begin with, because it can be reduced to a fact of recognition, or that the colonizer doesn't "see" who you really are, or "understand" your culture. As a result your argument may never even touch the basic points, but just float above it, attaching itself to concerns that can all be addressed or discussed without ever referring to the colonial facts.
As more and more Okinawans are expressing their concerns in international ways, by extending their imagination and discourse beyond Japanese borders, they are moving close towards decolonization and finding ways to bring discursive substance to that long silenced history. Recently a UN special rapporteur traveled to Okinawa to learn more about the situation there. I've included some articles on it below:
UN special rapporteur meets Okinawa Governor: Okinawa a case of discrimination
August 17, 2015 Ryukyu Shimpo
United Nations Special Rapporteur Victoria Tauli Corpuz, who reports to the United Nations Human Rights Council and UN General Assembly UNGA, met Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga at the Okinawa Prefectural Office around 9 a.m. on August 17. Corpuz said that she views Okinawa as a victim of discrimination because the prefecture bears the huge burden of hosting U.S. military bases. Corpuz further stated that she would like to support Okinawa’s efforts to establish its right to self-determination as much as she possibly can.
Corpuz spoke with sit-in protesters in Henoko, Nago on August 16. She told Onaga that she was able to grasp the current atmosphere in Okinawa. Onaga explained to Corpuz the history of Okinawa and how the U.S. military built the bases in the prefecture. Onaga claimed, “Governments of Japan and the United States say that Okinawa needs to provide an alternative plan for the Henoko relocation because Marine Corps Air Station Futenma is the most dangerous air base in the world. It is an extremely unreasonable situation.”
From Victoria Tauli Corpuz's Facebook
August 19, 2015
Just arrived from Okinawa and got pictures sent of my visit which I am sharing here. I was able to visit Henoko, the part of Okinawa, where a US airbase is going to be built. This used to be in the middle of Okinawa and because of protests the Japanese Government decided to transfer the base to Henoko. Some Okinawan people are still protesting this, still, as the Oura bay is a biodiversity hotspot for marine biodiversity. The organizers brought me to visit the bay to see the reclamation process. There were buoys surrounding the area which will be reclaimed. It is near an existing US base which has been there for a long time. The Japanese coast guards were securing the area, so when we went near, there were boats with loudspeakers asking us to leave the area. Afterwards, I spoked with the protestors. The construction has stopped for a month but in a few days it will resume again. I met with the Governor of the Prefecture of Okinawa, Takeshi Onaga. He is against the construction of the base. He is of the view that Okinawa hosting all these US bases which they never asked for is not right. Their opinions were not sought since the Japanese annexed Okinawa in 1879 and when the US colonized Okinawa when WW2 took place. The US ruled Okinawa until 1972 when it was reverted back to Japan. A few days before I arrived a US helicopter crashed in its own ship in the bay. The Governor said this airbase will be one of the most dangerous airbases in the world. He said the rationale for building this is to contain China. But he said for hundred of years the Ryukyu Kingdom, had diplomatic and trade relations with China and all the neighboring countries including the Philippines. The Ryukyu Kingdom existed for more than 400 years until the Japanese deposed the King and ended this Kingdom. All the discussions reminded me of the struggle of Filipino people against the US bases here in the Philippines. They also have complaints on sexual abuses of Okinawan women by US servicemen, not any of them are allowed to enter the bases even if they are the traditional owners of these lands. I spoke with an old woman who said she was 2 years old when the Battle of Okinawa broke between the US and Japan and they were evacuated to different parts of Okinawa because the center was heavily bombed. She is one of the protestors against the US bases. She is the one with me in the photos. Professor Jun Shimabokuro, who is with the All Okinawan Council, is the other person with me in the other photo. They are the ones together with the University of Okinawa who invited me. Thanks to you all for this great trip. I learned a lot about Okinawa and they Ryukyuans.
From What's Going on in Okinawa?
7/30 Interview with Shimabukuro Jun
From July 21 to August 12, 2015, I visited Okinawa and met with academics, journalists, writers and activists to learn more about the political situation there and issues surrounding the US military bases. I hope to share some of what I learned on my blog. I am still in the process of transcribing recorded interviews, so I will post here bit by bit as I go.
On July 30, I met Shimabukuro Jun, professor at the University of the Ryukyus and active member of the All-Okinawa Council (Shimagurumi Kaigi). Below is a portion of my interview with him, translated from Japanese to English. My notes are in italics.
