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"All Japan" vs. "All Okinawa": Abe Shinzo's Military-First Politics

Sunday, March 22, 2015 By Gavan McCormack, The Asia-Pacific Journal | News Analysis
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A grand, and massively unequal, struggle over the future of Japan is underway. At sea, a miniscule flotilla of canoes and kayaks confronts a solid wall of National Coastguard ships and on land a few hundred protesters face off 24 hours a day against riot police outside Camp Schwab Marine Corps base, trying in vain to halt the delivery of materials for the construction of a new Marine Corps base on Oura Bay.

As Okinawa struggles to assert and give shape to its new form of “All Okinawa” politics, its struggle is waged against the backdrop of nation-wide indifference, reinforced by the silence of the press, amounting to a national consensus of support for the discrimination and violent repression meted out by the be government, a contemporary soryokusen (All-Out War) in which Abe’s “All Japan” brings to bear the “irresistible force” of state power upon the “immovable object” of “All Okinawa” resistance.

Should the state now proceed to crush, divide, and remove that resistance, the crystallization of an unprecedented prefectural consensus, the humiliation would likely outrank all those of previous history – whether assimilation by punishment in 1879, reversion without reversion in 1972, or return of Futenma, repeatedly promised but repeatedly denied and postponed, since 1996 – since never has there been a consensus across Okinawan society in the past. By the end of 2015, Okinawan constitutional and democratic forces will either have forced unprecedented change of direction upon the national government or they will have suffered devastating defeat.

The Japan Problem and the Okinawa Problem

The Okinawa crisis is rooted in the East Asian disposal wrought at high diplomatic level by the agreements of 1951, 1972, 1996, and 2006 (Guam). First, the San Francisco Treaty severed it from Japan as the war state to complement mainland Japan’s peace state, then its “reversion” to Japan was manipulated so as to maintain the priority of war and military matters over all else. Then, in 1996 Futenma “reversion” was likewise a sham, turning out to be dependent upon the prior construction and handover of a much superior, multi-functional facility. The grim reality for Okinawa is that, sixty-four years after the San Francisco Treaty, US forces still occupy 20 per cent of the land of Okinawa Island and concentrate three-quarters of all US military presence in the country, while base authorities retain a sovereign authority little diminished from the time when the island was under direct US military rule.

The base “system” ratified under the San Francisco Treaty in 1951 restored sovereignty to Japan at the price of splitting Okinawa from it under total US military control, reserving the right to maintain bases elsewhere throughout the country wherever and for however long it felt necessary, and retaining fundamental levers of control over national government policy.1 That system has of course evolved, but without change to its fundamentals. Japan’s qualified sovereignty of 1952 steadily deepened into the “client state” relationship of the early 21st century,2 despite feeble attempts to reduce or even reverse the path of dependency, notably under the Hosokawa and Hatoyama governments (1993-1994 and 2009-2010). The two governments of Abe Shinzo, from 2006 to 2007 and again from 2012, have pursued the reverse process – accelerating and deepening clientelism,3 masked by nationalist cover, or what Nakano Koichi refers to as “Air Nationalism.”4

Through 2014, Okinawan civil society delivered powerful messages to the government in Tokyo, to the nation, and to the government of the United States on three major fronts. In January, citizens of Nago City returned to office its mayor, Inamine Susumu, who was an uncompromising opponent of any base construction within the city (and in September, Inamine supporters retained control of the City Assembly); in November, the Okinawan electorate decisively rejected the Governor, Nakaima Hirokazu, who had reneged on his pledge to oppose base construction and issued the permit the government needed to commence reclamation of Oura Bay, electing in his stead (by the unprecedented majority of over 100,000 votes (380,820 to 261,076), a candidate (Onaga Takeshi) committed to doing “everything in my power” to stop construction at Henoko, close Futenma Air Base, and have the Marine Corps’ controversial Osprey MV 22 aircraft withdrawn from the prefecture (therefore stopping the construction of “Osprey Pads” for them in the Yambaru forest, also in Northern Okinawa); and in December all four Okinawan local constituencies elected anti-base construction candidates to the lower house in the National Diet.5

The November election of Onaga as Governor was the key event, a resounding “No” to the national government’s Okinawan agenda. If justice and democracy meant anything, the Okinawan people reasoned, then surely now the Japanese state would concede that their will had been clear beyond a shadow of doubt and therefore abandon the project to impose upon them one more massive military installation.

For Abe, construction of the Henoko base is a core national policy, fundamental to the relationship between Japan and the United States, whereas Okinawa  late in 2014 chose a Governor committed to “employ all resources at my disposal” to stop the project. Likewise, not only is the Abe government determined to support the deployment of Osprey MV 22 aircraft to Okinawa, but it considers equipping the Self-Defense Forces with them, whereas Onaga has pledged to have them withdrawn from Okinawa (which also means, implicitly, stopping the construction of “Osprey pads” in the northern Okinawa forests designed to accommodate them). The Abe government is also committed to the deployment of Japanese Self-Defense Forces into the frontier islands, including Yonaguni, despite evidence of a divided island opinion (as witness the February 2015 referendum, discussed below).37 Even before Onaga’s election, Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga insisted that Okinawan opinion was irrelevant,6 After it, he simply repeated  that the die was cast, the procedures prescribed by law had been met and the government would proceed “shukushuku to” (solemnly) with construction.7

Abe Shinzo, re-elected in December 2014, stands a reasonable chance of remaining in office until 2018, and therefore has time and, apparently, the resolve, to proceed to remake the Japanese state, liquidating the post-war regime and replacing it with his conception of a “new” and “beautiful” Japan. Within that Japan, the key raison d’etre for Okinawa has to be as a joint US-Japan bastion projecting force where required for the regional and global hegemonic project. But to push ahead successfully with that agenda, he must first defeat the Okinawan challenge. Elsewhere, few dare to challenge or oppose this radical program, in the Diet opposition is in disarray, resistance fragmented and minimal, but in Okinawa opposition is serious and enjoys wide support. It is also, since 2014, marked by a new strategy, that of “All Okinawa” (discussed below).

Abe moves Japan’s defence and security systems closer to full integration with those of the US, commits to construct major new facilities for the latter in Okinawa, Guam and the Marianas, and for the Japanese self-Defense Forces on the Southwestern islands of Amami, Miyako, Ishigaki and Yonaguni, and he proceeds towards setting up Japanese versions of the CIA and the Marine Corps (an “amphibious rapid deployment brigade”). While much of his history and identity agenda (Yasukuni, Comfort Women, war memory) alarms Washington, his security agenda plainly pleases it. He may be seen as the personification of the contradictions of the post-war and post-San Francisco treaty system.

Henoko, Takae, Yonaguni

Three sites, Henoko, Takae, and Yonaguni, are covered briefly in this paper. With Onaga’s election in November and Abe’s re-election in December 2014, each of them now enters a probably decisive stage. Through their prism, something of the essential qualities of the Japanese state itself – democracy, law, constitution – may be seen

In accordance with the Abe design and despite the opposition, construction works began at Henoko on the much-contested base project in July 2014. They were several times suspended during the year due to the of fierce and continuing Okinawan protest, typhoon weather, and the exigencies of elections, before being resumed shortly after the New Year holiday of 2015. Meanwhile, however, budgetary allocations were unchallenged, tenders continued to be let, landfill sought and allocated, and Abe to assure the US government that the works would proceed according to his plan. Okinawan sentiment is irrelevant.

As for the six “Osprey pads” to be constructed in the Yambaru forest at Takae for the Marine Corps, the government late in 2014, having failed to exclude local protest by securing various restraining “SLAPP”-type court orders,8 planned to transfer control over the No 70 prefectural road to the US military, leaving it to drive away protesters when works resumed.9  In February 2015 it then handed over to the Marine Corps in advance the two Osprey pads that had been completed. Two days later protesters’ roadside tents at the site disappeared overnight, presumably at the hands of the Okinawa Defense Bureau (directly or indirectly, although the ODB denied it). The Higashi Village Assembly then adopted unanimously (and for the first time) a resolution declaring that the construction had been against the wishes of the local community and banning US helicopters from using them. Two days later however, on 25 February 2015, the Marine Corps’ Osprey appeared at the site and began training flights.10

The message from the Abe government was that Osprey-pad construction would continue at Takae, and that therefore the priority to the US military over the forest dwellers, whether human, animal, or avian, would continue. A recent spate of unexplained deaths of the rare and endangered Noguchigera woodpecker (found only in this forest) was attributed by some to the penetration of Osprey noise into the deepest recesses of the forest.11 While the Abe government continued to talk of “reducing” the base burden, residents of Takae and its Northern Okinawan vicinity faced the prospect of the newly introduced and ear-crushingly noisy Osprey flying roughly twice as often as the CH-46 it was to replace.12 It was especially galling for them, eight years into an unyielding struggle to protect their living environment, with zero resources and virtually ignored by the national media, to be singled out for abuse by the Marine commander of Camp Gonsalves who referred to them contemptuously as being “paid by the Communist Party.13

As for Yonaguni, and the South-Western frontier islands in general, from the time of the Democratic Party governments of 2009-2012 the commitment to establish a military presence there has been part of a shared security consensus.  By the time a plebiscite was conducted on Yonaguni in February 2015 on the government’s plan to construct a Self-Defense Force base there the government had already acquired a site and was proceeding with all possible to construct facilities, planning to have the Self Defense Forces to move in early in 2016. Because Yonaguni thus actually seemed to be choosing a base future (albeit Japanese rather than American), its case may seem at odds with Henoko and Takae but, as shown below, the structural parallel is clear: in all three cases national policy exigency over-rode any consideration of local opposition.

Henoko: Abe’s “Shock and Awe”

The undisputed objective of all Japanese governments since 1996, save Hatoyama’s, has been the same: to retain the Marines on Okinawa by building a new base for them on Oura Bay. Originally (1996) referred to as a heliport, it grew and grew, into today’s project to reclaim 160 hectares of sea fronting Henoko Bay to the east and Oura Bay to the west, imposing on it a mass of concrete towering 10 metres above the sea and featuring two 1,800 metre runways and a deep-sea 272 meter-long dock. This so-called Futenma Replacement Facility (FRF), a land-sea-air base with its own deep-water port, is a design to serve through the 21st century as potentially the largest concentration of land, sea, and air military power in East Asia, from which Japanese and US forces would combine to confront and contain China.

Henoko, the hamlet chosen for this project, happens to be one of the most bio-diverse and spectacularly beautiful marine and coastal zones in all Japan, one that its Ministry of the Environment wants to promote as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It hosts a cornucopia of life forms from blue—and many other species of—coral (with the countless microorganisms to which they are host) through crustaceans, sea cucumbers and seaweeds and hundreds of species of shrimp, snail, fish, tortoise, snake and mammal. Many are rare or endangered, and strictly protected, none more so than the critically endangered dugong.

However, service to the American Marine Corps clearly trumps protection of bio-diversity or rare and endangered species for the Abe government. On the very day, 19 November 2014, that the National Diet adopted a special law to address the problem of Chinese fishing boat depredations of the coral in the seas around the Ogasawara Islands, the same government itself began to destroy the coral of Okinawa’s Oura Bay.

From 1996 to 2013, popular resistance forces in Okinawa successfully blocked the Futenma Replacement Facility (FRF) agenda. For the last three years of that period, the Hatoyama promise of “at least not within Okinawa” (saitei demo kengai) helped precipitate the shift by local governing authorities, bringing about an Okinawan consensus, shared by the Governor, Prefectural and City Assemblies, prefectural chapters of the major national political parties (Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito), the two main newspapers and majority opinion in general (according to repeated surveys): Oura Bay must be saved. In the lead up to the November 2014 election, opposition to any such FRF was running at 74 per cent in late April rising to over 80 per cent in late August, the highest ever recorded.14

The Abe government (as also previous governments) case for Henoko construction always stressed that a Marine Corps presence was vital to Japan’s defense and that if Futenma was to be returned there was no alternative but to shift it to Henoko. Both propositions were dubious and few specialists agreed with them. From 1996, both sides agreed that Futenma had to be returned. Had it been located on US soil, it would long ago have been shut down as posing too great a threat to people of the surrounding town. Governor Nakaima made its return a core promise of his campaign for re-election in 2014, declaring that Prime Minister Abe had promised him Futenma “reversion within 5 years.” The same promise was reiterated later by his successor, Governor Onaga. Yet the formal bilateral (US-Japan) agreement on the issue in April 2013 stipulated reversion by “at earliest, 2022.”15 When Abe and other ministers in April 2014 communicated to the US side the Okinawan “request” that this be altered to 2019,16 Marine Corps commander John Wissler explicitly ruled it out. Withdrawal from Futenma was not on the cards until troops could be transferred to the newly built facility at Henoko.17 Ginowan would have to live with the noise and danger of a major base in its midst for at least eight, not five years, and almost certainly much longer.

