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Giving Okinawans the Runaround

In Blowback, Chalmers Johnson recounts a 1998 meeting between Okinawa Governor Ota and a Pentagon official to whom Ota made a request relating to the U.S. base presence:

Campbell, who was three years old when the revision of the security treaty was signed in 1960, fobbed off the seventy-three-year-old Ota with a standard response that disguises the nature of the de facto American colonialism in Okinawa: he urged the governor to take up such issues with the government in Tokyo. Since Okinawa is part of Japan, the United States now pretends that its military bases are there as a result of Japan’s allocation of base sites.

In the intervening 18 years, little has changed. When current Okinawa Governor Onaga raises the issue of the Henoko base with U.S. officials, their response, he says, is that this “is a domestic issue in Japan, so therefore, they say we have to talk to the Japanese government.” The mayor of the city where the base would be built was given a similar reception. “This is a Japanese domestic issue for the U.S. people,” he reported.

Nor is this attitude expressed only in meetings with Okinawan leaders:

*Congressional Research Service report: “Although Washington-Tokyo relations play a role, the controversy over bases is seen by many as largely a mainland Japan versus Okinawa issue.”

*Dartmouth professor Jennifer Lind: “This is first and foremost a Japanese domestic political issue.”

*Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, as reported by Jon Letman: ‘Gabbard said that she expected the dispute between the governments in Okinawa and Japan to continue and added, “Of course, the U.S. government is not going to get involved.”’

But how legitimate is this characterization of the base issue as a matter of domestic politics, beyond the purview of U.S. authorities? And what is its purpose?

Tokyo and Okinawa are indeed at loggerheads over the “relocation” of the Futenma base to Henoko; Onaga hardly needed U.S. officials to inform him of that. Tokyo wants the new base, while Okinawa demands Futenma’s closure with no replacement in Okinawa. But why does Tokyo want it?

First, concentrating the social costs of the U.S. alliance in one small, isolated, and politically weak prefecture serves the political interests of the governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). It’s a kind of gerrymandering: were bases distributed more equitably throughout Japan, opposition to them would be more widespread. At minimum, that would cost the LDP seats in the Diet; consider that the party has not one national legislator representing Okinawa.

But the base in question is not for Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF); it’s for the U.S. Marines. And the U.S. wants it in Henoko. We know this, because when a new administration came to power under Prime Minister Hatoyama in 2009, pledging to relocate Futenma outside of Okinawa, the U.S. fiercely resisted at every turn. Secretary of State Clinton played a role, summoning the Japanese ambassador for a dressing-down, and after meeting with Foreign Minister Okada, reiterating no less than three times that there could be no deviation from the plan. Within nine months Hatoyama had surrendered to the U.S. position and resigned, and Japanese governments since have reverted to compliance with U.S. wishes, quibbling only over details. So the main reason Tokyo wants the Henoko base is to please Washington.

The pretense that America follows Japan’s lead on security matters gets the power relationship completely wrong. As the Aso adminstration’s 2008 renewal of the SDF Indian Ocean mission showed, Japanese conservatives’ identification of American interests with their own is so deep, they will on occasion risk electoral defeat to serve them. They might as well; Hatoyama’s downfall demonstrated the consequences of being too slow to cater to U.S. dictates. The notion that the U.S. is an innocent bystander that doesn’t take sides flies in the face of this reality. As long as Tokyo obeys, the U.S. sides with it against Okinawa:

* The Commandant of the Marines “expressed great admiration for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s handling of the thorny base realignment issues on Okinawa, and said he was confident that Abe would be able to overcome local opposition.”

* A State Department spokesman declared that “we share an unwavering commitment to the construction of the Futenma replacement facility, and we believe it’s the only viable and agreed-upon solution that addresses the operational, political, and financial and, frankly, strategic concerns and avoids continued use of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.”

In fact, the U.S. is interceding in this “domestic debate” by attempting to influence public opinion. In a Japanese-language Facebook post, U.S. Forces Japan misrepresented its base presence in Okinawa as 39% of the bases in Japan, when in terms of area the actual figure is 74%. If Gabbard truly believes that the U.S. must not “get involved”, she should demand that it stop doing exactly that.

But the involvement of the United States is not merely a matter of policy. The Congressional Research Service, referring to requests made to Tokyo by then-Okinawa governor Nakaima in 2013, notes that “it is not within the authority of the Japanese government to execute those base-related actions unilaterally, without assent from the U.S. government.” Since authority under relevant treaties and agreements is often weighted to the U.S. side, it is ludicrous for U.S. officials to tell Okinawan leaders to go talk to Tokyo.

While ascribing motives can be problematic, it is fair to assume, in the case of behavior so long and consistently sustained, that it is having the desired effect. The effects of the “domestic issue” frame are to close off an avenue of redress and to neutralize debate. U.S. officials know full well that Okinawan appeals will fall on deaf ears in Tokyo – provided they can even get a meeting. But is giving Okinawans the runaround the sole intent? Gabbard’s response to Letman – a reporter but also a constituent – suggests otherwise. She seems to be telling Americans they have no input into the disposition of an American base.

Government officials may not be the only ones prone to such thinking. In July 2016, Tokyo sent hundreds of riot police from other prefectures into Okinawa to aggressively remove protesters blocking construction of U.S. Marine helipads. The U.S. mainstream press completely ignored this story. Could the mindset that the U.S. is an outsider to base struggles be responsible?

When a government-toppling, international law-flouting state takes pains to minimize its power, when it plays the role of a weak kitten, constrained by diplomatic niceties, our guard should go up. The over-concentration of U.S. bases is only one manifestation of Japan’s longstanding structural discrimination against Okinawa, originating in the colonization of the Ryukyu islands and continuing with the 1945 sacrifice – in order to delay attacks on mainland Japan – of one fourth of the population. The State Department’s Japan specialists are surely aware of this history, and know that hopes for new bases rest on Tokyo’s ability to perpetuate it. The pose of neutrality in a “domestic dispute” is a mask, concealing Washington’s complicity.

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