Editorial: Forty-four years after reversion, Okinawa must decide its own future

May 15, 2016 Ryukyu Shimpo

What have the past forty-four years brought to Okinawa? In 1972, the people of Okinawa desired to return to Japan and the protection of its peace constitution, and to achieve self-governance.

But what has actually occurred? The overwhelming burden of U.S. military bases remains unchanged, and accidents and incidents involving U.S. military personnel continue. The right to a peaceful existence guaranteed by the Japanese constitution has not been fully recognized in Okinawa.

A prominent issue involving the U.S. bases is the construction of a new base in Henoko, Nago, where the Japanese government is taking an authoritarian stance that ignores Okinawa’s subjectivity.

We do not want to think that the past forty-four years have merely perpetrated structural discrimination against Okinawa. On the forty-fourth Reversion Day, we should reconsider this day as a day of autonomy, a day to honor the concept of Okinawans deciding our own future.

A natural wish

Chobyo Yara, a leader of the movement to achieve the reversion of Okinawa to Japan, expressed his thoughts on reversion as follows:

“To put it simply, we yearn to recover our humanity. It is an utterly natural wish, and it is our demand” (Okinawa ha damatteirarenai, Yell Books, 1969).

The Yara Petition (kengisho) detailed the problems arising from twenty-seven years of U.S. rule, demanding that the Japanese government: (1) Enact policies prioritizing the welfare of the Okinawan people; (2) Pay particular respect to Okinawa’s local autonomy, given the post-Meiji history of denial of Okinawa’s autonomy; (3) Repudiate war and pursue peace above all else; (4) Restore human rights to Okinawans under the peace constitution; and (5) Promote economic development prioritizing the interests of the Okinawan people.

The demands made in the Yara Petition remain relevant today. In fact, the “natural wish” of which Yara spoke remains unfulfilled even now.

The conflict between Okinawa and the Japanese national government over the construction of a new U.S. base in Henoko is particularly symbolic of this unfulfilled wish. The national government is infringing on Okinawa’s local autonomy by nonchalantly ignoring the Okinawan people’s opposition to the new base as expressed in various elections.

Construction on the new base is currently suspended as part of an out-of-court settlement, but national government representatives constantly repeat the line that “Henoko is the only solution.” The government shows no respect whatsoever for Okinawans’ natural rights to local autonomy, popular will, and self-determination.

We have yet to see an end to incidents that threaten Okinawans’ right to a peaceful existence. In March, a U.S. soldier stationed at Camp Schwab violated a woman in Naha.

The incident showed that the U.S. military’s measures to impose curfews and restrict alcohol consumption are utterly ineffective.

The national government is also taking no steps to relieve the overwhelming burden of bases in Okinawa. The government claims that it is working to reduce the burden on Okinawa, pointing to the recent return of around fifty-one hectares of land comprising the West Futenma Housing Area. However, in mainland Japan, three hundred and forty-five hectares of land formerly designated for exclusive use by the U.S. military have been returned since 2014. As a result, since 2014, the percentage of land area designated for exclusive use by the U.S. military in Okinawa compared to the rest of Japan has risen slightly from 73.8 percent to 74.46 percent.

The government should stop this form of “burden reduction” that is all show and no substance.

Bases are an obstacle

Recently it was discovered that a high school textbook that had passed the government’s review process contained a grave error regarding the economic contribution of U.S. bases to Okinawa’s economy. The incident shows that the myth that Okinawa’s economy is reliant upon the bases remains prominent in other parts of Japan. In 1972, base-related income made up 15.5 percent of Okinawa’s economy, but as of fiscal 2013, that number was only 5.1 percent.

It has become clear from our experience of the past forty-four years that the U.S. bases are no more than an obstacle to the growth of Okinawa’s economy. Okinawa has achieved tremendous development through utilization of former base land after its return.

In areas where former base land has been returned, comparisons have been made between the direct economic benefits accrued from rent paid to owners of land used by the U.S. military, income earned by workers employed on base, and other base-related income before the land was returned, and revenue from manufacturing and other forms of income resulting from development after the land was returned. The Kuwae and Kitamae areas of Chatan saw direct economic benefits increase to 108 times those seen before the return. In the Shintoshin area of Naha, direct economic benefits increased to 32 times those seen before the return.

The Abe administration claims that it will enact “diverse support and seamless policy measures” to achieve regional revitalization. If that is the case, should it not respect Okinawa’s autonomy and lend a hand to efforts to turn Okinawa into an island that pursues peace?

If Okinawa is made into a logistics hub that serves as a gateway to Asia and attracts tourists from other parts of Japan and abroad, it can become a driving force for Japan’s economy. People in Okinawa do not want to remain an “island of bases” forever.

The Abe administration is taking the teeth out of the Japanese constitution with measures such as allowing the exercise of the right to collective self-defense. Its refusal to pay heed to popular sentiment is also evident in the hardline stance it takes toward Okinawa. In such an era, we should see Reversion Day as an opportunity to take back the local autonomy highlighted in the Yara Petition.

(English translation by T&CT and Sandi Aritza)

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