When it comes to Japan’s defence policy, the US calls the shots
Okinawa Letter: Growing resistance to a new military base is rooted in war-time trauma
Citizens demonstrate against new US military base construction in Henoko. Over 70% of voters refused such base building in the February, 2019 referendum. Photograph: Jinhee Lee/Sopa Images/LightRocket via Getty
Would Northern Ireland’s civil rights movement ever have secured equal rights for nationalists if it wasn’t for the IRA’s armed campaign? Come to that, would the Irish State itself have come into existence without a bloody War of Independence?
It’s sometimes difficult to make the case for the efficacy of passive resistance. But a determined group of elderly protesters in my adopted home since 2010, the southern Japanese island of Okinawa, is trying to do just that. They have been challenging the national government and the US for years now over their joint defence policy.
If the name Okinawa is familiar, it’s most likely either because you’re a fan of the Karate Kid (or just karate), or because you’ve heard about the ferocious battle here that claimed the lives of more than 240,000, the majority of them civilians, in three awful months in the spring of 1945. Bear in mind that this carnage happened on an island smaller in area than Co Monaghan – and you begin to grasp its full horror.
Stumbling over the dead and the dying, desperately searching for some kind of sanctuary
I teach in a small private university and every year I ask my students to collect their grandparents’ and great grandparents’ memories of the war. A heart-rending picture emerges of families displaced from homes, criss-crossing the island, literally stumbling over the dead and the dying, desperately searching for some kind of sanctuary.
Unsurprisingly, the war had a huge impact on the collective psyche of those who survived. They, and the generation that followed, were implacably opposed to any kind of violence. Now in their 70s and 80s, these men and women are at the forefront of a campaign to halt the massive expansion of an American military base.
Following victory in 1945, the Americans made Okinawa their garrison and, to some extent, so it has remained, even if the island did officially revert to Japanese control in 1972. The US still retains between 15 per cent and 20 per cent of the main island, in the form of various military bases. (In fact, 70 per cent of the US’s bases in Japan are located on Okinawa’s main island.)
The current focus of Okinawa’s anti-base movement is a new airstrip being built in pristine waters off the northeastern coast. There are environmental concerns that the endangered dugong – a large herbivorous sea mammal – will lose one of its last feeding grounds as sea grass gives way to concrete. But one senses that the opposition to the new facility at Henoko stems mainly from a horror of war.
On the day I visited with students last month, of the 40 or so campaigners present
Takeshi Higa (79) says he protests because he doesn’t “want to bring students to the battlefield again”, a reference to the ill-prepared schoolboys who were conscripted to fight against battle-hardened US marines in 1945. For the past five years Higa has been a regular visitor to the make-shift shelters of wood and canvas that have sprung up across the road from the entrance to Camp Schwab, Henoko.
On the day I visited with students last month, of the 40 or so campaigners present, most were women and none looked younger than 70. For much of the time they seemed like any other islanders their age, huddled on the shaded benches, chatting quietly. Many are retired school teachers, rather than agent provocateurs in the pay of the Chinese government, as some right-wing Japanese websites would have it.
A couple of times a day, word spreads that trucks are coming and the group shuffles out into the intense sunlight and across a main road, planting themselves in front of the main gate. The sit-down protests are short-lived as security guards young enough to be their grandchildren manhandle the pensioners out of the way.
Junko Higa said they put up with the rough treatment “for our children’s future”. Mindful that China is as close as mainland Japan, she thinks that, rather than protecting Okinawa, the base makes the island a target.
The protests have had some success in delaying construction but the Japanese government is determined to push ahead and, despite the increased costs, much of the landfill is now being shipped in from a quarry on the island’s other coast, thus avoiding the front gate altogether.
If the few dozen protesters at Henoko represented no one but themselves, it would be understandable that the government pays them so little heed. But that does not seem to be the case. Seventy of the votes cast in a prefecture-wide referendum at the end of February supported the “immediate abandonment of the new base construction”. Last year veteran anti-base campaigner Denny Tamaki was elected prefectural governor, while just last month like-minded Tetsumi Takara won the Okinawa seat in Japan’s upper house of parliament.
The government’s refusal to alter course in the face of local opposition is a parody of democracy
The Japanese government, however, sitting some 1,500km away in Tokyo, remains unmoved. Prime minister Shinzo Abe’s response to the referendum was familiar: “We have been holding dialogue with people in Okinawa for a long time and intend to keep doing so to seek their understanding.”
The government’s refusal to alter course in the face of local opposition is a parody of democracy, say the protesters, but perhaps Abe cannot do otherwise. A previous premier, Yukio Hatoyama, swept to victory on a wave of optimism in 2009 after promising to scrap the plan for a new base at Henoko. Eight months later, he learned that when it comes to Japan’s defence policy, it is the Americans who call the shots. Hatoyama was forced into a humiliating climbdown which ultimately cost him his job.
It is the seeming indifference of the Japanese political establishment, rather than the US presence, that seems to rile Okinawans the most. Indeed, attitudes to the American community here are surprisingly benign despite a number of crimes, including rapes and murder, carried out by off-duty or retired servicemen over the years. Maybe the goodwill stems from the countless local women who have married, or had relationships with, marines. Or it may have have to do with the jobs that bases historically provided, although this is something that is changing.
The economic influence at least of the US military is waning. According to the Okinawan government, in 2013 (the last year for which there are figures) the bases contributed just 5 per cent to the local economy. And that figure has almost certainly shrunk in the interim as tourism has burgeoned – there were nine million visitors in 2017.
Many of the last remaining eyewitnesses from 1945 are involved in the current anti-Henoko campaign
While such rapid development brings its own challenges, it means Okinawa would have little to lose economically, and much to gain, if the military installations were shut. But clearly it’s not the island’s population who get to decide matters of such geopolitical importance.
Having hosted bases for more than seven decades, it is perhaps surprising that the opposition to them, notwithstanding a few riots in the early 1970s, has not turned violent. Looking at Ireland’s colonial history, there was a clear pattern of armed insurrections following peaceful protests that had failed to bring about the desired results.
One thing that has prevented a similar cycle developing in Okinawa is the powerful collective memory of the horrors of the second World War.
Many of the last remaining eyewitnesses from 1945 are involved in the current anti-Henoko campaign. And if their efforts to block the military plans of the world’s foremost superpower seem pitifully one-sided, they would probably respond that it’s war, not passive resistance, which is really futile.