14 November 2014

Election an opportunity for Okinawans to assert their identity



Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a daily column that runs on Page 1 of The Asahi Shimbun

Who are we? Most mainland Japanese do not wonder about it in their daily lives. But it is probably a question many people in Okinawa Prefecture ask themselves constantly.

Here is a passage from a petition submitted in January 2013 to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe by the heads of all municipalities in Okinawa and the presidents of all municipal assemblies: "While living the history and culture of (the kingdom of) Ryukyu that have remained ingrained in us for generations, we, as citizens of Japan, have been of one mind with all Japanese citizens in wishing prosperity for the nation."

Representing the collective will of the people of Okinawa, the petition urged the Japanese government to abandon its plans to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within the prefecture.

The people of Okinawa are Okinawans, but they are also Japanese. The self-image presented in the petition is what Masaru Sato refers to as a "compound identity" in his recently published "Okinawa Hyoron" (Okinawa review). A writer and former Foreign Ministry official, Sato is conscious of his Okinawan roots. His mother was born and raised on Kumejima, one of the Okinawan islands.

Noting in the book that lately he has come to think of himself more as an Okinawan than a Japanese, Sato explains that Tokyo's determination to relocate the Futenma base within Okinawa only serves to reinforce "structural discrimination against Okinawa" through the concentration of U.S. bases there.

The Okinawa gubernatorial election campaign kicked off on Oct. 30. The conservative camp is split, which is unprecedented. "The collective will of the people of Okinawa" that the petition represented in January 2013 has since become fragmented by the Abe administration's aggressive policy.

Voters must decide whether to accept or reject the relocation of the air base within the prefecture. But I think the decision also addresses an underlying identity issue, namely whether the voters see themselves more as Okinawan or Japanese.

This may be a tough call for many voters. But one thing to keep firmly in mind is that their predicament arose as a result of Tokyo's policy and the existing structure of discrimination.

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