What are some of the problems going on in Okinawa now?
Right now, the All-Okinawa Council is working on reaching the United Nations regarding human rights violations in Okinawa [caused by the US bases]. These documents describe the ways in which human rights are being violated at Henoko and Futenma. The land for the bases here was originally privately owned, but was seized during war and turned into bases which are still here today. The US military now conducts military training to their hearts content on land where people used to live, very close to where people still live. Every day numerous military aircraft fly over people’s houses. [MV-22] Osprey [aircraft] are known to have a high likelihood of causing accidents, and there are no clear zones [at the ends of the runways]. It’s unheard of for an airfield not to have clear zones. It’s not accepted, normally. [As you can see in the photograph, in the areas where there should be clear zones at the ends of the runways,] there are houses, gas stations, etc. There’s even an elementary school. It’s unbelievable. It’s a severe violation of the human rights of the people who live here. Normally there are clear zones at each end of a runway [as you can see in this other photograph].
There are also US bases in Italy and Germany, but of course there are clear zones at the end of their runways.
What about in South Korea?
I’m sure they have clear zones too. It’s basically unheard of for a runway not to have a clear zone.
And in mainland Japan?
Of course. It’s only in Okinawa where they don’t have them.
Okinawa is small. In terms of land area, it’s smaller than Hiroshima City. It’s about as big as Sapporo. The entire island, that is. They say that the northern part of Okinawa is “isolated” or a “remote area,” but if you look on a map, it’s actually very close.
[This other document] is about a request we are making for a Special Rapporteur from the UN to come to Okinawa. She is scheduled to come to Okinawa between August 15 and 17, and we will have her look at the situation for herself. (UN Special Rapporteur Victoria Tauli-Corpuz visited Henoko and spoke on human rights and self-determination as they relate to Okinawa at a seminar at Okinawa University on August 16.)
In terms of [human rights violations at] Henoko, there are three major issues—right of assembly, freedom of the press, and environmental rights. And then, this is one of our main arguments in the All-Okinawa Council, there is the issue of self-determination. Okinawan people, after more than 100 years of education made to assimilate them as ‘subjects of the Emperor,’ now tend to view themselves as Japanese. But actually Okinawa was forcefully annexed by Japan, and Okinawan people could well be called an indigenous or native peoples. In Japanese, “indigenous” tends to have a connotation as being uncivilized, or backwards, so people in Okinawa tend not to want to call themselves indigenous, but we want to emphasize that this image is incorrect. The word “indigenous” itself is not even so important, but the fact is that Okinawan people can be described using that political, historical concept. And as such, there are rights guaranteed to us by the United Nations. The UN has a Declaration of Rights for Indigenous Peoples, which guarantees collective rights to land, etc. There are actually similar provisions in the Japanese constitution, but our idea is to instead base our work on the UN recommendations for human rights.
The US government insists that the Henoko relocation issue is a Japanese domestic issue.
In September 1947, the US and Japanese governments decided between themselves that Japan had sovereignty over Okinawa. The US military, the Pentagon and other military entities, claimed that Okinawans were different from Japanese people, and that Okinawa should be liberated from Japan. But they insisted that Okinawans had no capacity for self-governance, so Okinawa must remain eternally under US military rule. However, in 1946-47, there were people in Okinawa saying that Okinawa should become independent. Thus the US worried that if there was a group within Okinawa with the power to take back their own sovereignty, the US would then have to negotiate directly with Okinawa [with regards to the bases, etc.] So they insisted that Okinawa had no right to sovereignty, no right to self-determination, and that sovereignty over Okinawa would remain with Japan. And ever since then, everything relating to Okinawa has been decided by the Japanese government, or else the US government. Okinawa has had no right to have any say. We need to end that.
The Japanese government claims that the US military needs the Henoko base, while the US government claims that it was a decision made by the Japanese government. [No one is willing to take responsibility.]