At a joint ministerial meeting in Tokyo on 2 October 2014 senior US officials (of Defense and State) dismissed Nakaima’s pledge as a “pipedream.”18 In February 2015, John McCain, prominent Republican and head of the US Senate’s Military Affairs Sub-committee, added his view of such early return as “impossible.” The Abe government’s insistence that its Henoko construction project was the only and the “realistic” option for securing Futenma’s return “within five years” was disingenuous. It was deliberately misinterpreting the clear position of the government of the US, knowing that the US side had explicitly ruled out any Futenma reversion earlier than 2022.19 McCain’s comment pointed to irritation at high levels in Washington over Tokyo’s duplicity.

Prime Minister Abe, having taken the first full year of his second term to secure the consent he needed for reclamation of Oura Bay from Governor Nakaima (in December 2013) then began serious preparations and at the beginning of July 2014 declared just over half of Oura Bay off limits and initiated preliminary survey works.20 By mobilizing an armada of ships under the Coastguard to enforce the works, his government hoped to display such shock and awe as to sow Okinawa with despair. His display reminded Okinawans of nothing so much as the previous armada, the American one that launched the catastrophic attack on Okinawa in the summer of 1945. This time their own government was the attacker.

Four days before departing from office (on 10 December 2014) Nakaima delivered his final insult to the people who had voted him out of office. He approved two out of three applications by the Okinawa Defense Bureau for amendments to the Henoko reclamation plan that were designed to change the original design so as to block any possible intervention by Nago City (which resolutely opposes construction). He did so from deep within the corridors of the Prefectural Office, avoiding explanation or justification.21

“All Okinawa”

Decades of seething Okinawan discontent brought to the fore late in 2014 an unlikely figure to play a key role in its next phase. Onaga Takeshi had built his career as a conservative politician and core figure in the LDP, campaign manager, no less, for Nakaima Hirokazu in the 2010 gubernatorial election. His appeal to the Okinawan mass sentiment is based on his “re-birth” as an avatar of “All-Okinawa” identity politics, transcending the categories of conservative and progressive, “left” and “right,” and proclaiming the priority of “identity over ideology.” It was he who led the January 2013 prefectural delegation, Kempakusho, many of its members staunchly conservative, to Tokyo to demand unconditional closure and return of Futenma and withdrawal of the MV-22 Osprey vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) Marine Corps aircraft. That mission thereby in effect set the keynote of subsequent Okinawan identity politics. Whether or not such an essentially moral politics can be viable in the long term, in the short term the contradiction between Okinawa and the nation state of Japan is so overwhelming that it is widely supported.

The Kempakusho events and their ongoing sequel seriously split the Okinawan conservative camp. While many, especially those with significant construction industry interests, remained loyal to Nakaima, a significant group, headed by leading figures in the hotel, tourism, retail and food industries, moved instead to support Onaga and the “All Okinawa,” anti-base cause.22 They saw the US bases as “nothing but an obstacle to development.”  One prominent figure, Kanehide Group’s Goya Morimasa said “The government is likely to wield money and power in this election but it cannot crush voices of the people. This is an election that goes to the identity of Okinawa. Let us adopt the perspective of government of Okinawa by the people of Okinawa and for the people of Okinawa.”23

More broadly, the LDP claim to offer Okinawa the best economic prospects because of its guarantee of pipeline from nation to prefecture had worn thin because successive conservative regimes in Okinawa had brought no change to the statistical facts that the prefecture ranked bottom in the country in terms of per capita income, highest in terms of unemployment, and No 1 or No 2 in terms of absolute poverty, proportion of working poor, and of irregular workers in the workforce. “All Okinawa” seemed to offer a better prospect.

As Onaga’s campaign developed in 2014 his “All Okinawa” message became increasingly forthright and focused on the pledge “to stop construction using every means at my disposal”24 to prevent Henoko being constructed and to rid Okinawa of the Osprey.25 The bases, he declared (echoing business leaders such as Goya), were the “biggest obstacles to Okinawan development.”26

Having begun his campaign with a visit to the front lines of struggle at Henoko, Onaga followed his victory just two days later by repeating that gesture, declaring his solidarity and determination to stop the works. By then, he enjoyed support across the political spectrum, so that communists and conservatives could stand together on Okinawan platforms, something unprecedented not only in Okinawa but the country as a whole. Okinawa therefore had from December 2014 a Governor who enjoyed an extraordinary level of popular support to stop the construction works at Henoko, cancel all outstanding tenders related to the project, remove structures built on the bay since July 2014 and restore Oura Bay, and stop the construction of the “Osprey” bases throughout the Yambaru forest (especially in the hamlet of Takae).

Once in office, however, Governor Onaga was oddly hesitant. Instead of quickly revoking or canceling the permit for reclamation of Oura Bay issued by his predecessor, he promised to set up a commission to look into the question. Instead of confrontation, he even suggested that cancelation or revocation might not be necessary because he might be able to persuade the Abe government to stop construction,27 and on the question of how long things might take he said, in response to a question in the Prefectural Assembly, that it might not be possible to fulfill his pledges within a single four-year term.28 This circumspect Onaga sounded very different to the Onaga who just before the prefectural election had stood on the Henoko beach declaring to a mass protest meeting, before some 5,500 people, his unequivocal commitment to “zettai ni soshi” (absolutely put a stop to) base construction.29

In late December 2014 and the following mid-January, Onaga made several visits to Tokyo, to submit his credentials, establish contact with the Abe government, and negotiate the annual fiscal grant to the prefecture. However, major figures (Prime Minister, Cabinet Secretary, Foreign Minister) refused to see him (in marked contrast with their warm greetings for his predecessor earlier in the month). Chief Cabinet secretary Suga said bluntly, “I have no intention to meet him during [the remainder of] this year.”30 For them, the base issue was “settled” and there was therefore nothing to discuss. If Onaga wanted to communicate something to the government, said a senior official of the ruling LDP, then he could do so through the prefectural branch of the party, i.e., precisely those forces with whom he was at odds over fundamental policy issues.31 The hostility was plain. The government seemed to think that a severe scolding would lead Onaga to resume the proper role of Governor, as obedient supplicant.

For his part, however, Onaga seemed strangely reluctant to press the prefecture’s case. He did meet on both occasions with the minister in charge of Okinawan matters, Yamaguchi Shunichi, but when he did he seems to have talked only about the scale of budget grant Okinawa could expect.32 Asked to explain why he chose not to even mention Henoko, he made the strange reply: “It would have been impolite to mention it during a ten minute conversation as I was taking my leave.”33

An unnamed Okinawan LDP member of the Diet may have spoken for general sentiment within the party when he (or she) was quoted as saying there was “no need to cooperate with those who have gone over to the enemy.”34 The punishment to Okinawa for electing Onaga included a 10 per cent cut in the annual budget for 2015 (to around 310 billion yen),35 and the almost certain deletion of the main projected infrastructural item - a north-south railway on Okinawa Island.

His treatment was reminiscent of that accorded Ota Masahide, governor between 1990 and 1998, who also offended Tokyo by his stubborn attempts to re-negotiate the base issue and was therefore frozen out of all contacts with the national government from February to December 1998, when he was eventually defeated at the polls.

Though he might have chosen to wield a reformist broom through the prefectural offices so as to create an “All Okinawa” team esprit de corps, instead he seemed intent on retaining the core of the old regime within the new. Rather than frontal opposition to the national government his approach was marked by restraint and the hope for compromise.

As Deputy Governors he chose two local politicians and long-term associates with wide bureaucratic experience but no record of strong views on base issues or dugong – Ageda Mitsuo (aged 66) and Urasaki Isho (aged 71). Then he made an even more startling appointment, that of Henzan Hideo (aged 66) to set up and run a Washington office for the prefecture. Henzan’s career included 30 years employment as special adviser to the US consul-general’s office in Naha, committed to serving US (rather than Okinawan, or even Japanese) interests. Whatever his competence at negotiating in English and his wide circle of Washington insider contacts, it was far from clear how from 2015 he would embody “All-Okinawan” anti-base determination.

No appointments carried more weight than those to the specialist advisory body (the “Experts Committee”) that Onaga set up to examine and advise him on the legality of the process of decision-making by his predecessor to identity possible flaws in the legal process that would warrant its cancelation. He announced the plan to set it up at the outset of his administration, but then took two months to settle its membership while he sought scholars and public figures who could be seen as “neutral” and “objective.” That meant excluding from the outset those identified with the anti-base struggle, whether lawyers (because most Okinawan lawyers have been involved by now in one or other base-related suit against the government), or environmentalists. In fact any environmentalist still neutral on the threat of base development to Okinawa’s environment 18 years into a bitter contest between the nation state and the prefecture on precisely this issue should rather have been disqualified. The notion of a “neutral” Okinawan environmentalist was oxymoronic.

Eventually, the process prolonged by the quest for “balance,” a six-man panel was appointed, comprising three environmentalists and three lawyers.36 All were distinguished scholars or jurists, but only one, Sakurai Kunitoshi, had a record of concern with the issue they would be called to investigate.37 Sakurai was well known for the view that the Henoko assessment process had been deeply flawed from the outset and that therefore the Nakaima decision to license reclamation was improper and illegal. As the prefecture’s best-known environmental assessment specialist and former president of Okinawa University, he could scarcely be overlooked for a seat on the Commission but some suspected darkly that the reason that full membership took so long to settle might have been because of the desire to find authoritative figures who would be able to “balance” his views.

The Commission began meeting in February 2015 and was to keep thereafter to a fortnightly schedule, leading to an outcome no sooner than June, so that there was therefore little likelihood of any Onaga decision before July. By that time, and whatever the panel recommended, it was clear that it would be too late to save Oura Bay.

Even Governor Nakaima, though he eventually signed off on it, declared that construction would “cause tremendous problems in terms of environmental conservation” and that “even with the conservation measures in the EIA, the conservation of the livelihood of local people and of the environment in the area affected is impossible.”38 The question for Governor Onaga, therefore, was not so much one of finding possible procedural flaws in Nakaima’s actions as of exercising his own gubernatorial authority, based on the expression of the popular will clear in his election, to revoke the reclamation license. Under the “Reclamation of Publicly Owned Water Surfaces Act” (Koyu suimen umetateho, 1921) reclamation may only be permitted (under Article 4) if due consideration has been paid to conservation, whereas this environmental impact assessment process has been widely declared “the worst EIA in the history of Japanese EIA.”39

Aside from the establishment of the “experts” panel, Onaga’s “All Okinawa” politics involved formalizing his administration’s mass base as the “All Okinawa Conference to Implement the Kenpakusho and Open the Future,” planning a prefectural delegation to Washington (expected to occur around May 2015), and pressing the Okinawan cause to all 46 Japanese prefectures, and (in some as yet unspecified way) the United Nations.40 Whatever such initiatives might accomplish, however, there seemed little prospect that they might significantly change the attitude of the Abe government.

Onaga’s hesitant moves on the Henoko (and Takae) fronts contrasted sharply with Abe’s decisiveness. Watching with pain and disbelief early in 2015 as the Abe government proceeded to drop huge, coral crushing, concrete blocks, each between 10 and 45 tons, across Oura Bay to mark the outline of the reclamation site, to let works-related contracts, prepare and dispatch materials, and harass, beat, and arrest protesters, many who had been among Onaga’s enthusiastic supporters just months earlier, were shocked.

On 16 February 2015, three months after his election, Onaga at last took action, even if by the most modest set of measures. He ordered that no more concrete blocks be lowered into the sea, that existing ones remain where they were, that no further changes be made to the sea floor, and that photographs be prepared showing the location of the blocks that had been lowered and the impact on their immediately surrounding environment. He also ordered a prefectural study to be completed by10 March, to be followed by whatever action then seemed appropriate.

What concerned him at this point, however, was not the works per se and the destruction they might be causing to the environment but whether some part of them might be ultra vires, in other words whether the Okinawan Defense Bureau might have exceeded the authority granted it by Governor Nakaima in August 2014 (a detailed, subsidiary consent for fracture of coral in parts of the designated site following his overarching grant of consent to reclamation issued in December of the preceding year). A few days later, in his formal policy speech to the prefectural Assembly, Onaga insisted that his goals of stopping Henoko and having Futenma returned were foundations of prefectural policy.

