Independence for Okinawa (part one) Okinawans tired of being used by U.S. and Japan
February 25, 2013 Ryusuke Kawai
This article first appeared in Japanese on JBpress on January 22, 2012. You can read it here.
Since 1945 the United States has maintained a chain of military bases on Okinawa, an island it has called "The Keystone of the Pacific." However, a continuing series of rapes and other crimes committed by U.S. troops in Japan, the perception that Okinawa bears an unfair burden of the U.S. presence, and memories of Japanese colonialism in the first half of the 20th century have turned many Okinawans against the bases. Journalist Ryusuke Kawai interviews an Okinawan who advocates going one step further: full independence.
On the island of Okinawa, which encompasses 74 percent of the land used by U.S. military bases in Japan, a debate about independence is widening.
Interdisciplinary research on independence is moving ahead simultaneously with an international appeal. I asked Dr. Yasukatsu Matsushima, professor of economics at Ryukoku University and a leader of the movement promoting research and activities towards autonomy and independence, about the concept and feasibility of Okinawan independence.
Dr. Matsushima believes that a structure of discrimination and colonialism exists between Japan and Okinawa, and in his soft voice spoke of the feasibility and merits of independence. He does not use the word Okinawa, preferring to use "Ryukyu," which evokes the former Ryukyu Kingdom of the islands.
Academic society for research on independence
Dr. Yasukatsu Matsushima was born in 1963 on the Okinawan island of Ishigaki and earned his PhD in Economics at the prestigious Waseda University. He currently teaches international economics at Ryukoku University and is a representative of the NPO Yuimaaru Ryukyu no Jichi (Autonomy for Ryukyu).
Kawai: "The argument that Okinawa should be independent has been raised in the past, but was dismissed as just bar talk. I understand that recently the debate has become more practical and realistic."
Matsushima: "The independence debate, hitherto debated on ideological is now addressing concrete processes through research on international movements for decolonization and in relation to the UN and international law.
In 1996 I addressed the Indigenous Populations Working Group of the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva on the problems colonialism has afflicted on the indigenous inhabitants of Ryukyu. I also spoke with people from other indigenous populations around the world. As relations between Ryukyu and the rest of the world have grown stronger we have become able to speak tangibly about independence, with a firm grounding in reality.
My associates and I plan to establish an academic society for research on Ryukyuan independence in April. We intend to research the possibility and process of independence through political science, economics, international law, linguistics and other disciplines, and to publicly announce our results."
Kawai: "What prompted you to appeal internationally through the UN?"
Matsushima: "I decided to form a network with other indigenous peoples based on international law after Okinawa Prefecture's then-governor Masahide Oota lost his court case against the government over proxy signatures (whether landowners could refuse to extend leases on land being used by U.S. military bases) in the Japanese Supreme Court in August 1996.
After this, my thinking was, since we can't solve the base issue domestically, and the issue is always played down and will continue to be shelved by the courts, Diet and administration, we need to obtain recognition for this as an international issue. The UN's Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has since advised the Japanese government that it considers Ryukyuans to be indigenous people and that it considers the forcible placing of bases on Okinawa to have been an act of racial discrimination. Even the Human Rights Committee is looking at this as an issue of discrimination.
In this way we are able to use an international network to address the Japanese and American governments' responsibilities. This is the difference from previous independence debates."
Kawai: "What is prompting you to establish a new research society to study independence?"
Matsushima: "At first, assistant professor Masaki Tomochi of Okinawa International University proposed an academic conference, and preparation for that has been done mainly by people born since 'the return' (Okinawa's return to Japanese control in 1972). They include academics and inevitably their students, editors, farmers, newspaper reporters, businesspeople, homemakers, NPO members, and others. It isn't just academics arguing, regular people can participate too."
Bases forced on Okinawa
Kawai: "Regarding the distrust and discontent surrounding the issue of U.S. military bases in Okinawa over the past few years, why are people getting worked up and refusing to take the government line?"
Matsushima: "One reason is that the Osprey (the Marines' new tilt-rotor aircraft) has been pushed on us by the Japanese government in the face of opposing votes from the prefectural and local assemblies. Another is because there has been no move to change the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement despite the rapes (of Okinawans by U.S. servicemen). This is the disappointing reality forty years after the return, and people are tired of waiting for things to get better.
Newspaper extra on the agreement to return Okinawa to Japan. (Okinawa City Postwar Cultural Museum Materials Exhibition Room)
For the majority of Japanese, the bases and Status of Forces Agreement aren't their problem. Living in Ryukyu you can understand that Japanese and Ryukyuans have very different perceptions.
Because they lost the war in 1945 Japanese believe that they have an obligation to let the U.S. use bases in Ryukyu, that the bases are here to protect Japan, and Japanese politicians, bureaucrats and even regular citizens feel they owe favorable treatment to American troops and their dependents. On the other hand, they ignore demands from Ryukyu."
Kawai: "The bases are in a complex situation as they are governed by both the Japanese government and the Americans."
Matsushima: "This is extremely difficult for Ryukyu. If you ask the Japanese government about the base issue they say that there is nothing they can do because the U.S. is involved, and if you ask the U.S. they say that it is an internal issue for Japan. Both parties are shirking their duties like it isn't their responsibility. Because we oppressed Ryukyuans have to fight two opponents I don't think it will be easy."
Japanese don't see Okinawans as compatriots
Kawai: "Although the truth about the existence of the bases and the Status of Forces Agreement is that they are influenced by discrimination, do you feel that discrimination happens because this is Okinawa?"
Matsushima: "With the peace treaty Japan cast us off to be ruled by a U.S. military government, and since then we have had these bases forced on us. This is discrimination."
Kawai: "But is it intentional discrimination?"
Matsushima: "I was born and raised in Ryukyu until I graduated from high school with no doubt that I was Japanese. But when I came to Tokyo, with my dark skin and slight accent, the Yamatonchu (Okinawan word for 'Japanese') around me asked, "What country are you from?" not even realizing we were from the same country.
At the time I was living in an Okinawa International Exchange & Human Resources Development Foundation dormitory, and there were university students staying there who were so shocked by their reception that they wouldn't leave the dorm. This was in the mid-1980s. I understood that many Japanese looked on Ryukyuans as different from themselves.
What I want to say is that if Japan's nationalist patriots really see Ryukyuans as Japanese, why aren't they doing anything about the foreign military bases in Ryukyu right now? Do Japan's right-wingers not understand that their own compatriots are exposed to danger, or do they just not see us as Japanese?"
The interview continues next week to examine the feasibility of Okinawan independence from a practical point of view and address the argument that without the economic effects of the U.S. bases Okinawa would be destitute.
The author is an independent journalist and author of numerous books, mostly non-fiction.