Exactly. The US hypocritically claims that if the Japanese government had an alternative plan, they would be willing to listen. The Japanese government just doesn’t say anything. Well, of course they don’t. That has been part of the fundamental structure of the Japanese government since the end of the war. The setup has been for the US military to base itself in Okinawa, and from there, to protect Japan. Of course we don’t know if they really will. According to the US-Japan Security Treaty, the US military has no obligation to protect Japan. After all, the US won the war (laughs). But Japanese people assume that since we’re giving them so many bases, the US will just have to protect us. We’re giving them all these bases and all this money, of course they will protect us. People just assume that. That’s why there have always been so many bases in Okinawa. The US says that the bases don’t necessarily need to be in Okinawa, that they could be anywhere in Japan, and I think they’re serious when they say that. But if Japan is willing to give them all this land and all this special treatment in Okinawa, they’re happy to take it. But as a matter of rights, the occupation of Okinawa is illegal. It violates the Hague Convention. It’s a violation of international law. This land was taken unilaterally, so it’s ridiculous to say that in exchange for returning it, we have to give them something else. They don’t have the right to demand another base. Thieves don’t have that kind of rights.
During the Hatoyama administration, Japan tried to refuse [the Henoko relocation], but the US government refused to listen.
I don’t really understand the situation that occurred during the Hatoyama administration. Did Hatoyama say that he wanted the Okinawan bases to be closed? No, he was saying that he wanted to relocate them somewhere else in Japan. The truth is, there’s no need to relocate the marines anywhere in Japan. The Japanese government just wants the marines in Japan because they think they might help us if there were a conflict. They just think it—in reality, the marines wouldn’t help us at all (laughs). But the Japanese government thinks they might, so they want to keep them here. But nowhere besides Okinawa will agree to take them (of course, Okinawa hasn’t exactly agreed either), so they end up being put in Okinawa. The truth is, within Japan, the US has several crucial bases—Sasebo, Yokota, etc. But in Okinawa, aside from Kadena, none of the bases are really that important. The marines aren’t important at all. The marines don’t need to be in Japan at all. So Hatoyama should have demanded that the marines leave Japan altogether, and offered to do something in return, I’m not sure what, but something, anything other than offering more bases. But I don’t think Hatoyama ever said that.
Then there is the issue of the Japanese government bureaucracy. The bureaucracy really wants to keep US bases in Japan. But the Japanese government never proposes anything themselves. The US-Japan joint consultative committee is basically just the US making proposals and Japan saying “yes, sir!” (laughs)
What do you think about the marines in Okinawa being transferred to Camp Pendleton in California?
Pendleton is near San Diego, right? It’s entirely possible, especially since the marines aren’t really that necessary to begin with. But the Marine Corps are very good at defending themselves as an institution. Many marines have lost their lives, so the ones who are left have quite a lot of political power, especially in Congress. There are only three major marine forces—I and II Marine Expeditionary Forces (MEF) are based on the East and West coasts of the United States, and III MEF is based in Okinawa. Usually one force has more than 50,000 members, but III MEF in Okinawa is much smaller. So if III MEF left Okinawa—I think Pendleton must be where I MEF is based—the marines will lose one crucial organizational structure and one important post—the commander of III MEF, I assume, an important post. They would hate that.
What about Australia? Australia is huge; Okinawa is tiny.
I think moving them to Australia is a fine idea. But I think Okinawa is more fun for them, and I think they like it here. They can do whatever they want and hardly ever get taken to court when they commit crimes.
Okinawa is a resort area, and there are lots of people here. They can go out drinking at night. It’s fun. If they were based near some small town in the desert of Australia, it would probably be boring. But Australia is big, it has oceans and deserts, and there aren’t that many people living there. So it would solve a lot of problems. It would probably just be boring for the US service members.
Things relating to Okinawa have always been decided bilaterally between the US and Japanese governments. The governments have always insisted that Okinawa has no right to self-determination. But the United Nations has always argued that Okinawa has the right to self-determination. So the most important thing is to use that argument to convince Okinawan people—Okinawan people need to believe that they are capable of becoming independent.
How do you think you can make them believe that?