Furthermore, as the government and resistance forces faced each other at Henoko, the Abe government adopted increasingly forceful means. On 20 November, 85 year old Shimabukuro Fumiko (a Battle of Okinawa survivor) was carried off to hospital from the Camp Schwab protest gathering, suffering a suspected concussion.41 On the following day journalists from the Okinawan daily Ryukyu shimpo were manhandled, abused and forcibly removed from the site and protesting canoeists and kayakers were intimidated and driven off or on occasion dumped at sea, as far as four kilometres from shore, after being held for varying periods.42 In one much publicized case on 20 January 2015, a Coastguard officer gripped a woman film maker around the neck with his legs (a “horse riding” assault) intent on wrenching away her camera.43

On 22 February, just before the opening of a mass protest meeting at the gate of Camp Schwab, local Japanese security agents for the US Marine Corps arrested three protesters, including the head of the Okinawa Peace Movement Centre, Yamashiro Hiroji, on suspicion of breaching the special criminal law (adopted in 1952 at the height of the Korean War to prescribe stringent punishment for unauthorized entry or attempted entry into US bases in Japan). Film footage showed Yamashiro, when ordering demonstrators to be especially careful not to cross the boundary line, being suddenly attacked, flung to the ground, handcuffed, and dragged feet-first into the base by US Marine Corps security personnel. As the Okinawa Times noted, it appeared to be a clear case in which the constitutional right to freedom of assembly, opinion, and expression had been sacrificed to the overarching extraterritorial rights enjoyed by the US.44 For Okinawans, it suggested a return to the lawless dark ages of the 1950s when US forces confiscated land and constructed bases at will, and treated Okinawans with violence and contempt.

When LDP party chief Ishiba Shigeru wrote in his blog on 29 November 2013 that after all there was little difference in substance between vociferous demonstrators and terrorists, he likely spoke the sentiment of the Abe government as a whole.45

However, three months after Onaga’s election and despite his pledges to the contrary, nothing had halted or slowed progress on construction at Henoko or Takae. Osprey flew freely in Okinawan skies, fresh blocks of concrete continued to be dropped onto the ocean floor and there was no indication that the American occupation of Futenma would be ending any time soon. The government simply ignored the Governor’s order that works be suspended pending the outcome of a prefectural study. From the very next day it began depositing fresh concrete blocks on the Bay floor. Early in March it sent in riot police to rip away the tent-like protection that had been put in place for a performance at Camp Schwab Gate by 20 sanshin (the Okinawan three-stringed instrument known in Japan as shamisen), leaving them to perform under the rain. On 12 March 2015, it began to bore into the sea floor from a gigantic drilling rig.46 The Abe government still refused to talk to the Onaga administration (it would be “meaningless,” said Defense Secretary Nakatani on 13 March), and the US authorities refused (for “operational reasons”) permission to the Governor to enter the site to conduct the survey he had promised.

Onaga referred to this as “extremely regrettable” (taihen ikan), promising to stick to his pledge to stop the construction.47 However, it remained to be seen if he possessed the gumption to issue an order rescinding the reclamation license granted by his predecessor, order immediate stoppage of Oura Bay works, and launch court proceedings against the national government for an order to cease its depredations, remove the concrete blocks, and restore the ecology of the Bay. To do so would be to remove the fig leaf of legality beneath which the Abe government sheltered. It might not stop the Tokyo juggernaut, but it would expose in sharp relief the anti-democratic assault of the national state on the prefecture.

Yonaguni

The “Yonaguni problem” has to be understood in the same frame as the “Okinawa problem” and the “Henoko problem,” all of which are part of the “Japan problem.”  Throughout the Cold War, the 600 kilometre chain of Southwest (Nansei) Japanese islands stretching through the East China Sea to Taiwan remained peaceful and stable, with no significant military presence despite the adjacent Cold War frontier and just two policemen, a hand-gun apiece, to keep order. Since it ended, Yonaguni and other Okinawan outlying islands, as much “offshore” from Taiwan and China in the East China Sea as from Japan, have faced a debate over their future. Far from Japan’s metropolitan centers Yonaguni is at its closest point around 110 kilometres from the shore of Taiwan, just 370 from the East China coastal city of Foochow and a mere 150 from the uninhabited but fiercely contested Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. The prefectural capital, Naha, by contrast is 520 kilometres and the national capital of Tokyo around 2,000 kilometres distant.48

Though it is basically an offshore island of Taiwan, and just slightly farther offshore from China itself, there is in Yonaguni minimal sense of any “China threat” and (common throughout Okinawa) a strong social memory of half a millennium of close and friendly pre-modern contact with China.

In the midst of a booming region, Yonaguni suffers population attrition and economic decline because of the lack of direct transport or communications links with either Taiwan or China. It was populated half a century ago by over 10,000 people but now a mere 1,500. Uniquely in Japan, therefore, it has twice in the past decade formally debated its collective future, in 2004-5 and in 2014-2015. In 2005, it formulated a “Vision” for a future based on regional (East China Sea) cooperation and open door trade, fishing and tourism link with Taiwan, but Tokyo forbade it. Then, following a US naval intelligence-gathering visit to the island in 2007, a different, even opposite, idea of a military centred future began to gather attention. A petition to urge a base presence was organized in 2008 by a local “Defense Association” and drew 514 signatures, and the Yonaguni mayor, Hokama Shukichi, in June 2009 approached the Ministry of Defense and the Ground Self-Defense Forces to suggest they set up a base on the island.

Defense of the Southwestern (or Frontier, Sakishima) islands had been stressed by both LDP and DPJ governments, especially following the 2010 incidents at sea between Japan and China over the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands (for administrative purposes part of the Okinawan Yaeyama Island group). But many were unhappy at the thought of a military centered future. In 2011, 556 people, roughly 46 per cent of the electorate (and marginally more than had signed the initial petition to invite the SDF), signed a petition seeking to cancel the invitation. When that had no effect, it then, in 2012, organized a petition calling for a local plebiscite on the issue. That attracted 544 signatures, but it too had no effect because the City Assembly voted 3:2 to reject it.

In June 2013 the Town Assembly voted (3:2) to lease an island property (South Ranch or Minami Bokujo) to the SDF and two months later pro-base mayor Hokama was re-elected, if by the narrowest of margins (553:506). Opinion remained finely balanced but the pro-base group determinedly opposed any direct consultation with the island public. Then, however, as works commenced in the spring of the following year to level and contour the site for construction, the political balance of the island again shifted following a Town Assembly election in September 2014. An anti-base candidate topped the poll and in November a resolution to conduct a referendum on the base issue (in effect the same as had been narrowly rejected two years earlier) was adopted, 3:2.49 However, even as the political wheels to call the project into question and ultimately to try to cancel it and reclaim the site were thus slowly turning, the bulldozers and trucks at the site were stepping up the tempo of works designed to make them irreversible.

Base proponents tended not to mention strategic or military considerations. Mayor Hokama appealed to the island to support the SDF base proposal as an economic boost to the flagging island’s economy. In his re-election campaign in 2013 and in his referendum campaign in 2015, He concentrated on promises of free school lunches, a waste incinerator, town water and sewerage systems, a sports ground, and optical fibre internet connections. He claimed that the arrival of a detachment of well-paid and mostly young soldiers would constitute a significant economic boost, invigorating the island.50

The anti-base position rested on several grounds, fundamentally the aversion for militarization and the memory of the catastrophe of 1945. Any military presence, once established, could only grow, feeding the cross-sea confrontation, gradually changing the character of the island and widening the painful splits it had already caused in its close-knit community. As Okinawa in 1945 constituted the “sacrificial stones” for defense of mainland Japan, so Yonaguni Islanders (and Okinawans in general) feared that any military presence at the heart of the confrontation between China and Japan (backed by the US) had the potential to turn them again into sacrificial victims in any future East China Sea clash. Defense, in 2014 as in 1945, was concerned with Japan’s core, its mainland, not Okinawa and least of all Yonaguni.

Opponents of the base also feared possible health risks, especially in the immediate vicinity of the project camp, and possible adverse consequences for the island’s fauna and flora. Asked about the impact of high-powered electro-magnetic waves that were to be directed from the prospective base over the township, school, and kindergarten of Kubura, 24 hours a day, Prime Minister Abe told the Upper House of the Diet in November 2014 that there would be no risk, but since he declined on grounds of military secrecy to reveal the strength of those waves, not everyone was convinced.51 Also, the island is known to be home to 52 threatened or endangered plant and animal species, including the Yonaguni Marubane Kuwagata (a distinctive stag beetle).52 It is also home to  the world’s largest moth, Yonaguni-san or Ayumi habiru, and Japan’s smallest horse, the Yonaguni horse. Nobody could say for certain what the impact on these creatures would be.

However, though opponents of the base project tended to hark back to the 2005 “Vision” agenda of an East Asian or East China Sea community, they found it difficult to spell out how this would be accomplished. One modest initial proposal was for a ferry service to link Yonaguni Island to Taiwan (a two to two and a half hour journey by hydrofoil) as a simple step that they believed could radically transform life on the island.53

In the event, the 22 February referendum returned a fairly clear “Yes” result, 632 to 445 (in an 85 per cent poll), thus settling the longstanding question over the project. A Ground Self Defense Force (GSDF) of around 150 would be based on the island from 2016 engaged in surveillance of adjacent sea and sky. Fatigue from years of bitter struggle in the small, close-knit island community played a large role in the outcome.54 Many were discouraged by the silence of Okinawan Governor Onaga, who they had assumed, following his victory in November 2014, would incorporate the island within his general “All Okinawa” anti-base stance. Without external support, and knowing that Minister of Defense Nakatani Gen had said that construction was going to proceed irrespective of the poll result, it seemed futile for a few hundred islanders to attempt to resist the determined central government. Still, the 41 per cent No vote showed that divisions in the community remained deep.

Whatever the future holds, the choice that was made had a Faustian quality: the SDF may bring economic benefits, but, once ensconced on the island they will be loath ever to leave, and they will bring with them the real, if indeterminate risk for Yonaguni of being assigned a place on a putative Chinese missile target list. One island resident wrote, sadly, “When the base gets built I believe that a substantial number of people will leave, that tourism will decline significantly, that quality of life will decrease, that far fewer children will return after high school, that, as a result the character of the island will change for the worse.”55

Furthermore, the military logic of East China Sea surveillance from Yonaguni is dubious. Chinese ships passing from the East China Sea to the Pacific naturally prefer the route through international waters in the Miyako strait between Okinawa Island and Miyako Island (some hundred or so kilometres to the northeast). Some in the other Japanese SDF services (Air and Maritime) suspected that the real reasons on the part of the GSDF for deployment to Yonaguni were “turf” considerations, to compensate for the loss of role in Hokkaido where, through the Cold War, they prepared for a putative land attack by Soviet forces.56 In the post-Cold War, post-War on Terror era, the South-West was the growth area for Japan’s military. Both Air and Maritime forces had already assured themselves of a major role there and Yonaguni was the Ground force’s chance. A similar move into the much larger Ishigaki Island, where the newly re-elected conservative mayor is known to be supportive of such stationing and also welcoming of Maritime SDF visits, was also expected to follow shortly.

Reluctant or otherwise, however, the 10-year struggle to define a post-Cold War role for Yonaguni had been resolved. For better or for worse, the island had made the fateful decision to throw in its lot with the Japanese military (and its Pentagon backers).

Prospect

Following the gubernatorial election of November and the national lower house elections of December, the Okinawan people appeared to an unprecedented degree united, rejuvenated, determined. Just three months later, the mood had shifted to doubt and fear that the process of construction at Henoko (and Takae) had developed a perhaps unstoppable momentum, the Osprey presence was being stepped up, and that all Governor Onaga’s professions of stopping these things might in the end prove empty. Conditions at Yonaguni were probably unique, but the outcome there might be taken as a signal that Tokyo’s will would in the end prevail.

While the rest of Japan, and its media, turns a blind eye, Okinawan society is subjected to enormous strains. As a Ryukyu shimpo editorial of 18 August 2014 put it:

“As far as we know, the government has never unleashed such reckless disregard of the will of the people, as we have seen at Henoko. ... We wonder if there has ever been a case like this, where the government has trampled on the will of the overwhelming majority of people in a prefecture elsewhere in Japan. This action by the government evokes memories of the crackdown against peasants during the Edo period. ... The Abe government seems to be in the process of moving from ‘dictatorship’ to ‘terror politics’.”57

And things have only got worse since then.

