The United States, Japan, and the Subjugation of Okinawa

The relocation of the United States Marine Corps Base at Futenma, Okinawa, has long-been a controversial subject within Japanese politics. Plans to relocate the base to Camp Schwab, in the island’s far north, have stagnated in recent years as a result of prolonged local protest. Now, following the election of the pro-Tokyo mayoral candidate Taketoyo Toguchi in Okinawa’s Nago City, PM Abe has expressed intention to press ahead with the American relocation. This does not however reveal the full story of Okinawa, former independent Kingdom turned Japan’s poorest prefecture, and their century of subjugation.  

Quick Facts Okinawa

Okinawa has a long and vibrant culture. Alongside the remainder of the Ryukyu Island chain Okinawa formed the Ryukyu Kingdom, a major trading post in Medieval Asia. Famous for its porcelain, trade with China resulted in significant Ming Dynasty influence, including widespread immigration from China. Following the 1609 invasion of the Japanese Satsuma Domain, the blend of Chinese and Japanese influence resulted in the emergence of a unique Okinawan culture, complete with its own distinct languages. Local trade evolved into trade with the wider world, with the Ryukyu island ports serving as the only stages within which European traders could access Japanese markets during the period of isolationism.

The relative liberty enjoyed within Ryukyu ended in 1879, when the Empire of Japan formally annexed the archipelago, establishing the Okinawa Prefecture. King Sho Tai was exiled to Tokyo, and with a policy of colonisation which would soon be replicated in Korea and wider Southeast Asia, indigenous Ryukyuan culture and language were systemically repressed. The Japanese language was made standard, and ‘dialect speakers’ were publicly shamed. The intense labour which formed the backbone of the Tokyo-engineered Okinawan economy led to mass emigration, primarily to industrial cities on the mainland such as Osaka. When the Second World War broke out, Okinawans were one of many communities who felt threatened by the expansionist and brutal imperial Japanese regime. Their fears were not misplaced, as the Battle of Okinawa, one of the most significant battles of the Pacific War, saw over a third of the native civilian population killed. Many of these died as a result of Japanese propaganda, which portrayed the Americans as monsters, leading to suicide.

Defeat during the war saw Japanese domination on Okinawa replaced by US military domination. From 1950 until 1972 the US Civil Administration of the Ryuku Islands was the de facto government in Okinawa. The US dollar was the currency, cars drove on the right, and a proliferation of US military installations were installed across the island, cemented by the 1960 Status of Forces Agreement. The US military presence has long been seen as an invasive presence, a disrupter of Okinawan peace, a factor which ties the island and islanders lives to American conflicts such as Korea and Vietnam. The Okinawa Prefecture was returned to Japanese control in 1971, however the US military presence, encompassing 19% of Okinawa, remained. Seen as an amalgamation of American and Japanese oppression, grievances towards the US military presence came to a head in 1995, when three US servicemen were convicted of the rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl. The mass protestations prompted suggestions of a reduction in the US military presence, as well as a relocation of the Futenma Air Station. This wasn’t enough for many Okinawans, and rejections of the Camp Schwab relocation made on both environmental and anti-military grounds have resulted in a decades long stagnation of the proposals.

Okinawans continue to be let down by a Tokyo Government which values their military strategic partnership more than the will of its own citizens. Local opposition was signified when in November 2014, the anti-US base candidate Takeshi Onaga was elected as the Okinawan Governor. This hindered any immediate progression of the base relocation. While this may be viewed in stark contrast to the more recent of the pro-relocation mayor in Nago City, it is worth bearing in mind that Okinawa is the poorest Prefecture in Japan. Child poverty stands at 37%, almost three times higher than the national average. When faced with such neglect, candidates stressing their desire for economic growth are bound to be favoured by those affected. Taketoyo Toguchi ran such a campaign. While Shinzo Abe saw this as a greenlight for the long-stagnant relocation project, perhaps the clear cry from Nago’s high poverty rates should have been the overriding message to adhere from the result of the vote. Opposition to the US-military presence is undoubtedly still widespread, however this is offset by the poor economic conditions on the island. While Japan continues to bend to the American will, little will change in Okinawa. The islanders will continue to resist, as they have done for centuries.


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