Independence for Okinawa (part two) Dreaming of a prosperous and pacifist island between Japan and China
March 04, 2013 Ryusuke Kawai
This article first appeared in Japanese on JBpress on January 23, 2012. You can read it here.
Proponents of keeping U.S. military bases in Okinawa have long pointed to those bases' contribution to Okinawa's economy, arguing that the island would suffer hardship were the bases to be closed. While this may once have been true, Dr. Yasukawa Matsushima explains why this is no longer accurate and speaks about the desire for and benefits of an independent and pacifist “Ryukyu" (his preferred name for Okinawa), in the conclusion of last week's interview with journalist Ryusuke Kawai.
Economic benefits from closed bases greater than from active ones
Kawai: "Some are of the opinion that if the bases are closed Okinawa will face severe economic problems. However, there are data from previous base closings that show that economic losses from their closures were far outweighed by the value of using the land and other economic effects."
Matsushima: "The economic losses caused by the bases are far larger than the grants and subsidies that they provide, and many costs will be reduced, including the priceless reduction in victims of crime.
In the middle of this, I'd really like people to stop saying that the bases are here because this is a strategic location. There are studies underway that disprove this assertion. For example, when U.S. troops from Ryukyu went to the Middle East they went through Sasebo (a port on the Japanese mainland). Because Ryukyu is surrounded by coral reefs it doesn't have a good port. That's why the Marines are moving to Hawaii, Guam and Darwin.
Only five percent of Ryukyu's gross annual income comes from the bases. Looking at the usage of closed bases' land, starting with Omoromachi in Naha and Mihama in Chatancho, after base closures the land produced ten or up to hundred times more in economic terms than when they were in operation.
We're making the sites of closed bases into commercial and cultural facilities. For example, Yomitanson was able to cultivate purple yam fields and make them into purple yam tarts, and also created a cultural center with a yamuchin (pottery) community for making handicrafts like Ryukyu pottery and glasswork. There are other jobs available for the people who are currently working at on-base stores, or as security guards or translators.
The American Village shopping and amusement center, built on the site of a former military base
This is why, although in the past the people who advocated the bases closure were mainly liberals, now conservatives, businesses, governor Nakaima and former governor Inamine, indeed, all of Ryukyu, are raising their voices to call for the base closure as soon as possible. The old argument that we couldn't survive economically without the bases is no longer valid."
Kawai: "How will the presence or absence of the bases affect employment?"
Matsushima: "There are about 9,000 people currently employed in connection with the U.S. military. This is only a minor portion of Ryukyu's total work force of 600,000 and could be absorbed into the workforce if all the bases were closed.
Among young people, the rape incidents have created a growing sense that the presence of the bases is putting their lives, and the lives of their families and loved ones, in danger."
Kawai: "In response to these grassroots initiatives some have opined that Okinawans just need more government incentives to allay their concerns; what is your view on this?"
Matsushima: "If these incentives are the same as the various subsidies and incentives we've been given to date, it will just postpone failure. Since the 1995 rape (of a 12 year old girl by U.S. servicemen) we've been showered with money, especially the neighborhoods near bases, but it has had little effect.
As Ryukyu is a small place comprising 0.6 percent of Japan's land area and a population of only 1.4 million, the national government has been able to do whatever they want. However, as independence proposals become detailed and tinged with realism, there is the possibility that we will be able to negotiate with the Japanese government on changing our political status."
Imagining the benefits of independence
Kawai: "Regarding independence, people like myself worry about whether it can really be achieved and the demerits that might accompany it."
Matsushima: "There are many SMEs and small companies in Ryukyu, but fifty to sixty percent of public works contracts from the government go to big companies from mainland Japan, who then subcontract to businesses in Ryukyu, leaving us dissatisfied that our local businesses aren't getting the orders directly.
In the tourism industry as well, Ryukyu's businesses are in crisis because big resort companies control the industry with their big capital. But when we become independent we'll be able to protect and nurture local industries and our people's businesses.
Rather than thinking about the demerits of independence, we need the imagination to think about how we might develop if we were no longer under Japan's control. Look at the island-state of Palau—it has a population of only 20,000, but since its independence has been able to protect Palauan businesses and employment.
Newspaper after the 1970 Koza riot where 5,000 Okinawans expressed their discontent with the U.S. bases (Okinawa City Postwar Cultural Museum Materials Exhibition Room)
There are many other similar examples, and by considering these rationally you can see that by not being independent we are at a disadvantage and are losing out on profits."
Kawai: "Are there any cultural initiatives being undertaken in connection with self-governance or independence?"
Matsushima: "At Naha City Hall plans are being made to use the Ryukyuan language (Uchinaaguchi) to help realize both political and psychological decolonization.
During a lecture I gave at Okinawa International University in August 2012, I asked students what should be done if the Futenma airbase is returned; their answers included the idea of making the university bigger to create new departments for peace studies and peace consciousness and transmit those ideas to the world. This made me realize that students are thinking in these terms."
Whose national security?
Kawai: "Looking at the tensions with China over the Senkaku Islands, from a national security standpoint I think that Okinawa is being seen as increasingly important for defense."
Matsushima: "First, national security for Ryukyuans and national security for Japanese are two different things. Nearly 150,000 Ryukyuans died in the fighting forced on them with the Battle of Okinawa in World War II, and after the battle came the U.S. military government which built the bases.
I think Japan's national security policy is to use Ryukyu as a sacrificial pawn to protect themselves. The U.S. military won't protect Ryukyu. On the contrary, their presence causes rapes and helicopter crashes.
It should be plain that if war comes to this island we will be caught up in it and lose our culture and history."
Kawai: "There is a lot of opposition to suggestions that demilitarization can be achieved. If you become an independent state what policy will you take with China? There is a current of opinion in China that Okinawa is Chinese."
Matsushima: "People often tell me that: ‘The Chinese will get you!' (Laughs) Let's say that Ryukyu becomes independent and China really attacks us; in that case China will lose all their international standing. Aggression against Ryukyan independence would be barbaric and against the UN charter, inviting opposition from the whole world.
How much would China stand to gain from risking so much?
Ryukyuans maintain a global network (From pamphlet for the Uchinanchu Festival in 2011)
Although during the Ryukyu Kingdom era we paid tribute to China's Ming and Qing Dynasties, this was only a formality and they never had any influence in our internal matters."
Kawai: "Every five years Okinawans who have emigrated around the world come together for the Uchinanchu Festival. There are other prefectures in Japan that send out a lot of emigrants, but Okinawa is the only one to have a festival for them."
Matsushima: "The nearly 500,000 Uchinanchu (Okinawan expatriates) around the world have a strong connection. For example, after the damage we saw in the war Uchinanchu in Hawaii sent pigs back to Ryukyu to help. One famous Ryukyuan who advocates independence is Koji Taira, originally from the island of Miyakojima and now Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois."
Kawai: "Most of the people who experienced the war are gone now. I get the feeling that it's because people don't know the truth about war that they are threatening each other more and more."
Matsushima: "Resolving threats can't be done with military force, it can only be done through people connecting with people. To achieve this Ryukyu needs to be an island of peace, but this is hindered by the presence of the U.S. military bases. For decades, people who have the aberrant job of killing people have been able to go outside of their bases and walk around our island. This is unacceptable.
It would be better if no troops were here. And there is a precedent. Like the Åland Islands in the Baltic, which had been fought over by larger countries, I think making Ryukyu a perpetually neutral island would help reduce tensions among surrounding countries."
The author is an independent journalist and author of numerous books, mostly non-fiction.