In contrast to the hesitation and ambiguities of his early months in office, and his studied indifference to Yonaguni, Onaga had begun and ended his campaign for the governorship with the powerful gesture of visiting the anti-base activists on the Henoko front lines and declaring solidarity with them. It seemed unthinkable that he would renege on the solemn pledges he had made then. As prefectural riot police and national Coastguard forces are deployed to crush protesters whose cause he shares, and as the process of boring into the bed of Oura bay and transforming much of it into a major East Asian military concentration in defiance of the wishes of the Okinawan people proceeds, Onaga faces the challenge of weaving a credible, democratic politics out of his general “All-Okinawa” principle.

The problem with Onaga’s reiteration of the mantra “identity has precedence over ideology” is that politicians, and indeed humans, possess multiple identities. Onaga is not only Okinawan but he is also a lifelong (to 2014) member of the Liberal Democratic Party. Since that is an identity he shares with Prime Minister Abe, Abe and his government now must hope that Onaga’s political identity as a conservative would reassert itself over his ethnic or cultural identity as Okinawan.

Should Onaga choose to stand at the helm and lead the prefecture into a principled stand against the national government, “All-Okinawan” unity would constitute a formidable strength. The national government may persist in intimidation and manipulation, but there are obvious limits to the extent to which it can resort to direct violence. Okinawa seemed ready last November to persist in saying “No” (on large matters of security, environment, and indeed democracy) to the national government. The question is: will its Governor lead them into battle?

 

Notes:

1 See, inter alia, Gavan McCormack, “The San Francisco Treaty at Sixty—The Okinawa Angle,” in Kimie Hara, ed, The San Francisco System and Its Legacies: Transformation and Historical Reconciliation in the Asia-Pacific, London, Routledge, 2015, pp. 144-161

2 Client State: Japan in the American Embrace, London and New York, Verso, 2007. “Zokkoku mondai – Beikoku no hoyo to higashi Ajia de no koritsu,” in Magosaki Ukeru and Kimura Akira, eds, Owaranai “senryo”, Kyoto, Horitsu bunkasha, 2013, pp. 18-38.

3 “Japan’s “Positive Pacifism”: Issues of Historical Memory in Contemporary Foreign Policy,” Brown Journal of World Affairs (Brown University, Watson Institute for International Studies), Vol. XX, issue 2, spring-summer 2014, pp. 73-92.

4 Nakano Koichi, “Neoribe jidai no ea nashonarizumu,” Saraba dokusaisha, kensho, boso suru Abe seiken," Shukan kinyobi, rinji zokan, 17 April 2014, pp. 8-10.

5 All four defeated LDP candidates were returned to Diet seats under the proportional representation “bloc” system, as part of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) slate for the Kyushu-Okinawa region.

6  “Henoko chushi 80% “eikyo nai’ Suga kanbochokan kaiken, honshi seron chosa, Ryukyu shimpo, 26 August 2014.

7 “Henoko isetsu ‘shukushuku to susumeru’ Onaga shi tosen ni kambo chokan,” Ryukyu shimpo, 17 November 2014.

8 Yamaguchi Masanori, “Media ga hojinai Okinawa,” Shukan kinyobi, 13 July 2013, p. 58. For the background to the Takae struggle, Gavan McCormack and Satoko Oka Norimatsu, Resistant Islands: Okinawa Confronts Japan and the United States, Lanham, Rowman and Littlefield, 2012, pp. 168-172.

9 “Takae heripaddo, toshiake kogi haijo e, Bei ga rosokutai kanri,” Okinawa taimusu, 31 December 2014.

10 “Osupurei ga shin chakurikudai de hatsu kunren, Higashi son Takae,” Ryukyu shimpo, 26 February 2015.

11 “Higashi son de Noguchigera mado ni shototsushi, kotoshi yon-wa me,” Okinawa taimusu, 29 October 2014.

12 “Chakurikudai senko teikyo, hajisubeki taibei juzoku da,” editorial, Ryukyu shimpo, 19 February 2015.

13 Ibid. See also Jon Mitchell ”The Foreign Element: In appearance on far-right TV, U.S. official calls Okinawa base protests ‘hate speech’,” Japan Times, 16 February 2015.

14 Ryukyu shimpo, 5 May and 26 August 2014 (“Seron chosa: ‘Henoko chushi’ isetsu kyoko hantai hirogaru”). Just 19.8 per cent favoured continuation of the works. Even in the conservative bloc, 70.1 per cent of LDP supporters and 91.7 of New Komeito supporters said they should be stopped.

15 Boeisho, “Beigun saihen nado zainichi Beigun no churyu ni kansuru shisaku, Boeisho,” April 2013.

16 “‘Gonen inai’ hitei chabangeki no zokko wa mu imi da,” Ryukyu shimpo, ed., April 2 2014.

17 “Marines won’t leave Futenma till new base built: Wissler,” Japan Times, April 12, 2014. US Pacific Commander Admiral (Samuel) Locklear told a Senate Committee hearing the same. (“‘Gonen inai teishi hitei’ kyoko no tanpo to shonin no tsumi,” Okinawa taimusu, April 13 2014.)

18 “Gonen-nai teishi ‘kuso’ Henoko o minaosu jiki da,” editorial, Okinawa taimusu, 17 October 2014.

19 Heianna Sumiyo, “Futenma 5 nen teishi ‘arienai’, Makein shi,” Okinawa taimusu, 19 February 2015.

20 For my 1 July report, sailing around the Bay on the eve of this closure, “Gavan McCormack, kaijo ripoto Henoko,” 2 July 2014.

21 “‘Chiji, kakekomi shonin’ shugiin de kenmin no shinpan o,” Ryukyu shimpo, editorial, 6 December 2014.

22 “Three candidates to run in the gubernatorial election,” Ryukyu Shimpo, 24 July 2014.

23 “Onaga shi e asu shutsuba yosei,” Okinawa taimusu, 6 August 2014.

24 “Arayuru shuho o kushi shite, Henoko ni shin kichi wa tsukurasenai.”

25 “Futenma kichi no heisa, tekkyo, kennai isetsu dannen, Osupurei haibi tekkai o tsuyoku motomeru.”

26 “Okinawa keizai hatten no saidai no sogai yoin.”

27 “Shimin kensho kankyo men o jushi,” Okinawa taimusu, 18 December 2014 (see discussion in “Hayaku mo ‘kotai’ shita hatsu gikai toben, Onaga chiji ni setsumei sekinin o,” in the blog “Watashi no Okinawa/Hiroshima nikki,” 20 December 2014.

28 Ryukyu shimpo, 17 December 2014 (quoted in “Hayaku mo,” ibid.)

29 “Zen Naha shicho, Onaga Takeshi shi ga kataru ‘Okinawa chiji sen’ shutsuba e no kakugo,” Nikkan gendai, 13 October 2014.

30 “‘Mendan moshiire fuhatsu’ seifu wa Okinawa no koe o kike,” editorial, Okinawa taimusu, 27 December 2014.

31 “Okinawa chiji o reigu, jiminto kanbu ‘Nakaima ja nai kara’,” Asahi Shimbun, 9 January 2015.

32 For the meeting on 26 December.

33 Okinawa taimusu, 17 January 2015.

34 “Mendan moshiire,” op. cit.

35 “Okinawa shinko yosan ichiwari gen, rainendo seifu, 3100 oku en de chosei,” Okinawa taimusu, 8 January 2015.

36 “Henoko umetate shonin, kenshohan wa Sakurai shi ra 5 nin, toshiake hatsu kaigo,” Ryukyu shimpo, 25 December 2014. The group was later expanded to six members.

37 For representative Sakurai texts on the environmental implications of the Henoko project, see the Asia-Pacific Journal index. The title of one, “Japan’s Illegal Environmental Impact Assessment of the Henoko Base,” (The Asia Pacific Journal, Vol. 10, Issue 9, No 5, February 27, 2012) was characteristic.

38 Yoshikawa, ibid.

39 Shimazu Yasuo, former chair-person of the Japan Society for Impact Assessment, quoted in Hideki Yoshikawa, “An appeal from Okinawa to the US Congress,” The Asia-Pacific Journal – Japan Focus, 29 September 2014.

40 “Shimagurumi kaigi, kokuren to Bei ni yosei kettei,” Ryukyu shimpo, 20 December 2014.

41 “Henoko 85 sai josei kega, ichiji ishiki ushinau,” Okinawa taimusu, 21 November 2014.

42 “Kenkei ga Henoko shusai bogai, kasha, eiga kantoku o haijo,” Ryukyu shimpo, 21 November 2014.

43 “Henoko shin kichi kensetsu, kaiho, setsumei ni mujun, umanori shashin ‘josei kawashita’,” Ryukyu shimpo, 23 January 2015. For resume of incidents at the site, Jon Mitchell, “Injuries to Okinawa anti-base protesters ‘laughable,’ says U.S. military spokesman,” Japan Times, 9 February 2015. Yamashiro and his companion were handed over to the Japanese police in Nago and their case referred to the prosecutors before they were eventually released 35 hours later.

44 “‘Keitokuho de futari taiho’ shinjigatai futo kosoku, naze,” editorial, Okinawa taimusu, 24 February 2015

45 Quoted in Torigoe Shuntaro, “Boso suru Abe seiken – Heisei no fashizumu no ashioto,” Ryukyu shimpo, 7 December 2013.

46 “Henoko umetate: Beigun, ken no tachiiri chosa o kyohi,” Okinawa taimusu, 12 March 2015.

47 “Onaga chiji ‘yurusenai’ hasai kyoka, torikeshi shisa,” Ryukyu shimpo, 13 March 2015.

48 On Yonaguni, see (in Japanese) John W. Dower and Gavan McCormack, Tenkanki no Nihon e – pakkusu Americana ka pakkusu Ajia ka, Tokyo, NHK Bukkusu, chapter 3; and (in English) Gavan McCormack, “Yonaguni: Dilemmas of a Frontier Island in the East China Sea,” The Asia-Pacific Journal – Japan Focus, 1 October, 2012, and "The End of the Postwar? The Abe Government, Okinawa, and Yonaguni Island", The Asia-Pacific Journal, December 8, 2014 

49 “Jumin tohyo 17 nichi jorei kaketsu e,” Ryukyu shimpo, 15 November 2014 and “‘Tozen’ ‘naze ima sara’,” Ryukyu shimpo, 18 November 2014.

50 The evidence of Tsushima Island, roughly half-way between Fukuoka City in southwestern Japan and Pusan in Korea, suggests otherwise. When that city invited the SDF in 1959, its population was 70,000. Now it is around 35,000.

51 Response by Prime Minister Abe to question from Itokazu Keiko on possible adverse health effects of SDF radar on Yonaguni. 25 November 2014.

52 “Zetsumetsu kigu made ’52 shu seisoku’,” Okinawa taimusu, 15 April, 2014.

53 Memo by Tasato Chiyoki, member of the Yonaguni town assembly, to then Okinawa gubernatorial candidate Onaga Takeshi, 17 October 2014 (copy courtesy Mr Tasato).

54 Sado Akihiro, “Jumin tsuzuku tairitsu ni hihei,” and Yasuda Mamoru, “Kokkyo no sentaku,” part 1 “Susumu koji ni hantai ha gosan,” both in Ryukyu shimpo, 24 February 2015.

55 Personal communication from an island resident.

56 “Yonaguni rikuji kikoshiki, haibi kakudai e no fuseki,” Ryukyu shimpo, April 20 2014.

57 “Kussaku sagyo ni chakushu, mohaya ‘kyofu seiji’ da, banko chushi min-i o toe,” Ryukyu shimpo, 18 August 2014, also posted on the web in English as “Abe administration signals future reign of terror in Henoko.”

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission or license from the source.

Gavan McCormack

Gavan McCormack is an emeritus professor of the Australian National University and a coordinator of The Asia-Pacific Journal. He is author of many books and articles on modern and contemporary East Asia, and many of his articles are accessible on this site. His Target North Korea: Pushing North Korea to the brink of Nuclear Catastrophe, was published in 2004 and translated and published in Japanese and Korean. In 2008 and 2009 he contributed a monthly column to the Seoul daily Kyunghyang shinmoon. His discussion with John Dower of the prospects for 2012 was featured on NHK satellite television as its New Year program ("Kantogen 2012"). His most recent book, co-authored with Satoko Oka Norimatsu, is Islands of Resistance: Okinawa Confronts Japan and the United States, forthcoming, Rowman and Littlefield, July 2012.

