Okinawa (Only) a War Zone?

Aerial view of MCAS Futenma. Photograph Source: Sonata – CC BY-SA 3.0

Late last December Okinawans learned from their newspapers that should a“Taiwan emergency”(what we impolitely call “war”) take place, the Ryukyu Archipelago (that is, Okinawa) plus a small slice of Kyushu will become a war zone.

But of course: no one should be surprised by that.  If the US bases and/or the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) bases in Okinawa are used to launch attacks on the Chinese mainland or at Chinese ships at sea, China will have the right under international law to retaliate, transforming Okinawa into a war zone.

“War zone” doesn’t simply mean, a place where war is going on.  It means a place where war is legal.  By this I don’t mean, “ought to be legal”, I mean “legal in fact”.  Think: if somebody exploded a bomb inside a building full of people in Okinawa today that would be understood as a horrendous crime, and people would be arrested.  But if Okinawa becomes a war zone,  and a missile lands on a building full of people, someone might say “Oops, sorry”, but no one will be arrested.

A “war zone”, in law, is a place where it is legal to kill people.  Not anyone, under any circumstances: it is illegal for troops intentionally, for no military purpose, to kill non-combatants.  But if non-combatants happen to be too close to the action, or are interfering with military operations, or if a bomb or a missile goes off target and non-combatants are killed (as we see happening in the Ukraine every day) no one is arrested.  In a war zone the crime of “criminal negligence” doesn’t exist.

So it is perfectly in accordance with international military law that a region as riddled with military bases as Okinawa would, if those bases become involved in a war, be designated a war zone, though it is rather shocking that it would be given that designation by its own government.  But what is truly strange is what the announcement did not say.  No other region of the Japanese archipelago was mentioned.  Is it possible that the Japanese Government has persuaded itself that it can carry out a war with China, and contain the damage within the boundaries of its former colony, Okinawa?

There is precedent for this way of thinking.  At the end of World War II, the Japanese Government successfully arranged things so that the only land battle inside Japanese territory took place in Okinawa – at a cost to the Okinawans that is well known.  Okinawans remember this as being used as a sacrificial pawn (in Japanese, sute-ishi), and are using the same expression to describe the Government’s present plans.

It is easy enough to understand the Government’s motivation in seeking to make this arrangement.  Japan’s behavior over the centuries has made clear their view that Okinawan lives are of a lesser value than their own. What is incomprehensible is their apparent belief that they can persuade the Chinese military to cooperate in this.  Do they really believe that they can persuade the Chinese to believe that if anyone, other than enemy military, should be killed in this war, it should be Okinawans?

Headquarters, US Forces Japan is located in Yokota base, which is surrounded by Fussa, a townlet inside Greater Tokyo. People tell me there is construction going on inside the base, and speculate that they might be building new bomb shelters beneath the command center. Given the situation it would certainly make sense to do so.  But we do not hear of similar preparation being made in Fussa, or in the cities and towns that surround the US bases at Atsugi, Yokosuka, Iwakuni, Sasebo and elsewhere in Japan.  Does the Japanese government really believe that in the event of war, the Chinese military will adopt a “Japanese lives matter” policy and focus its attacks on Okinawa only?