Japan from the inside out

The only surprise is that they’re surprised

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, October 30, 2012

TO the extent anyone talks about it, people tend to present the Okinawan independence movement as more significant a factor in public opinion than the reality might warrant. This post from February 2007 contains the results of a survey conducted by the University of the Ryukyus:

The Okinawa Residents’ Identity Survey 2006 discovered that 78% of those Okinawans surveyed between the ages of 18 and 24 were opposed to independence. That’s more than 10 percentage points higher than the total of 65% for all respondents. The people favoring independence gave as their primary reason the difference in political, economic, and social conditions from the rest of Japan, as well as a different historical experience. The foremost reason for those opposed was that Okinawa did not have the capability to be independent.

When asked about their identity, 57% of the young people said they were both Okinawan and Japanese, a far higher total than the 40% figure for the entire population. Just 20% considered themselves Okinawan only, substantially less than the overall total of 30%.

My experience over the years with Okinawan students in the two university English classes I teach every spring bears this out. They are not clannish, and they are impossible to identify by observing their behavior, interaction with other students, or speech. As far as they and the other students are concerned, they are Japanese in every way, but with a heightened sense of regional identity.

I haven’t seen any news of that sort since the 2006 survey, but the events over the past five years are starting to make me wonder if there have been any changes. Okinawa, a small island chain, is still the home to 74% of all the American bases in Japan. The rest of Japan doesn’t want the Americans in their back yards. It isn’t easy to coexist with foreign troops in limited space, even if they do provide a reliable source of employment.

Then there’s the fact that it is part of the job of soldiers to behave like soldiers. That means jet fighters screeching overhead at all hours, and (according to one of my students) drills being conducted in public places that become off limits to the residents. The islanders were thrilled to award their votes to the Democratic Party of Japan when it promised that the Futenma base would be moved out of the prefecture, and ideally out of the country. It is not difficult to imagine their disillusionment and disgust when it soon became apparent that Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio was going to break that promise throughout a six-month charade when he claimed he was trying to come up with an acceptable solution. His term in office ended shortly after the promise did.

Yet despite all this, some Japanese outside Okinawa still have difficulty understanding what’s on people’s minds. Earlier this month, the Nishinippon Shimbun ran a special feature on the 56th National Roundtable Discussion on Ethics conducted by a national association of newspapers, broadcasters, and magazines in late September. This conference was held this year in Naha to mark the 40th anniversary of the return of Okinawa to Japan, and its theme was “Japan today and media responsibility”. The primary topic of debate was Japan’s security structure and its excessive reliance on Okinawa.

According to the feature, they were shocked at the response of Okinawans and what they termed the locals’ distrust of the rest of Japan, all because of the base issue. Said the newspaper:

We were jolted by what we heard repeated many times during the conference, such as “There is no democracy in Okinawa, ” and “Forcing the bases on us is structural discrimination.” This compelled reporters who seldom cover stories in Okinawa to start over with a clean slate in their thinking.

The keynote address was given by former Gov. Ota Masahide, now 87. He was an academic by profession before serving two terms as governor, and he also served in Japan’s upper house. Here are some of the excerpts from his address quoted in the newspaper:

“People are now seriously reexamining one issue in Okinawa — just what was the return to Japan all about? Was the return a good thing?”

“Okinawa was not returned under the terms of the Peace Constitution. It was returned under the terms of the Japan-U.S. security structure.”

“Democracy is an excellent system, but, ironically, Okinawa will be subject to discrimination by the majority forever. There is a structural discrimination.”

And about the deployment of the Osprey:

“You (reporters) shouldn’t be going on about the safety of the Osprey, which is the point you’re emphasizing. You just don’t understand that we don’t need any more bases or any more aircraft.”

Of course there are caveats. Mr. Ota once alluded to what he called “the impossible dream”, by which he means independence, and he is part of the generation most likely to favor it. He was unaffiliated with a political party during his term as governor, but he was considered a politician of the left. He is associated now with the Social Democrats, who are so far out on the political limb it’s a wonder it didn’t snap off years ago.

But he’s been making these points for years, and many people agree with him. If the average Japanese journalist is still being surprised by of local discontent after all this time, and after all the coverage the Futenma issue received during the Hatoyama administration, the Okinawans well deserve to be chuffed.

Decentralization and disorder are the trends of the age. Separatist movements are gaining momentum in Europe. People are even starting to wonder in print if the United States can hang together. If the “mainlanders” remain obtuse and the younger generation in Okinawa starts to warm up to the ideas of Mr. Ota, the rest of Japan need only look in the mirror to see where the fault lies.

2 Responses to “The only surprise is that they’re surprised”

  1. Tony said

    Unlike the European countries where some regions are experiencing pangs of independence, Okinawa has some very real external threats if they were to go it alone. There is no confusion about that among the Okinawan population and therefore unfortunately will have to suffer the existence of the bases until America decides to move them. Unless China successfully woos the people there but at the moment that looks a lot less likely than Kyushu and Honshu prefectures voluntarily hosting the bases.

  2. Yuge said

    Yeah, but there is China… I would prefer american bases to the CPP anytime.

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