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"All Japan" vs. "All Okinawa": Abe Shinzo's Military-First Politics

Sunday, March 22, 2015 By Gavan McCormack, The Asia-Pacific Journal | News Analysis
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A grand, and massively unequal, struggle over the future of Japan is underway. At sea, a miniscule flotilla of canoes and kayaks confronts a solid wall of National Coastguard ships and on land a few hundred protesters face off 24 hours a day against riot police outside Camp Schwab Marine Corps base, trying in vain to halt the delivery of materials for the construction of a new Marine Corps base on Oura Bay.

As Okinawa struggles to assert and give shape to its new form of “All Okinawa” politics, its struggle is waged against the backdrop of nation-wide indifference, reinforced by the silence of the press, amounting to a national consensus of support for the discrimination and violent repression meted out by the be government, a contemporary soryokusen (All-Out War) in which Abe’s “All Japan” brings to bear the “irresistible force” of state power upon the “immovable object” of “All Okinawa” resistance.

Should the state now proceed to crush, divide, and remove that resistance, the crystallization of an unprecedented prefectural consensus, the humiliation would likely outrank all those of previous history – whether assimilation by punishment in 1879, reversion without reversion in 1972, or return of Futenma, repeatedly promised but repeatedly denied and postponed, since 1996 – since never has there been a consensus across Okinawan society in the past. By the end of 2015, Okinawan constitutional and democratic forces will either have forced unprecedented change of direction upon the national government or they will have suffered devastating defeat.

The Japan Problem and the Okinawa Problem

The Okinawa crisis is rooted in the East Asian disposal wrought at high diplomatic level by the agreements of 1951, 1972, 1996, and 2006 (Guam). First, the San Francisco Treaty severed it from Japan as the war state to complement mainland Japan’s peace state, then its “reversion” to Japan was manipulated so as to maintain the priority of war and military matters over all else. Then, in 1996 Futenma “reversion” was likewise a sham, turning out to be dependent upon the prior construction and handover of a much superior, multi-functional facility. The grim reality for Okinawa is that, sixty-four years after the San Francisco Treaty, US forces still occupy 20 per cent of the land of Okinawa Island and concentrate three-quarters of all US military presence in the country, while base authorities retain a sovereign authority little diminished from the time when the island was under direct US military rule.

The base “system” ratified under the San Francisco Treaty in 1951 restored sovereignty to Japan at the price of splitting Okinawa from it under total US military control, reserving the right to maintain bases elsewhere throughout the country wherever and for however long it felt necessary, and retaining fundamental levers of control over national government policy.1 That system has of course evolved, but without change to its fundamentals. Japan’s qualified sovereignty of 1952 steadily deepened into the “client state” relationship of the early 21st century,2 despite feeble attempts to reduce or even reverse the path of dependency, notably under the Hosokawa and Hatoyama governments (1993-1994 and 2009-2010). The two governments of Abe Shinzo, from 2006 to 2007 and again from 2012, have pursued the reverse process – accelerating and deepening clientelism,3 masked by nationalist cover, or what Nakano Koichi refers to as “Air Nationalism.”4

Through 2014, Okinawan civil society delivered powerful messages to the government in Tokyo, to the nation, and to the government of the United States on three major fronts. In January, citizens of Nago City returned to office its mayor, Inamine Susumu, who was an uncompromising opponent of any base construction within the city (and in September, Inamine supporters retained control of the City Assembly); in November, the Okinawan electorate decisively rejected the Governor, Nakaima Hirokazu, who had reneged on his pledge to oppose base construction and issued the permit the government needed to commence reclamation of Oura Bay, electing in his stead (by the unprecedented majority of over 100,000 votes (380,820 to 261,076), a candidate (Onaga Takeshi) committed to doing “everything in my power” to stop construction at Henoko, close Futenma Air Base, and have the Marine Corps’ controversial Osprey MV 22 aircraft withdrawn from the prefecture (therefore stopping the construction of “Osprey Pads” for them in the Yambaru forest, also in Northern Okinawa); and in December all four Okinawan local constituencies elected anti-base construction candidates to the lower house in the National Diet.5

The November election of Onaga as Governor was the key event, a resounding “No” to the national government’s Okinawan agenda. If justice and democracy meant anything, the Okinawan people reasoned, then surely now the Japanese state would concede that their will had been clear beyond a shadow of doubt and therefore abandon the project to impose upon them one more massive military installation.

For Abe, construction of the Henoko base is a core national policy, fundamental to the relationship between Japan and the United States, whereas Okinawa  late in 2014 chose a Governor committed to “employ all resources at my disposal” to stop the project. Likewise, not only is the Abe government determined to support the deployment of Osprey MV 22 aircraft to Okinawa, but it considers equipping the Self-Defense Forces with them, whereas Onaga has pledged to have them withdrawn from Okinawa (which also means, implicitly, stopping the construction of “Osprey pads” in the northern Okinawa forests designed to accommodate them). The Abe government is also committed to the deployment of Japanese Self-Defense Forces into the frontier islands, including Yonaguni, despite evidence of a divided island opinion (as witness the February 2015 referendum, discussed below).37 Even before Onaga’s election, Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga insisted that Okinawan opinion was irrelevant,6 After it, he simply repeated  that the die was cast, the procedures prescribed by law had been met and the government would proceed “shukushuku to” (solemnly) with construction.7

Abe Shinzo, re-elected in December 2014, stands a reasonable chance of remaining in office until 2018, and therefore has time and, apparently, the resolve, to proceed to remake the Japanese state, liquidating the post-war regime and replacing it with his conception of a “new” and “beautiful” Japan. Within that Japan, the key raison d’etre for Okinawa has to be as a joint US-Japan bastion projecting force where required for the regional and global hegemonic project. But to push ahead successfully with that agenda, he must first defeat the Okinawan challenge. Elsewhere, few dare to challenge or oppose this radical program, in the Diet opposition is in disarray, resistance fragmented and minimal, but in Okinawa opposition is serious and enjoys wide support. It is also, since 2014, marked by a new strategy, that of “All Okinawa” (discussed below).

Abe moves Japan’s defence and security systems closer to full integration with those of the US, commits to construct major new facilities for the latter in Okinawa, Guam and the Marianas, and for the Japanese self-Defense Forces on the Southwestern islands of Amami, Miyako, Ishigaki and Yonaguni, and he proceeds towards setting up Japanese versions of the CIA and the Marine Corps (an “amphibious rapid deployment brigade”). While much of his history and identity agenda (Yasukuni, Comfort Women, war memory) alarms Washington, his security agenda plainly pleases it. He may be seen as the personification of the contradictions of the post-war and post-San Francisco treaty system.

Henoko, Takae, Yonaguni

Three sites, Henoko, Takae, and Yonaguni, are covered briefly in this paper. With Onaga’s election in November and Abe’s re-election in December 2014, each of them now enters a probably decisive stage. Through their prism, something of the essential qualities of the Japanese state itself – democracy, law, constitution – may be seen

In accordance with the Abe design and despite the opposition, construction works began at Henoko on the much-contested base project in July 2014. They were several times suspended during the year due to the of fierce and continuing Okinawan protest, typhoon weather, and the exigencies of elections, before being resumed shortly after the New Year holiday of 2015. Meanwhile, however, budgetary allocations were unchallenged, tenders continued to be let, landfill sought and allocated, and Abe to assure the US government that the works would proceed according to his plan. Okinawan sentiment is irrelevant.

As for the six “Osprey pads” to be constructed in the Yambaru forest at Takae for the Marine Corps, the government late in 2014, having failed to exclude local protest by securing various restraining “SLAPP”-type court orders,8 planned to transfer control over the No 70 prefectural road to the US military, leaving it to drive away protesters when works resumed.9  In February 2015 it then handed over to the Marine Corps in advance the two Osprey pads that had been completed. Two days later protesters’ roadside tents at the site disappeared overnight, presumably at the hands of the Okinawa Defense Bureau (directly or indirectly, although the ODB denied it). The Higashi Village Assembly then adopted unanimously (and for the first time) a resolution declaring that the construction had been against the wishes of the local community and banning US helicopters from using them. Two days later however, on 25 February 2015, the Marine Corps’ Osprey appeared at the site and began training flights.10

The message from the Abe government was that Osprey-pad construction would continue at Takae, and that therefore the priority to the US military over the forest dwellers, whether human, animal, or avian, would continue. A recent spate of unexplained deaths of the rare and endangered Noguchigera woodpecker (found only in this forest) was attributed by some to the penetration of Osprey noise into the deepest recesses of the forest.11 While the Abe government continued to talk of “reducing” the base burden, residents of Takae and its Northern Okinawan vicinity faced the prospect of the newly introduced and ear-crushingly noisy Osprey flying roughly twice as often as the CH-46 it was to replace.12 It was especially galling for them, eight years into an unyielding struggle to protect their living environment, with zero resources and virtually ignored by the national media, to be singled out for abuse by the Marine commander of Camp Gonsalves who referred to them contemptuously as being “paid by the Communist Party.13

As for Yonaguni, and the South-Western frontier islands in general, from the time of the Democratic Party governments of 2009-2012 the commitment to establish a military presence there has been part of a shared security consensus.  By the time a plebiscite was conducted on Yonaguni in February 2015 on the government’s plan to construct a Self-Defense Force base there the government had already acquired a site and was proceeding with all possible to construct facilities, planning to have the Self Defense Forces to move in early in 2016. Because Yonaguni thus actually seemed to be choosing a base future (albeit Japanese rather than American), its case may seem at odds with Henoko and Takae but, as shown below, the structural parallel is clear: in all three cases national policy exigency over-rode any consideration of local opposition.

Henoko: Abe’s “Shock and Awe”

The undisputed objective of all Japanese governments since 1996, save Hatoyama’s, has been the same: to retain the Marines on Okinawa by building a new base for them on Oura Bay. Originally (1996) referred to as a heliport, it grew and grew, into today’s project to reclaim 160 hectares of sea fronting Henoko Bay to the east and Oura Bay to the west, imposing on it a mass of concrete towering 10 metres above the sea and featuring two 1,800 metre runways and a deep-sea 272 meter-long dock. This so-called Futenma Replacement Facility (FRF), a land-sea-air base with its own deep-water port, is a design to serve through the 21st century as potentially the largest concentration of land, sea, and air military power in East Asia, from which Japanese and US forces would combine to confront and contain China.

Henoko, the hamlet chosen for this project, happens to be one of the most bio-diverse and spectacularly beautiful marine and coastal zones in all Japan, one that its Ministry of the Environment wants to promote as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It hosts a cornucopia of life forms from blue—and many other species of—coral (with the countless microorganisms to which they are host) through crustaceans, sea cucumbers and seaweeds and hundreds of species of shrimp, snail, fish, tortoise, snake and mammal. Many are rare or endangered, and strictly protected, none more so than the critically endangered dugong.

However, service to the American Marine Corps clearly trumps protection of bio-diversity or rare and endangered species for the Abe government. On the very day, 19 November 2014, that the National Diet adopted a special law to address the problem of Chinese fishing boat depredations of the coral in the seas around the Ogasawara Islands, the same government itself began to destroy the coral of Okinawa’s Oura Bay.

From 1996 to 2013, popular resistance forces in Okinawa successfully blocked the Futenma Replacement Facility (FRF) agenda. For the last three years of that period, the Hatoyama promise of “at least not within Okinawa” (saitei demo kengai) helped precipitate the shift by local governing authorities, bringing about an Okinawan consensus, shared by the Governor, Prefectural and City Assemblies, prefectural chapters of the major national political parties (Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito), the two main newspapers and majority opinion in general (according to repeated surveys): Oura Bay must be saved. In the lead up to the November 2014 election, opposition to any such FRF was running at 74 per cent in late April rising to over 80 per cent in late August, the highest ever recorded.14

The Abe government (as also previous governments) case for Henoko construction always stressed that a Marine Corps presence was vital to Japan’s defense and that if Futenma was to be returned there was no alternative but to shift it to Henoko. Both propositions were dubious and few specialists agreed with them. From 1996, both sides agreed that Futenma had to be returned. Had it been located on US soil, it would long ago have been shut down as posing too great a threat to people of the surrounding town. Governor Nakaima made its return a core promise of his campaign for re-election in 2014, declaring that Prime Minister Abe had promised him Futenma “reversion within 5 years.” The same promise was reiterated later by his successor, Governor Onaga. Yet the formal bilateral (US-Japan) agreement on the issue in April 2013 stipulated reversion by “at earliest, 2022.”15 When Abe and other ministers in April 2014 communicated to the US side the Okinawan “request” that this be altered to 2019,16 Marine Corps commander John Wissler explicitly ruled it out. Withdrawal from Futenma was not on the cards until troops could be transferred to the newly built facility at Henoko.17 Ginowan would have to live with the noise and danger of a major base in its midst for at least eight, not five years, and almost certainly much longer.

