05 June 2013

A Day of Decolonization in Okinawa

              Michael Lujan Bevacqua

photo by Sunao Tobaru

On April 28, 1952 the Treaty of San Francisco ending World War II between Japan and the United States went into effect. As part of this treaty Japan would receive its sovereignty again, but the US would get to keep numerous bases in the country. 

Okinawa, as an island to the south of Japan, that had been forcibly annexed in 1879 was not thought of by most Japanese as being a true part of Japan. As a result it was the ideal “sacrifice” for Japan and was given to the United States in order for Japan to receive its sovereignty back. Bases that had been in mainland Japan were moved to the island, which was placed under US control until 1972. 

In the minds of the leaders of both Japan and the US, everyone got what they wanted. No one seemed to bother to ask the Okinawans about what they wanted.

In Japan, April 28th is thought of as an important anniversary, the day that Japan became whole again. This year the Japanese government announced that a celebration would take place to commemorate the return of their sovereignty from the United States. This upset almost everyone in Okinawa because April 28th, 1952 is known there as a “day of humiliation.” 

It is the day they were “sacrificed,” the day they were sold out to the United States. It was the day where what had been years of occupation would become permanent. 

For half a century prior the Japanese had colonized Okinawans, doing everything from banning their language, forcing them to change their names and banning aspects of their culture. Okinawa went from being its own kingdom, to a colony of Japan, where people were indoctrinated with the idea that they were now Japanese and had to give up those things they believed made them Okinawan.

Okinawans resisted in many ways this colonization and still held onto ideas of their cultural distinctiveness. Their being sacrificed by Japan has helped to amplify their cultural resistance to the point where it takes on political forms. If they were truly Japanese, why were they sold out in such a way? Why were they given over to a foreign power and had their lands militarized? If they were truly Japanese why has the rest of the country ignored their protests and their pleas to rid their island of US bases?

When the current Governor Hirokazu Nakaima heard of this celebration he politely refused his invitation to Tokyo. The Japanese government later tried to downplay their event by calling it more of a ceremony and memorial, not truly a celebration. Nakaima later decided to allow his Vice-Governor, a former historian and academic to attend on his behalf. The hope for his attendance was that since the Japanese seem to know so little about Okinawa and its history, who better than a historian to go and educate them.

The presence of the US bases in Okinawa has also helped to push people towards a more local critical consciousness. It is seen as a burden that people feel Okinawans bear unfairly compared to the rest of Japan, but also as the main issue in which they see the Japanese government to be unresponsive and unhelpful. For those who think the bases have only started to be contentious since 1995, this is hardly true. They have always been a source of antagonism and protest. When Okinawa reverted to Japanese control in 1972 there was a great hope that the bases would close. Nothing of the sort happened.

Okinawans lost huge amounts of land to these bases. There were even periods of starvation due to the land loss after the war. Okinawans worry about the effects the bases will have on their environment. They also fear, especially in the case of the Futenma, that the bases may lead to catastrophic accidents since some are so close to highly populated areas. As Okinawa has grown, they have even grown economically beyond the bases. Studies have shown that the amount of “sympathy” money that Okinawa receives for hosting the bases is actually much less than the amount of money the island could get if the land was returned and given over to public and private use.

While I was in Okinawa last month thousands came out to protest the “day of humiliation” on the beach in Ginowan City (where Futenma is located). In just the four days that I was there in April, there were numerous panels, conferences, debates, articles and demonstrations dealing with the issue of “Okinawa’s sovereignty.” It is for this reason that I would call 4/28 this year “a day of decolonization.” 

For years Okinawans saw themselves as a discriminated minority in a Japanese context. After years of protest and complaints that have not resolved the base issue for them, they are starting to expand their consciousness. As their value to Japan is that Okinawa is an island where it can hide most of the United States’ bases it is “forced” to host, it seems less and less likely that they bases could ever be removed if they remain a part of Japan. Decolonization and the asserting of Okinawan sovereignty may be the only way.