Updated: Mar 31, 2020
Image source: Koji Harada/Kyodo News
Note: This article was published in its original format in the Shingetsu News Agency on July the 16th, 2019, titled “Global Progressives Must Stand Up for Okinawa”, and was edited by Michael Penn.
Last June, Okinawa residents headed to Itoman to commemorate the grisly Battle of Okinawa. They came in droves to visit the Peace Memorial Shrine, praying in front of the Heiwa no Ishiji (Cornerstone of Peace) monument, which inscribes the names of over 240,000 people who lost their lives in the horrific conflict.
Denny Tamaki, Okinawa’s firebrand governor, made a speech in front of crowds of Okinawans mourning the lives lost. Tamaki declared, "We must pass down Okinawa's warm heart we call chimugukuru and its spirit of peace, inherited from our ancestors, to our children and grandchildren." Speaking over gusty wind and lashing rain, Tamaki raised his voice to proclaim, “We will endeavour to forge a world of everlasting peace.”
Tamaki’s remarks appear to be in vain. The world of everlasting peace that he described and hopes for looks ever more unlikely with every passing day.
And that battle, the Battle of Okinawa, was arguably a pointless conflict. The war had been lost by April 1945, and the tide of the war had turned against Japan more than a year earlier. Tokyo could have easily surrendered a month or so before the conflict, as Herbert Bix points out in Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan. Prince Fumimaro Konoe, one of Hirohito’s senior advisors, desperately tried to convince him to do just this, but to no avail.
The former Emperor Hirohito and his advisors plunged Okinawa into a war they didn’t want, and into a war Tokyo didn’t need. It was a country which had arrogantly degraded and disrespected the Okinawan people for centuries. In 1879, Japan annexed Okinawa, the Ryukyu kingdom. Japan went on in an attempt to completely wipe out the Ryukyuan language, culture, and religion. Tokyo insisted that schools allow only the use of Japanese, and publicly humiliated students who used the Ryukyuan language by forcing them to wear a plaque around their necks reading “dialect speaker.” Life was pretty grueling for most Okinawans, and it had been that way for centuries, since the “Golden Age” of the 15th and 16th century. It was about to get a lot worse.
On April 1, 1945, hundreds of thousands of American troops descended upon Okinawa’s beaches for a final struggle. About 130,000 Japanese soldiers tried their best to thwart the Americans, but it was by this stage in the war a ragtag bunch, made up of conscripted citizens and unarmed home guards. Among them were thousands of middle school-aged boys, forced into front line service; around half of them went on to give up their lives in horrific suicide bomb attacks. The fighting was fierce with kamikaze suicide pilots driving planes into ships. Okinawan civilians also got caught in the crossfire. Their homes became the battlefield.
Even worse, many Okinawans were essentially forced to commit suicide. The Imperial Japanese propaganda taught Okinawans that “the Americans and British were “ogre-beasts.” It manipulated Okinawans into believing that self-destruction was better than capture by the Allies; that killing oneself was a way to show your loyalty to the Emperor. As if that was not enough, Tokyo took one step further, ordering Japanese troops to hand out grenades to Okinawans for the purposes of self-sacrifice, directly ordering Okinawans to kill themselves. In some cases, these grenades didn’t work. The history books tell horrible tales of parents killing their children with rocks and stones, of brothers killing sisters with spears, of bloodbaths in caves, people crying out, wailing and screaming while the horrible deeds were carried out.
By June 22, the “hell on earth,” as some survivors called it, ended. About 111,000 Japanese soldiers died along with about 49,000 American casualties. Additionally, hundreds of thousands of Okinawan men, women, and children were slain. A quarter of the entire Okinawan population was gone.
A few months later, on VJ Day, when Imperial Japan finally gave in and surrendered, perhaps Okinawans allowed themselves a glimmer of hope. But those glimmers were crushed by the Americans when they occupied Okinawa, from the end of the Pacific War through to 1972. Okinawa became the United States’ “keystone” in the Asia-Pacific region and essentially became one giant US military complex. US military bases sprang up in what were once Okinawan neighborhoods and bustling cities. Several popular Okinawan beaches were closed off to the public, as the US commandeered them for military purposes. A giant US Air Base built in the town of Kadena, in the southeast of the island, became one of the world’s busiest airports during the Vietnam War. One million military flights ferried troops and supplies back and forth from the horrific battlegrounds of Vietnam.
The groundbreaking reporting of Jon Mitchell has revealed that many of these flights carried a deadly herbicide, Agent Orange. Staggeringly, 25,000 55-gallon drums of the herbicide, which have damaging health and environmental effects, were stored on the island by the American military. It was sprayed as a weed killer around military bases along with even more dangerous herbicides such as Agent Pink. It was allegedly tested by American forces to assess its usefulness in Vietnam. And because of the US military’s carelessness about these chemicals, areas of Okinawa remain contaminated from Agent Orange today. Barrels have turned up at football pitches in Okinawa City, at residential areas in Chatan, and at airfields in Yomitan. It has meant that several Okinawans who were employed in the 1960s and 1970s at Camp Schwab, a US Marine base in Nago, suffered from cancer as a result. It has also meant that in at least one Okinawan location where Agent Orange was used, leukemia rates among locals spiked. Additionally, at least 250 US military veterans who served in Okinawa during the occupation have filed claims for compensation due to health problems suffered as a result of Agent Orange exposure.