At a joint ministerial meeting in Tokyo on 2 October 2014 senior US officials (of Defense and State) dismissed Nakaima’s pledge as a “pipedream.”18 In February 2015, John McCain, prominent Republican and head of the US Senate’s Military Affairs Sub-committee, added his view of such early return as “impossible.” The Abe government’s insistence that its Henoko construction project was the only and the “realistic” option for securing Futenma’s return “within five years” was disingenuous. It was deliberately misinterpreting the clear position of the government of the US, knowing that the US side had explicitly ruled out any Futenma reversion earlier than 2022.19 McCain’s comment pointed to irritation at high levels in Washington over Tokyo’s duplicity.

Prime Minister Abe, having taken the first full year of his second term to secure the consent he needed for reclamation of Oura Bay from Governor Nakaima (in December 2013) then began serious preparations and at the beginning of July 2014 declared just over half of Oura Bay off limits and initiated preliminary survey works.20 By mobilizing an armada of ships under the Coastguard to enforce the works, his government hoped to display such shock and awe as to sow Okinawa with despair. His display reminded Okinawans of nothing so much as the previous armada, the American one that launched the catastrophic attack on Okinawa in the summer of 1945. This time their own government was the attacker.

Four days before departing from office (on 10 December 2014) Nakaima delivered his final insult to the people who had voted him out of office. He approved two out of three applications by the Okinawa Defense Bureau for amendments to the Henoko reclamation plan that were designed to change the original design so as to block any possible intervention by Nago City (which resolutely opposes construction). He did so from deep within the corridors of the Prefectural Office, avoiding explanation or justification.21

“All Okinawa”

Decades of seething Okinawan discontent brought to the fore late in 2014 an unlikely figure to play a key role in its next phase. Onaga Takeshi had built his career as a conservative politician and core figure in the LDP, campaign manager, no less, for Nakaima Hirokazu in the 2010 gubernatorial election. His appeal to the Okinawan mass sentiment is based on his “re-birth” as an avatar of “All-Okinawa” identity politics, transcending the categories of conservative and progressive, “left” and “right,” and proclaiming the priority of “identity over ideology.” It was he who led the January 2013 prefectural delegation, Kempakusho, many of its members staunchly conservative, to Tokyo to demand unconditional closure and return of Futenma and withdrawal of the MV-22 Osprey vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) Marine Corps aircraft. That mission thereby in effect set the keynote of subsequent Okinawan identity politics. Whether or not such an essentially moral politics can be viable in the long term, in the short term the contradiction between Okinawa and the nation state of Japan is so overwhelming that it is widely supported.

The Kempakusho events and their ongoing sequel seriously split the Okinawan conservative camp. While many, especially those with significant construction industry interests, remained loyal to Nakaima, a significant group, headed by leading figures in the hotel, tourism, retail and food industries, moved instead to support Onaga and the “All Okinawa,” anti-base cause.22 They saw the US bases as “nothing but an obstacle to development.”  One prominent figure, Kanehide Group’s Goya Morimasa said “The government is likely to wield money and power in this election but it cannot crush voices of the people. This is an election that goes to the identity of Okinawa. Let us adopt the perspective of government of Okinawa by the people of Okinawa and for the people of Okinawa.”23

More broadly, the LDP claim to offer Okinawa the best economic prospects because of its guarantee of pipeline from nation to prefecture had worn thin because successive conservative regimes in Okinawa had brought no change to the statistical facts that the prefecture ranked bottom in the country in terms of per capita income, highest in terms of unemployment, and No 1 or No 2 in terms of absolute poverty, proportion of working poor, and of irregular workers in the workforce. “All Okinawa” seemed to offer a better prospect.

As Onaga’s campaign developed in 2014 his “All Okinawa” message became increasingly forthright and focused on the pledge “to stop construction using every means at my disposal”24 to prevent Henoko being constructed and to rid Okinawa of the Osprey.25 The bases, he declared (echoing business leaders such as Goya), were the “biggest obstacles to Okinawan development.”26

Having begun his campaign with a visit to the front lines of struggle at Henoko, Onaga followed his victory just two days later by repeating that gesture, declaring his solidarity and determination to stop the works. By then, he enjoyed support across the political spectrum, so that communists and conservatives could stand together on Okinawan platforms, something unprecedented not only in Okinawa but the country as a whole. Okinawa therefore had from December 2014 a Governor who enjoyed an extraordinary level of popular support to stop the construction works at Henoko, cancel all outstanding tenders related to the project, remove structures built on the bay since July 2014 and restore Oura Bay, and stop the construction of the “Osprey” bases throughout the Yambaru forest (especially in the hamlet of Takae).

Once in office, however, Governor Onaga was oddly hesitant. Instead of quickly revoking or canceling the permit for reclamation of Oura Bay issued by his predecessor, he promised to set up a commission to look into the question. Instead of confrontation, he even suggested that cancelation or revocation might not be necessary because he might be able to persuade the Abe government to stop construction,27 and on the question of how long things might take he said, in response to a question in the Prefectural Assembly, that it might not be possible to fulfill his pledges within a single four-year term.28 This circumspect Onaga sounded very different to the Onaga who just before the prefectural election had stood on the Henoko beach declaring to a mass protest meeting, before some 5,500 people, his unequivocal commitment to “zettai ni soshi” (absolutely put a stop to) base construction.29

In late December 2014 and the following mid-January, Onaga made several visits to Tokyo, to submit his credentials, establish contact with the Abe government, and negotiate the annual fiscal grant to the prefecture. However, major figures (Prime Minister, Cabinet Secretary, Foreign Minister) refused to see him (in marked contrast with their warm greetings for his predecessor earlier in the month). Chief Cabinet secretary Suga said bluntly, “I have no intention to meet him during [the remainder of] this year.”30 For them, the base issue was “settled” and there was therefore nothing to discuss. If Onaga wanted to communicate something to the government, said a senior official of the ruling LDP, then he could do so through the prefectural branch of the party, i.e., precisely those forces with whom he was at odds over fundamental policy issues.31 The hostility was plain. The government seemed to think that a severe scolding would lead Onaga to resume the proper role of Governor, as obedient supplicant.

For his part, however, Onaga seemed strangely reluctant to press the prefecture’s case. He did meet on both occasions with the minister in charge of Okinawan matters, Yamaguchi Shunichi, but when he did he seems to have talked only about the scale of budget grant Okinawa could expect.32 Asked to explain why he chose not to even mention Henoko, he made the strange reply: “It would have been impolite to mention it during a ten minute conversation as I was taking my leave.”33

An unnamed Okinawan LDP member of the Diet may have spoken for general sentiment within the party when he (or she) was quoted as saying there was “no need to cooperate with those who have gone over to the enemy.”34 The punishment to Okinawa for electing Onaga included a 10 per cent cut in the annual budget for 2015 (to around 310 billion yen),35 and the almost certain deletion of the main projected infrastructural item - a north-south railway on Okinawa Island.

His treatment was reminiscent of that accorded Ota Masahide, governor between 1990 and 1998, who also offended Tokyo by his stubborn attempts to re-negotiate the base issue and was therefore frozen out of all contacts with the national government from February to December 1998, when he was eventually defeated at the polls.

Though he might have chosen to wield a reformist broom through the prefectural offices so as to create an “All Okinawa” team esprit de corps, instead he seemed intent on retaining the core of the old regime within the new. Rather than frontal opposition to the national government his approach was marked by restraint and the hope for compromise.

As Deputy Governors he chose two local politicians and long-term associates with wide bureaucratic experience but no record of strong views on base issues or dugong – Ageda Mitsuo (aged 66) and Urasaki Isho (aged 71). Then he made an even more startling appointment, that of Henzan Hideo (aged 66) to set up and run a Washington office for the prefecture. Henzan’s career included 30 years employment as special adviser to the US consul-general’s office in Naha, committed to serving US (rather than Okinawan, or even Japanese) interests. Whatever his competence at negotiating in English and his wide circle of Washington insider contacts, it was far from clear how from 2015 he would embody “All-Okinawan” anti-base determination.

No appointments carried more weight than those to the specialist advisory body (the “Experts Committee”) that Onaga set up to examine and advise him on the legality of the process of decision-making by his predecessor to identity possible flaws in the legal process that would warrant its cancelation. He announced the plan to set it up at the outset of his administration, but then took two months to settle its membership while he sought scholars and public figures who could be seen as “neutral” and “objective.” That meant excluding from the outset those identified with the anti-base struggle, whether lawyers (because most Okinawan lawyers have been involved by now in one or other base-related suit against the government), or environmentalists. In fact any environmentalist still neutral on the threat of base development to Okinawa’s environment 18 years into a bitter contest between the nation state and the prefecture on precisely this issue should rather have been disqualified. The notion of a “neutral” Okinawan environmentalist was oxymoronic.

Eventually, the process prolonged by the quest for “balance,” a six-man panel was appointed, comprising three environmentalists and three lawyers.36 All were distinguished scholars or jurists, but only one, Sakurai Kunitoshi, had a record of concern with the issue they would be called to investigate.37 Sakurai was well known for the view that the Henoko assessment process had been deeply flawed from the outset and that therefore the Nakaima decision to license reclamation was improper and illegal. As the prefecture’s best-known environmental assessment specialist and former president of Okinawa University, he could scarcely be overlooked for a seat on the Commission but some suspected darkly that the reason that full membership took so long to settle might have been because of the desire to find authoritative figures who would be able to “balance” his views.

The Commission began meeting in February 2015 and was to keep thereafter to a fortnightly schedule, leading to an outcome no sooner than June, so that there was therefore little likelihood of any Onaga decision before July. By that time, and whatever the panel recommended, it was clear that it would be too late to save Oura Bay.

Even Governor Nakaima, though he eventually signed off on it, declared that construction would “cause tremendous problems in terms of environmental conservation” and that “even with the conservation measures in the EIA, the conservation of the livelihood of local people and of the environment in the area affected is impossible.”38 The question for Governor Onaga, therefore, was not so much one of finding possible procedural flaws in Nakaima’s actions as of exercising his own gubernatorial authority, based on the expression of the popular will clear in his election, to revoke the reclamation license. Under the “Reclamation of Publicly Owned Water Surfaces Act” (Koyu suimen umetateho, 1921) reclamation may only be permitted (under Article 4) if due consideration has been paid to conservation, whereas this environmental impact assessment process has been widely declared “the worst EIA in the history of Japanese EIA.”39

Aside from the establishment of the “experts” panel, Onaga’s “All Okinawa” politics involved formalizing his administration’s mass base as the “All Okinawa Conference to Implement the Kenpakusho and Open the Future,” planning a prefectural delegation to Washington (expected to occur around May 2015), and pressing the Okinawan cause to all 46 Japanese prefectures, and (in some as yet unspecified way) the United Nations.40 Whatever such initiatives might accomplish, however, there seemed little prospect that they might significantly change the attitude of the Abe government.

Onaga’s hesitant moves on the Henoko (and Takae) fronts contrasted sharply with Abe’s decisiveness. Watching with pain and disbelief early in 2015 as the Abe government proceeded to drop huge, coral crushing, concrete blocks, each between 10 and 45 tons, across Oura Bay to mark the outline of the reclamation site, to let works-related contracts, prepare and dispatch materials, and harass, beat, and arrest protesters, many who had been among Onaga’s enthusiastic supporters just months earlier, were shocked.

On 16 February 2015, three months after his election, Onaga at last took action, even if by the most modest set of measures. He ordered that no more concrete blocks be lowered into the sea, that existing ones remain where they were, that no further changes be made to the sea floor, and that photographs be prepared showing the location of the blocks that had been lowered and the impact on their immediately surrounding environment. He also ordered a prefectural study to be completed by10 March, to be followed by whatever action then seemed appropriate.

What concerned him at this point, however, was not the works per se and the destruction they might be causing to the environment but whether some part of them might be ultra vires, in other words whether the Okinawan Defense Bureau might have exceeded the authority granted it by Governor Nakaima in August 2014 (a detailed, subsidiary consent for fracture of coral in parts of the designated site following his overarching grant of consent to reclamation issued in December of the preceding year). A few days later, in his formal policy speech to the prefectural Assembly, Onaga insisted that his goals of stopping Henoko and having Futenma returned were foundations of prefectural policy.

