Obama, Hatoyama and Okinawa

Naha, Okinawa

Walking distance from the US Consulate in Okinawa is a Starbucks coffee shop.  My wife and I sometimes go there, because they let you sit at the tables and work, so long as you sometimes order coffee.  When Kevin Maher was US Consul, he also used to come in from time to time.  Once, when he was sitting right next to us, we heard him apparently ingratiating himself with  a young Okinawan girl, in his reasonably good (though somewhat whining) Japanese:  “I have no friends at all here.  People put up signs saying, ‘Maher go home’”.  And the girl responding dutifully, “Oh, you poor thing!”

Maher was a Bush neocon appointee, well known for his arrogance and rudeness toward the Okinawan people.  Last year when the US military insisted on its alleged right to land a shipload of GIs on the small Okinawan island of Ishigaki for “recreation”, Maher sailed in on the ship with them and made the local newspapers by shouting “Baka yaro!” (roughly, “you idiots!”) at the local demonstrators.  This from a career diplomat.  Not long after that he got into the papers again when, at the same Starbucks, an Okinawan customer walked up to his table and dumped a cup of hot coffee in his lap, shouting “Go Home! or words to that effect.

In his election campaign Obama made no promises to the Okinawans (politicians don’t make promises to people with no vote), but many Okinawans, like many people all around the world, including in the US, allowed their hopes to be roused by that most-marvelously-ambivalent-of-all-possible-slogans, “change.” Very soon after the election the news came in that Maher, far from being canned or given a desk job, had been promoted to the position of Director of the State Department’s Office of Japan Affairs.  So far as the Obama Administration is concerned, “Change” doesn’t apply to Okinawa.  The face that Obama has turned toward Japan as a whole is that of Maher.

But if Obama made no promises to Okinawa, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) did.  In its recent campaign, one of its public promises was to put an end to the plan to build a new US Marine Corps heliport on the sea off the town of Henoko, in the northern part of Okinawa’s main island.

Some background:  in 1995 three US GIs kidnapped and gang raped an elementary school girl here. This event triggered an explosion of pent-up resentment against the US military bases in Okinawa.  An all-Okinawa rally was held that drew some 60,000 people, a significant percentage of the prefecture’s 1.2 million population.  The US and Japan decided they needed to do something, and what they came up with was to promise to shut down the US Marine Air Station at Futenma, which is located smack in the middle of heavily populated Ginowan City, on the condition that it would be relocated offshore from the less-populated town of Henoko in the north.

This launched a powerful opposition struggle that continues today.  Residents of Henoko oppose the new base because it will destroy the sea that has always been their livelihood. Especially old folks remember that it was the sea that kept them alive, gave them food, during the Battle of Okinawa and after.  Ecologists point out that the planned location of the heliport is right in the middle of the northernmost habitat of the rare sea mammal, the dugong, and that construction will probably contribute to that animal’s extinction.  Women from Ginowan, where the base is now, have traveled to Henoko and gone door to door, not to try to persuade people there to accept the base, but to warn them of its dangers:  explosive aircraft noise, accidents, pollution, crimes by GIs, etc. – all the things they have been bearing in Ginowan for so long.  And most Okinawans, including those directly affected neither by the removal of the old base nor by the construction of the new one, are enraged by the idea that the US and Japan think they can pacify them by simply moving a base from one part of Okinawa to another.

Protest has been fierce and sustained.  People from Henoko have been holding a daily sit-in at the Henoko fishing port; recently they celebrated their 2000th day of consecutive sit-in.  Under the leadership of Henoko resident Higashionna Takuma, a team of sea kayakers was trained that has been nonviolently harassing the construction surveyors who come in the measure and test the sea bottom, and have delayed the project by many months and possibly years (and possibly forever).  A court case was filed in San Francisco (Okinawa Dugong et. al. vs. Rumsfeld) arguing that the construction plan violates US laws requiring the protection of cultural properties in US construction projects overseas; in 2005 the judge handed down a favorable decision, but there has been no hint that this has affected US policy.  In election results, in referenda, in opinion poll after opinion poll, Okinawans have made clear that they want this base out of their territory entirely.