Yet Washington, along with the Okinawa Defense Bureau have denied all of the evidence presented to them. The Defense Bureau seized suspected drums of Agent Orange, but failed to disclose what was actually inside them. Internal US Department of Defense investigations supposedly demonstrated that no Agent Orange was stored or used in Okinawa, but they didn’t even interview a single US veteran or Okinawan base worker.
Even after the handover in 1972, life didn’t improve for many Okinawans. Tokyo signed a questionable treaty with the United States, the US-Japan Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which stipulated that if a member of the American military was accused of a crime in Okinawa, the US kept legal “jurisdiction” over the accused. The US military still directly controls 19% of Okinawa island.
So while Okinawa was no longer a de jure US colony, in some ways it arguably remained so in all but name. The island still hosts 74% of American military bases and facilities in Japan, despite the fact that the island is a mere speck on the horizon, half the size of Tokyo. The military bases remained in cities, in towns, next to children’s playgrounds.
In 1995, three US servicemen rented a van and proceeded to kidnap and rape a 12-year-old Okinawan girl. US forces took the men into custody and they were only handed over to Japanese authorities almost a month after the original incident. Similar sexual assault cases have persisted to this day: It has been reported that several other cases involving US servicemen stayed under wraps. Okinawa suffers from issues with US servicemen allegedly committing other crimes, particularly robberies and murders. The biggest and most active Air Force base in East Asia is in fact in Okinawa, the Kadena Air Base, and residents living near the base often complain of disruption and noise pollution. Jet fighters and helicopters have crashed into Okinawan schools and universities, and objects have been falling from the skies repeatedly.
Well into the 21st century, the will of the Okinawan people still remains ignored. Even worse, politicians like Shinzo Abe have effectively denied much of Okinawa's history, attempting to whitewash it in much the same way as they have done other wartime controversies. In 2007, Shinzo Abe’s Ministry of Education ordered Japanese high school publishers to censor mentions of the shudan jiketsu (compulsory mass suicides) being initiated by the Imperial Japanese military.
There was one man in Tokyo who briefly gave Okinawa hope: Yukio Hatoyama. He was elected Prime Minister in 2009 and his Democratic Party of Japan promised to move the Futenma base off of Okinawa in his party manifesto. Ever since the 1995 rape case, Tokyo had planned to move the Futenma base, dubbed the “world’s most dangerous military base,” to Henoko, Okinawa. Yet Hatoyama aimed to scrap this plan, respecting the demands of the Okinawan people. He eventually failed after being undermined by others, including his own bureaucrats in the Foreign Ministry and elsewhere. He resigned only eight months into his tenure after making a “heartbreaking” decision to renege on his promise to the Okinawan people. As he departed, he defiantly declared that “someday, the time will come when Japan’s peace will have to be ensured by the Japanese people themselves.”
Since 1996, the Pentagon's alternative to the Futenma base was to construct a new base at Henoko beach, a plan they came to call “the only solution” to both replace Futenma’s base without compromising on Japan’s national security. But this so-called "solution" incensed Okinawans. The location of the base means that there will be a long process of land reclamation; some of the land reclaimed will include coral reefs and seagrass beds inhabited by the dugong, an endangered marine animal which is protected under both US and Japanese law. The construction of the base will result in waste dumping, fisheries disruption, and a decrease in biodiversity.
The work of the Tokyo think-tank New Diplomacy Initiative and authors such as Jon Reinsch reveal that most of the military arguments for the necessity of Henoko base construction don't stand up to close scrutiny in any case.
Okinawans have done all they can to peacefully resist the base. Sit-in demonstrations have taken place outside of Camp Schwab, involving thousands of demonstrators, for several years. In February, almost three-quarters of Okinawan voters resoundingly rejected the Henoko base in a referendum. The Abe government has met all such democratic means of resistance with utter contempt.
If we, as citizens of liberal democratic societies in the developed world, truly recognise and cherish the privileges we have been granted, such as the rule of law, freedom of expression, and the safeguarding of human rights, we must stand up for those who have such rights wrestled away from them. This is especially pertinent in a place like Okinawa, where Okinawans’ civil rights have been ignored and trampled upon by the national Japanese government and the United States. It is time to create a more vibrant international progressive movement to stand up for Okinawa. Such a movement must be as powerful and as widespread as the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, which has enjoyed global support, or the recent social media campaigns which showing solidarity and raised awareness about the horrific events in Sudan. The fight will be worth it, to finally bring justice to the Okinawan people and to allow their own voices to be heard around the world.