Furthermore, as the government and resistance forces faced each other at Henoko, the Abe government adopted increasingly forceful means. On 20 November, 85 year old Shimabukuro Fumiko (a Battle of Okinawa survivor) was carried off to hospital from the Camp Schwab protest gathering, suffering a suspected concussion.41 On the following day journalists from the Okinawan daily Ryukyu shimpo were manhandled, abused and forcibly removed from the site and protesting canoeists and kayakers were intimidated and driven off or on occasion dumped at sea, as far as four kilometres from shore, after being held for varying periods.42 In one much publicized case on 20 January 2015, a Coastguard officer gripped a woman film maker around the neck with his legs (a “horse riding” assault) intent on wrenching away her camera.43

On 22 February, just before the opening of a mass protest meeting at the gate of Camp Schwab, local Japanese security agents for the US Marine Corps arrested three protesters, including the head of the Okinawa Peace Movement Centre, Yamashiro Hiroji, on suspicion of breaching the special criminal law (adopted in 1952 at the height of the Korean War to prescribe stringent punishment for unauthorized entry or attempted entry into US bases in Japan). Film footage showed Yamashiro, when ordering demonstrators to be especially careful not to cross the boundary line, being suddenly attacked, flung to the ground, handcuffed, and dragged feet-first into the base by US Marine Corps security personnel. As the Okinawa Times noted, it appeared to be a clear case in which the constitutional right to freedom of assembly, opinion, and expression had been sacrificed to the overarching extraterritorial rights enjoyed by the US.44 For Okinawans, it suggested a return to the lawless dark ages of the 1950s when US forces confiscated land and constructed bases at will, and treated Okinawans with violence and contempt.

When LDP party chief Ishiba Shigeru wrote in his blog on 29 November 2013 that after all there was little difference in substance between vociferous demonstrators and terrorists, he likely spoke the sentiment of the Abe government as a whole.45

However, three months after Onaga’s election and despite his pledges to the contrary, nothing had halted or slowed progress on construction at Henoko or Takae. Osprey flew freely in Okinawan skies, fresh blocks of concrete continued to be dropped onto the ocean floor and there was no indication that the American occupation of Futenma would be ending any time soon. The government simply ignored the Governor’s order that works be suspended pending the outcome of a prefectural study. From the very next day it began depositing fresh concrete blocks on the Bay floor. Early in March it sent in riot police to rip away the tent-like protection that had been put in place for a performance at Camp Schwab Gate by 20 sanshin (the Okinawan three-stringed instrument known in Japan as shamisen), leaving them to perform under the rain. On 12 March 2015, it began to bore into the sea floor from a gigantic drilling rig.46 The Abe government still refused to talk to the Onaga administration (it would be “meaningless,” said Defense Secretary Nakatani on 13 March), and the US authorities refused (for “operational reasons”) permission to the Governor to enter the site to conduct the survey he had promised.

Onaga referred to this as “extremely regrettable” (taihen ikan), promising to stick to his pledge to stop the construction.47 However, it remained to be seen if he possessed the gumption to issue an order rescinding the reclamation license granted by his predecessor, order immediate stoppage of Oura Bay works, and launch court proceedings against the national government for an order to cease its depredations, remove the concrete blocks, and restore the ecology of the Bay. To do so would be to remove the fig leaf of legality beneath which the Abe government sheltered. It might not stop the Tokyo juggernaut, but it would expose in sharp relief the anti-democratic assault of the national state on the prefecture.

Yonaguni

The “Yonaguni problem” has to be understood in the same frame as the “Okinawa problem” and the “Henoko problem,” all of which are part of the “Japan problem.”  Throughout the Cold War, the 600 kilometre chain of Southwest (Nansei) Japanese islands stretching through the East China Sea to Taiwan remained peaceful and stable, with no significant military presence despite the adjacent Cold War frontier and just two policemen, a hand-gun apiece, to keep order. Since it ended, Yonaguni and other Okinawan outlying islands, as much “offshore” from Taiwan and China in the East China Sea as from Japan, have faced a debate over their future. Far from Japan’s metropolitan centers Yonaguni is at its closest point around 110 kilometres from the shore of Taiwan, just 370 from the East China coastal city of Foochow and a mere 150 from the uninhabited but fiercely contested Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. The prefectural capital, Naha, by contrast is 520 kilometres and the national capital of Tokyo around 2,000 kilometres distant.48

Though it is basically an offshore island of Taiwan, and just slightly farther offshore from China itself, there is in Yonaguni minimal sense of any “China threat” and (common throughout Okinawa) a strong social memory of half a millennium of close and friendly pre-modern contact with China.

In the midst of a booming region, Yonaguni suffers population attrition and economic decline because of the lack of direct transport or communications links with either Taiwan or China. It was populated half a century ago by over 10,000 people but now a mere 1,500. Uniquely in Japan, therefore, it has twice in the past decade formally debated its collective future, in 2004-5 and in 2014-2015. In 2005, it formulated a “Vision” for a future based on regional (East China Sea) cooperation and open door trade, fishing and tourism link with Taiwan, but Tokyo forbade it. Then, following a US naval intelligence-gathering visit to the island in 2007, a different, even opposite, idea of a military centred future began to gather attention. A petition to urge a base presence was organized in 2008 by a local “Defense Association” and drew 514 signatures, and the Yonaguni mayor, Hokama Shukichi, in June 2009 approached the Ministry of Defense and the Ground Self-Defense Forces to suggest they set up a base on the island.

Defense of the Southwestern (or Frontier, Sakishima) islands had been stressed by both LDP and DPJ governments, especially following the 2010 incidents at sea between Japan and China over the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands (for administrative purposes part of the Okinawan Yaeyama Island group). But many were unhappy at the thought of a military centered future. In 2011, 556 people, roughly 46 per cent of the electorate (and marginally more than had signed the initial petition to invite the SDF), signed a petition seeking to cancel the invitation. When that had no effect, it then, in 2012, organized a petition calling for a local plebiscite on the issue. That attracted 544 signatures, but it too had no effect because the City Assembly voted 3:2 to reject it.

In June 2013 the Town Assembly voted (3:2) to lease an island property (South Ranch or Minami Bokujo) to the SDF and two months later pro-base mayor Hokama was re-elected, if by the narrowest of margins (553:506). Opinion remained finely balanced but the pro-base group determinedly opposed any direct consultation with the island public. Then, however, as works commenced in the spring of the following year to level and contour the site for construction, the political balance of the island again shifted following a Town Assembly election in September 2014. An anti-base candidate topped the poll and in November a resolution to conduct a referendum on the base issue (in effect the same as had been narrowly rejected two years earlier) was adopted, 3:2.49 However, even as the political wheels to call the project into question and ultimately to try to cancel it and reclaim the site were thus slowly turning, the bulldozers and trucks at the site were stepping up the tempo of works designed to make them irreversible.

Base proponents tended not to mention strategic or military considerations. Mayor Hokama appealed to the island to support the SDF base proposal as an economic boost to the flagging island’s economy. In his re-election campaign in 2013 and in his referendum campaign in 2015, He concentrated on promises of free school lunches, a waste incinerator, town water and sewerage systems, a sports ground, and optical fibre internet connections. He claimed that the arrival of a detachment of well-paid and mostly young soldiers would constitute a significant economic boost, invigorating the island.50

The anti-base position rested on several grounds, fundamentally the aversion for militarization and the memory of the catastrophe of 1945. Any military presence, once established, could only grow, feeding the cross-sea confrontation, gradually changing the character of the island and widening the painful splits it had already caused in its close-knit community. As Okinawa in 1945 constituted the “sacrificial stones” for defense of mainland Japan, so Yonaguni Islanders (and Okinawans in general) feared that any military presence at the heart of the confrontation between China and Japan (backed by the US) had the potential to turn them again into sacrificial victims in any future East China Sea clash. Defense, in 2014 as in 1945, was concerned with Japan’s core, its mainland, not Okinawa and least of all Yonaguni.

Opponents of the base also feared possible health risks, especially in the immediate vicinity of the project camp, and possible adverse consequences for the island’s fauna and flora. Asked about the impact of high-powered electro-magnetic waves that were to be directed from the prospective base over the township, school, and kindergarten of Kubura, 24 hours a day, Prime Minister Abe told the Upper House of the Diet in November 2014 that there would be no risk, but since he declined on grounds of military secrecy to reveal the strength of those waves, not everyone was convinced.51 Also, the island is known to be home to 52 threatened or endangered plant and animal species, including the Yonaguni Marubane Kuwagata (a distinctive stag beetle).52 It is also home to  the world’s largest moth, Yonaguni-san or Ayumi habiru, and Japan’s smallest horse, the Yonaguni horse. Nobody could say for certain what the impact on these creatures would be.

However, though opponents of the base project tended to hark back to the 2005 “Vision” agenda of an East Asian or East China Sea community, they found it difficult to spell out how this would be accomplished. One modest initial proposal was for a ferry service to link Yonaguni Island to Taiwan (a two to two and a half hour journey by hydrofoil) as a simple step that they believed could radically transform life on the island.53

In the event, the 22 February referendum returned a fairly clear “Yes” result, 632 to 445 (in an 85 per cent poll), thus settling the longstanding question over the project. A Ground Self Defense Force (GSDF) of around 150 would be based on the island from 2016 engaged in surveillance of adjacent sea and sky. Fatigue from years of bitter struggle in the small, close-knit island community played a large role in the outcome.54 Many were discouraged by the silence of Okinawan Governor Onaga, who they had assumed, following his victory in November 2014, would incorporate the island within his general “All Okinawa” anti-base stance. Without external support, and knowing that Minister of Defense Nakatani Gen had said that construction was going to proceed irrespective of the poll result, it seemed futile for a few hundred islanders to attempt to resist the determined central government. Still, the 41 per cent No vote showed that divisions in the community remained deep.

Whatever the future holds, the choice that was made had a Faustian quality: the SDF may bring economic benefits, but, once ensconced on the island they will be loath ever to leave, and they will bring with them the real, if indeterminate risk for Yonaguni of being assigned a place on a putative Chinese missile target list. One island resident wrote, sadly, “When the base gets built I believe that a substantial number of people will leave, that tourism will decline significantly, that quality of life will decrease, that far fewer children will return after high school, that, as a result the character of the island will change for the worse.”55

Furthermore, the military logic of East China Sea surveillance from Yonaguni is dubious. Chinese ships passing from the East China Sea to the Pacific naturally prefer the route through international waters in the Miyako strait between Okinawa Island and Miyako Island (some hundred or so kilometres to the northeast). Some in the other Japanese SDF services (Air and Maritime) suspected that the real reasons on the part of the GSDF for deployment to Yonaguni were “turf” considerations, to compensate for the loss of role in Hokkaido where, through the Cold War, they prepared for a putative land attack by Soviet forces.56 In the post-Cold War, post-War on Terror era, the South-West was the growth area for Japan’s military. Both Air and Maritime forces had already assured themselves of a major role there and Yonaguni was the Ground force’s chance. A similar move into the much larger Ishigaki Island, where the newly re-elected conservative mayor is known to be supportive of such stationing and also welcoming of Maritime SDF visits, was also expected to follow shortly.

Reluctant or otherwise, however, the 10-year struggle to define a post-Cold War role for Yonaguni had been resolved. For better or for worse, the island had made the fateful decision to throw in its lot with the Japanese military (and its Pentagon backers).

Prospect

Following the gubernatorial election of November and the national lower house elections of December, the Okinawan people appeared to an unprecedented degree united, rejuvenated, determined. Just three months later, the mood had shifted to doubt and fear that the process of construction at Henoko (and Takae) had developed a perhaps unstoppable momentum, the Osprey presence was being stepped up, and that all Governor Onaga’s professions of stopping these things might in the end prove empty. Conditions at Yonaguni were probably unique, but the outcome there might be taken as a signal that Tokyo’s will would in the end prevail.

While the rest of Japan, and its media, turns a blind eye, Okinawan society is subjected to enormous strains. As a Ryukyu shimpo editorial of 18 August 2014 put it:

“As far as we know, the government has never unleashed such reckless disregard of the will of the people, as we have seen at Henoko. ... We wonder if there has ever been a case like this, where the government has trampled on the will of the overwhelming majority of people in a prefecture elsewhere in Japan. This action by the government evokes memories of the crackdown against peasants during the Edo period. ... The Abe government seems to be in the process of moving from ‘dictatorship’ to ‘terror politics’.”57

And things have only got worse since then.