It is true that the movement is divided on how to put their demand.  The anti-war purists insist that the movement should make no statement whatsoever as to where the base should go:  they say that it is wrong to relieve their suffering by imposing it on someone else, and that anyway as pacifists they should demand the base should not be moved, but abolished.  A second group sees the issue not only as one of peace, but also of anti-colonialism.  They point out that the bases are in Japan because of the Japan-US Mutual Security Treaty, which was negotiated in Tokyo without consulting Okinawa (when it was first signed Okinawa was still under US military rule).  Most Japanese today seem comfortable with that treaty (the movement against it, once strong, has dwindled to almost nothing), and their comfort is made possible largely by the fact that 75 per cent of the US bases authorized under that treaty are located in tiny Okinawa, which comprises a mere 0.6 per cent of Japanese territory.  They argue, if the Japanese people want US bases in their land, as their lack of opposition to the Security Treaty seems to indicate, isn’t it fair to locate those bases near the homes of the people who want them, rather than the homes of those who don’t’?  (Imagine, if you can, the US government making a treaty with some foreign government to allow their bases on American soil, and then putting 75 per cent of those bases in Puerto Rico.)  Another option that is talked about is Guam, which is, at least formally, US territory.  But Okinawans who see themselves as a colonized people see Guam’s Chamorros as another colonized people, and argue that it would be far better to send the base to Okinawa’s colonizer, Japan.

Until a few years ago the option to move the base to Japan was almost a taboo subject, mainly because mentioning it would make mainland Japanese upset and angry, and saying that one opposed it would elicit from them warm praises for one’s generosity.  But more recently the taboo has been breached, and the option has become part of the public debate.  And once the taboo was lifted, it turned out to have very wide support among Okinawans.  So in the recent national election, the DSP made the removal of Futenma base some site outside of Okinawa, either to the mainland or outside of Japan altogether, and the cancellation of the Henoko project, a campaign promise.  In return for this they got electoral support from Okinawa that was crucial to their takeover of the national government.

The question now is whether they will have the backbone to keep this promise.

From even before the DPJ’s election victory, the US has been putting pressure on it to break that promise.  Before the election, when the DPJ victory was seen to be a sure thing, Secretary of State Clinton came to Japan and with the lame-duck reactionary prime minister Aso Taro signed something called the Guam Agreement, a redundant instrument that was aimed at binding the incoming Japanese Government to the policies decided by the outgoing one:  the Futenma base would be moved to Henoko, some troops would be moved to Guam, the Japanese Government would pay for the move, etc.; all stuff already decided.  Then when Secretary of Defense Gates came to Tokyo in October, after the Hatoyama government came to power, he was pointedly rude, violating rules of diplomatic protocol (refusing to go to a dinner party held in his honor, etc.) and made as clear as he could that the Obama Administration will accept “no change” in it Okinawa policy.  Either the Marine Air Station is moved to Henoko, or else it stays in Futenma, and that’s it.

With this, the Hatoyama Government has started to waffle.  Defense Secretary Okada has begun explaining that there is a difference between a “public promise” and “what one says during an election campaign,” and people are beginning to wonder if the metamorphosis if the DPJ into an ordinary establishment party has already begun.  After the election, Under Secretary of State for Asian Affairs Kurt Campbell said at a symposium (one can imagine the benevolent smile on his face) that the US will not be much harmed by the new Japanese Government, and that “a certain degree of independence” on the part of Japan should be welcomed.  A useful slip: it means that in his view the previous Japanese Governments had not even that much.  We’ll soon see if the new administration can do any better.  As I write this, Obama is on his way to Tokyo.  For the last three days one of the local Okinawan papers has had an English language page filled with appeals to Obama to understand Okinawa’s very special situation, and to give up the Henoko base plan.  It would be wise for him to do so.  For whether or not the US puts on a tough performance, or whether or not the Japanese government waffles, the Henoko residents will fight against the base as long as it takes.

DOUGLAS LUMMIS is a political scientist living in Okinawa and the author of Radical Democracy. Lummis can be reached at ideaspeddler@gmail.com


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