That’s what I’ve been working on for the past fifteen years (laughs). The first important thing is that the term “right to self-determination” has finally taken hold in popular discourse. Originally it wasn’t used in a public way. But in the past two or three years, it has come to be used. Of course I think the people who use it don’t really know what it means. It’s often used to mean the same thing as “jichiken (autonomy)”. Of course it does refer to autonomy, but the Japanese “jichiken” has a much narrower meaning than the English “autonomy”. It just refers to rights allowed to a local government by the central government. I always try to explain that that’s not what self-determination means, that it’s a much larger concept. I use Scotland as an example. And eventually, one of the Okinawan newspapers started to run a regular series on the meaning of self-determination. But the biggest turning point was in the election last year when candidate (now governor) Onaga Takeshi started to use the term self-determination—not autonomy, but self-determination. He insisted that Okinawa has to decide its own policies based on its right to self-determination. And the Henoko base construction is a violation of Okinawans’ right to self-determination, so if the prefectural assembly were to pass a resolution based on that concept, I think Okinawa would be able to convey to the world that there has been a major change and we have awakened to our own right to self-determination. And I think that would have a big impact on Okinawan people.
A lot of people, especially young people, think that China is a threat.
You have to understand the concept of constitutionalism here. With the debate over the new security legislation, a lot of Japanese people have finally started to talk about constitutionalism, but before that it seemed like nobody cared about constitutionalism or understood its importance. Constitutionalism isn’t taught in schools. The most important thing about constitutionalism—this is John Locke’s social contract theory—is that each individual has certain inalienable rights that may not be violated by state power or anything else. People then give up a portion of those rights in order to form a state. But the power of the state is entrusted to it by the people, and so the people are sovereign. The most important way the people exercise their sovereignty is by creating a constitution. That’s constitutionalism. The most important thing from a constitutionalist perspective is drawing up a bill of rights. The people must announce their rights, announce their right to draw up a constitution, and then they make the constitution and form a state. What Okinawa needs to do is to announce that we comprise a people with the right to form our own constitution, and to form our own government. If Okinawa were to do that, just think of Tibet, or Inner Mongolia. If minorities, indigenous peoples in China were to exercise their right to self-determination based on constitutionalism, China would fall apart. So China would have to join together with the Japanese government to prevent Okinawa from becoming independent. Otherwise, it would mean the end of China as a unified country. So China would never support Okinawa gaining independence, or even a high level of political autonomy, based on constitutionalism. Of course, Chinese people don’t understand constitutionalism either, and of course Japanese right-wingers don’t understand it. So they say that China is behind Okinawa’s independence movement, and things like that. But the very principles upon which Okinawa would become independent would also lead to the breakup of China.
Aside from the United States and Europe, Japan was the first country to base itself on the principles of constitutionalism. Of course, Japan based itself on Prussian constitutionalism, based on the theory that sovereignty is held by the state, which is a denial of John Locke’s social contract theory. Japan’s constitution was a product of compromise. But Ito Hirobumi, one of the creators of Japan’s constitution, understood that ensuring fundamental human rights is at the heart of constitutionalism and is the main goal of creating a constitution. So constitutionalism is extremely important for Japan. If Japan’s government weren’t based on constitutionalism, it wouldn’t be accepted in the international community as a modern nation-state. That’s why Japan has always accepted constitutionalism and international law. Of course in the 1930s the Japanese military renounced constitutionalism, because they believed only the Emperor could justify their position. But after the war we returned to constitutionalism. Now the Abe administration tells China they should respect constitutionalism, when they aren’t respecting it themselves. They don’t understand the meaning of constitutionalism, don’t understand its importance.
So the idea of fearing China is based on a lack of understanding of constitutionalism. The Chinese state-owned newspaper, the People’s Daily, has approached me, but I told them, I don’t meet with organs of state propaganda (laughs). There’s no use in meeting with press from a country that doesn’t allow freedom of the press. Of course, there’s no use meeting with the Yomiuri or Sankei (Japan’s two conservative newspapers) either (laughs). Anyway, there’s no way that the All-Island Council would get close to China.
Do you think it was good that Okinawa was returned to Japan [in 1972]?
If I had to make an absolute judgement, I think almost everyone thinks it was a good thing. Some things got better after reversion, especially Okinawa’s fiscal situation. Of course the bases are still a huge issue. But before reversion, US soldiers could kill a person and say, “I thought he was a pig,” and they wouldn’t be convicted. That is no longer possible, so in that sense, things have improved. But fundamentally, essentially, things haven’t changed much. I think a lot of people are still quite dissatisfied about that.
If the Henoko base construction is pushed forward, I don’t think Okinawans will ever give up. They won’t give up even if the base gets built. They will always feel some animosity, some sense that they are being ruled by oppression. So even though people might feel positively about Okinawa’s reversion to Japan, there could easily be a rising sense that Okinawa needs to gain independence.