In contrast to the hesitation and ambiguities of his early months in office, and his studied indifference to Yonaguni, Onaga had begun and ended his campaign for the governorship with the powerful gesture of visiting the anti-base activists on the Henoko front lines and declaring solidarity with them. It seemed unthinkable that he would renege on the solemn pledges he had made then. As prefectural riot police and national Coastguard forces are deployed to crush protesters whose cause he shares, and as the process of boring into the bed of Oura bay and transforming much of it into a major East Asian military concentration in defiance of the wishes of the Okinawan people proceeds, Onaga faces the challenge of weaving a credible, democratic politics out of his general “All-Okinawa” principle.

The problem with Onaga’s reiteration of the mantra “identity has precedence over ideology” is that politicians, and indeed humans, possess multiple identities. Onaga is not only Okinawan but he is also a lifelong (to 2014) member of the Liberal Democratic Party. Since that is an identity he shares with Prime Minister Abe, Abe and his government now must hope that Onaga’s political identity as a conservative would reassert itself over his ethnic or cultural identity as Okinawan.

Should Onaga choose to stand at the helm and lead the prefecture into a principled stand against the national government, “All-Okinawan” unity would constitute a formidable strength. The national government may persist in intimidation and manipulation, but there are obvious limits to the extent to which it can resort to direct violence. Okinawa seemed ready last November to persist in saying “No” (on large matters of security, environment, and indeed democracy) to the national government. The question is: will its Governor lead them into battle?

 

Notes:

1 See, inter alia, Gavan McCormack, “The San Francisco Treaty at Sixty—The Okinawa Angle,” in Kimie Hara, ed, The San Francisco System and Its Legacies: Transformation and Historical Reconciliation in the Asia-Pacific, London, Routledge, 2015, pp. 144-161

2 Client State: Japan in the American Embrace, London and New York, Verso, 2007. “Zokkoku mondai – Beikoku no hoyo to higashi Ajia de no koritsu,” in Magosaki Ukeru and Kimura Akira, eds, Owaranai “senryo”, Kyoto, Horitsu bunkasha, 2013, pp. 18-38.

3 “Japan’s “Positive Pacifism”: Issues of Historical Memory in Contemporary Foreign Policy,” Brown Journal of World Affairs (Brown University, Watson Institute for International Studies), Vol. XX, issue 2, spring-summer 2014, pp. 73-92.

4 Nakano Koichi, “Neoribe jidai no ea nashonarizumu,” Saraba dokusaisha, kensho, boso suru Abe seiken," Shukan kinyobi, rinji zokan, 17 April 2014, pp. 8-10.

5 All four defeated LDP candidates were returned to Diet seats under the proportional representation “bloc” system, as part of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) slate for the Kyushu-Okinawa region.

6  “Henoko chushi 80% “eikyo nai’ Suga kanbochokan kaiken, honshi seron chosa, Ryukyu shimpo, 26 August 2014.

7 “Henoko isetsu ‘shukushuku to susumeru’ Onaga shi tosen ni kambo chokan,” Ryukyu shimpo, 17 November 2014.

8 Yamaguchi Masanori, “Media ga hojinai Okinawa,” Shukan kinyobi, 13 July 2013, p. 58. For the background to the Takae struggle, Gavan McCormack and Satoko Oka Norimatsu, Resistant Islands: Okinawa Confronts Japan and the United States, Lanham, Rowman and Littlefield, 2012, pp. 168-172.

9 “Takae heripaddo, toshiake kogi haijo e, Bei ga rosokutai kanri,” Okinawa taimusu, 31 December 2014.

10 “Osupurei ga shin chakurikudai de hatsu kunren, Higashi son Takae,” Ryukyu shimpo, 26 February 2015.

11 “Higashi son de Noguchigera mado ni shototsushi, kotoshi yon-wa me,” Okinawa taimusu, 29 October 2014.

12 “Chakurikudai senko teikyo, hajisubeki taibei juzoku da,” editorial, Ryukyu shimpo, 19 February 2015.

13 Ibid. See also Jon Mitchell ”The Foreign Element: In appearance on far-right TV, U.S. official calls Okinawa base protests ‘hate speech’,” Japan Times, 16 February 2015.

14 Ryukyu shimpo, 5 May and 26 August 2014 (“Seron chosa: ‘Henoko chushi’ isetsu kyoko hantai hirogaru”). Just 19.8 per cent favoured continuation of the works. Even in the conservative bloc, 70.1 per cent of LDP supporters and 91.7 of New Komeito supporters said they should be stopped.

15 Boeisho, “Beigun saihen nado zainichi Beigun no churyu ni kansuru shisaku, Boeisho,” April 2013.

16 “‘Gonen inai’ hitei chabangeki no zokko wa mu imi da,” Ryukyu shimpo, ed., April 2 2014.

17 “Marines won’t leave Futenma till new base built: Wissler,” Japan Times, April 12, 2014. US Pacific Commander Admiral (Samuel) Locklear told a Senate Committee hearing the same. (“‘Gonen inai teishi hitei’ kyoko no tanpo to shonin no tsumi,” Okinawa taimusu, April 13 2014.)

18 “Gonen-nai teishi ‘kuso’ Henoko o minaosu jiki da,” editorial, Okinawa taimusu, 17 October 2014.

19 Heianna Sumiyo, “Futenma 5 nen teishi ‘arienai’, Makein shi,” Okinawa taimusu, 19 February 2015.

20 For my 1 July report, sailing around the Bay on the eve of this closure, “Gavan McCormack, kaijo ripoto Henoko,” 2 July 2014.

21 “‘Chiji, kakekomi shonin’ shugiin de kenmin no shinpan o,” Ryukyu shimpo, editorial, 6 December 2014.

22 “Three candidates to run in the gubernatorial election,” Ryukyu Shimpo, 24 July 2014.

23 “Onaga shi e asu shutsuba yosei,” Okinawa taimusu, 6 August 2014.

24 “Arayuru shuho o kushi shite, Henoko ni shin kichi wa tsukurasenai.”

25 “Futenma kichi no heisa, tekkyo, kennai isetsu dannen, Osupurei haibi tekkai o tsuyoku motomeru.”

26 “Okinawa keizai hatten no saidai no sogai yoin.”

27 “Shimin kensho kankyo men o jushi,” Okinawa taimusu, 18 December 2014 (see discussion in “Hayaku mo ‘kotai’ shita hatsu gikai toben, Onaga chiji ni setsumei sekinin o,” in the blog “Watashi no Okinawa/Hiroshima nikki,” 20 December 2014.

28 Ryukyu shimpo, 17 December 2014 (quoted in “Hayaku mo,” ibid.)

29 “Zen Naha shicho, Onaga Takeshi shi ga kataru ‘Okinawa chiji sen’ shutsuba e no kakugo,” Nikkan gendai, 13 October 2014.

30 “‘Mendan moshiire fuhatsu’ seifu wa Okinawa no koe o kike,” editorial, Okinawa taimusu, 27 December 2014.

31 “Okinawa chiji o reigu, jiminto kanbu ‘Nakaima ja nai kara’,” Asahi Shimbun, 9 January 2015.

32 For the meeting on 26 December.

33 Okinawa taimusu, 17 January 2015.

34 “Mendan moshiire,” op. cit.

35 “Okinawa shinko yosan ichiwari gen, rainendo seifu, 3100 oku en de chosei,” Okinawa taimusu, 8 January 2015.

36 “Henoko umetate shonin, kenshohan wa Sakurai shi ra 5 nin, toshiake hatsu kaigo,” Ryukyu shimpo, 25 December 2014. The group was later expanded to six members.

37 For representative Sakurai texts on the environmental implications of the Henoko project, see the Asia-Pacific Journal index. The title of one, “Japan’s Illegal Environmental Impact Assessment of the Henoko Base,” (The Asia Pacific Journal, Vol. 10, Issue 9, No 5, February 27, 2012) was characteristic.

38 Yoshikawa, ibid.

39 Shimazu Yasuo, former chair-person of the Japan Society for Impact Assessment, quoted in Hideki Yoshikawa, “An appeal from Okinawa to the US Congress,” The Asia-Pacific Journal – Japan Focus, 29 September 2014.

40 “Shimagurumi kaigi, kokuren to Bei ni yosei kettei,” Ryukyu shimpo, 20 December 2014.

41 “Henoko 85 sai josei kega, ichiji ishiki ushinau,” Okinawa taimusu, 21 November 2014.

42 “Kenkei ga Henoko shusai bogai, kasha, eiga kantoku o haijo,” Ryukyu shimpo, 21 November 2014.

43 “Henoko shin kichi kensetsu, kaiho, setsumei ni mujun, umanori shashin ‘josei kawashita’,” Ryukyu shimpo, 23 January 2015. For resume of incidents at the site, Jon Mitchell, “Injuries to Okinawa anti-base protesters ‘laughable,’ says U.S. military spokesman,” Japan Times, 9 February 2015. Yamashiro and his companion were handed over to the Japanese police in Nago and their case referred to the prosecutors before they were eventually released 35 hours later.

44 “‘Keitokuho de futari taiho’ shinjigatai futo kosoku, naze,” editorial, Okinawa taimusu, 24 February 2015

45 Quoted in Torigoe Shuntaro, “Boso suru Abe seiken – Heisei no fashizumu no ashioto,” Ryukyu shimpo, 7 December 2013.

46 “Henoko umetate: Beigun, ken no tachiiri chosa o kyohi,” Okinawa taimusu, 12 March 2015.

47 “Onaga chiji ‘yurusenai’ hasai kyoka, torikeshi shisa,” Ryukyu shimpo, 13 March 2015.

48 On Yonaguni, see (in Japanese) John W. Dower and Gavan McCormack, Tenkanki no Nihon e – pakkusu Americana ka pakkusu Ajia ka, Tokyo, NHK Bukkusu, chapter 3; and (in English) Gavan McCormack, “Yonaguni: Dilemmas of a Frontier Island in the East China Sea,” The Asia-Pacific Journal – Japan Focus, 1 October, 2012, and "The End of the Postwar? The Abe Government, Okinawa, and Yonaguni Island", The Asia-Pacific Journal, December 8, 2014 

49 “Jumin tohyo 17 nichi jorei kaketsu e,” Ryukyu shimpo, 15 November 2014 and “‘Tozen’ ‘naze ima sara’,” Ryukyu shimpo, 18 November 2014.

50 The evidence of Tsushima Island, roughly half-way between Fukuoka City in southwestern Japan and Pusan in Korea, suggests otherwise. When that city invited the SDF in 1959, its population was 70,000. Now it is around 35,000.

51 Response by Prime Minister Abe to question from Itokazu Keiko on possible adverse health effects of SDF radar on Yonaguni. 25 November 2014.

52 “Zetsumetsu kigu made ’52 shu seisoku’,” Okinawa taimusu, 15 April, 2014.

53 Memo by Tasato Chiyoki, member of the Yonaguni town assembly, to then Okinawa gubernatorial candidate Onaga Takeshi, 17 October 2014 (copy courtesy Mr Tasato).

54 Sado Akihiro, “Jumin tsuzuku tairitsu ni hihei,” and Yasuda Mamoru, “Kokkyo no sentaku,” part 1 “Susumu koji ni hantai ha gosan,” both in Ryukyu shimpo, 24 February 2015.

55 Personal communication from an island resident.

56 “Yonaguni rikuji kikoshiki, haibi kakudai e no fuseki,” Ryukyu shimpo, April 20 2014.

57 “Kussaku sagyo ni chakushu, mohaya ‘kyofu seiji’ da, banko chushi min-i o toe,” Ryukyu shimpo, 18 August 2014, also posted on the web in English as “Abe administration signals future reign of terror in Henoko.”

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Gavan McCormack

Gavan McCormack is an emeritus professor of the Australian National University and a coordinator of The Asia-Pacific Journal. He is author of many books and articles on modern and contemporary East Asia, and many of his articles are accessible on this site. His Target North Korea: Pushing North Korea to the brink of Nuclear Catastrophe, was published in 2004 and translated and published in Japanese and Korean. In 2008 and 2009 he contributed a monthly column to the Seoul daily Kyunghyang shinmoon. His discussion with John Dower of the prospects for 2012 was featured on NHK satellite television as its New Year program ("Kantogen 2012"). His most recent book, co-authored with Satoko Oka Norimatsu, is Islands of Resistance: Okinawa Confronts Japan and the United States, forthcoming, Rowman and Littlefield, July 2012.