What I have found even more intriguing than the movement itself, is the way the media is slowly shifting in order to accommodate this new way of conceiving social movements and social ire in Okinawa. After Scotland's plebiscite last year which almost opened the door for its independence from the UK, I began to notice a greater acceptance in the international media for Okinawa's growing push.
Japanese police officers in riot gear are dragging away grandparents; protesters are linking arms and lying down in front of military trucks. A local mayor is accusing the central government of lawlessness, and a governor is denouncing “iron-fisted rule” from Tokyo.
That is the tense and ugly situation in Okinawa, where an old battle is intensifying over Japan’s plan, hatched with its strategic partner the United States, to vastly expand an American military base over the long-held, impassioned objections of Okinawans.
For 20 years the American and Japanese governments have been trying to close a Marine base in crowded Ginowan, a city on Okinawa’s main island, and to build a bigger one in a northern, less populated area, Henoko Bay. Okinawa, the poorest and most put-upon of Japan’s prefectures, has long chafed under the American military presence, and many Okinawans argue that the Henoko Bay plan perpetuates their burden. They say it will just shift the dangers, noise and environmental degradation of militarization to another part of the island. They are particularly alarmed at the plan to build giant runways on landfill dumped into a pristine ocean bay, home to coral reefs and an endangered population of a manatee-like creature, the Okinawan dugong.
Okinawa’s governor, Takeshi Onaga, last month revoked permission for construction. The central government ignored him and on Oct. 29 began building a work area for the landfill project. As Mr. Onaga vowed to continue resisting Tokyo, the protesters clashed with the police.
There is a great injustice at the heart of the Okinawans’ resentment. Japan wants the security of America’s military presence, but it wants Okinawans to pay for it. This has been true since the end of World War II, when the bloodiest battle of the Pacific war left Okinawa shattered and a quarter of its civilians dead. It was the only part of Japan invaded and occupied by Americans, who never left. Okinawa, which is less than 1 percent of Japan’s land mass, has more than half of the 50,000 American military personnel in Japan. The island is choked top to bottom with military bases — built on land seized from Okinawans — and the problems that come with war machinery and troops: noise, deadly accidents and assaults against women by American troops.
Japan and the United States see themselves as nations committed to peace, human rights and democracy. Those claims have been tested by the failure to resolve the Henoko standoff.
Okinawans Dream of an Independent Country
Okinawa, November 03: The movement in the city of Naha, capital of Okinawa in southern Japan where a small group is dreaming of a new country, has a long way to go, according to a global media report.
A recent poll of islanders, the report says, put support for independence at just 8.0 per cent. But another 21 per cent back full devolution and 88 per cent want greater self-determination. This, the report adds, is a sign of a growing alienation from the rest of Japan that could have profound consequences for regional security.
The Ryukyu chain of whose kingdom Okinawa was once a part, stretches in a 1,000km arc from Taiwan to the Japanese mainland. They are a natural barrier between China and the Pacific, the report adds.
The island of Okinawa is a cornerstone of the US military presence in Asia, with US bases covering about 20 per cent of its land area.
There is a range of opinions on security in the independence movement, according to Chousuke Yara, a perennial electoral candidate for the movement. But his vision of a nonaligned and pacifist republic would send shivers down the spine of any US military planner, the report adds.
Resentment over the US bases has been a running sore in relations between Okinawa and the mainland following incidents such as the rape of a local schoolgirl by US servicemen in 1995 and the crash of a US helicopter in 2004.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to relocate the controversial helicopter base at Futenma to Henoko Bay in the north of the island, but locals want the base shut or moved off the island altogether, according to the report.
The dispute over the US bases, the report recalls, is the most significant issue between Okinawa and the mainland but the island is diverging from Japan in other ways.
With Japan’s highest birth rate, its population is ageing more slowly. And unlike on the industrial mainland, the island economy is growing fast, the report says which noting that Asian tourists are drawn by Okinawa’s blend of subtropical beauty and urban culture. Visitor numbers rose 10 per cent last year to more than 7.0m, with the number of Chinese tourists more than doubling, the report added.
Okinawa is also trying to promote its strategic location to business as a potential logistics hub. The economy’s dependence on the military bases is down to about 5.0 per cent, it points out.