There were extraordinary scenes in Okinawa last week, Japan’s southernmost prefecture. This subtropical chain of islands is famous for its sandy beaches and clear waters but also for the preponderance of US military bases. With only 0.6 per cent of Japan’s territory, Okinawa hosts 74 per cent of its US bases.
An invited crowd had gathered at Itoman, which was the scene of the bloody finale of the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. It is thought that as many as 250,000 people died in the battle, perhaps half of them civilians. Every year there is a solemn ceremony to console the spirits of those who died and every year the Governor of Okinawa gives a speech – usually a conventional message of peace, speaking of the horrors of the battle and the wish for it not to be repeated.
This year, things went a little differently. The current Governor of Okinawa, Takeshi Onaga, spoke specifically about the US bases and appealed to the government to abandon its plan to relocate the problematic marine air base of Futenma, now in heavily populated Ginowan, to Henoko, a beautiful bay in the north of the island. Onaga and the majority of Okinawans would like to see the base taken out of the prefecture altogether.
As the Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe stepped up to make his speech at Itoman, the heckling began: “Go home! Warmonger! Liar!” Those who weren’t jeering were laughing. According to those who were there, the prime minister’s protection outfit tried to keep the protesters quiet and attempted to usher one man out. Abe completed his speech.
The Japanese public is not used to seeing the prime minister being heckled. Although the ceremony itself was widely reported, the Japanese media scarcely mentioned the booing and jeering. And yet this incident revealed the increasingly bitter feeling in Okinawa about the base relocation and the issue of the US bases in general.
Anti-base protests have been going on for years. At the time of the reversion in 1972, when the US forces handed Okinawa back to Japan after a long occupation, the protests were seen as a left-wing issue. The business community, which welcomed the income from the bases, was more supportive of the US presence. Now it seems there has been a shift, a coming-together of Okinawan business and traditional anti-base protestors. In 1972, income from the bases made up 15.5 per cent of the Okinawan economy; by 2008 this had dropped to 5.3 per cent. Tourism revenues meanwhile have gone in the opposite direction. Last year a record seven million tourists visited Okinawa, bringing in revenues of $4bn (€3.6bn) at the last count. Opponents of the bases argue that Okinawa would make more money if the land occupied by the military was handed over.
The problem for Okinawa is that it doesn’t have any heavyweight support. Onaga, who was elected last year on an anti-base, anti-relocation ticket, went to Washington to drum up support but his pleas fell on deaf ears. Even in Japan, where there is enormous sympathy for Okinawa, other prefectures aren’t offering to host US bases on their doorstep.
Governor Onaga and the local mayor have said they will take every legal measure to stop the construction of the unpopular new base at Henoko. At a press conference in Tokyo last month Onaga said that while he understood the importance of the Japan-US alliance, he’d “like to tell America that [they] will never let them build”.
Fiona Wilson is Monocle’s Asia bureau chief.