The PR battle of Okinawa


Japan: The U.S. military presence is a constant reminder of the prefecture's chronic inability to determine its own destiny.

May 20, 2002|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

OKINAWA, Japan - In a Naha conference room, journalists from the Ryukyu Shimpo newspaper explain their unyielding objection to the 37 U.S. military bases housed on Japan's southernmost prefecture.

The security alliance between Japan and the United States does not justify the crime, sexual harassment, noise, pollution, fatal collisions and other hazards caused by the bases and their inhabitants, they say.

"We feel sometimes that the military presence itself is a threat to security and human rights," an editor tells a group of American journalists.

The next day, before the same visitors, a Marine public affairs officer warns new recruits about off-base conduct and its impact on the press. "They won't report it if you help a little old lady across the street," he barks. "They will if you knock her down."

For both sides, it's a familiar drill: In their campaign against the bases, the newspapers report every offense, large and small, and the military tries to head off negative publicity at the pass.

Nearly 57 years after the Battle of Okinawa, the U.S. military and the Ryukyu Islands' two newspapers are locked in an intractable public relations battle. Beyond Okinawa, though, coverage of even the most repugnant incidents - including the rapes of a schoolgirl by three servicemen in 1995 and of a 20-year-old woman by an airman last year - rarely reveal the root cause of Okinawan frustration.

Since they were annexed by Japan in 1879, the Ryukyu Islands have endured forced assimilation, wartime devastation, military occupation and the fallout of political expediency. While residents claim a culture and history distinct from the Japanese mainland, "Okinawans' quest for a stable, satisfying sense of self-identity has never been allowed to achieve its desired natural solution," writes Okinawa expert Koji Taira.

For nearly five centuries, Okinawa existed as the independent Ryukyu kingdom, a tiny but viable trading nation where distinctive music, dance, art and strong spiritual traditions flourished. With Japanese rule, came a "policy of assimilation" that discouraged Okinawa's culture and banned the use of the Ryukyuan dialect.

Many Okinawans willingly chose to identify with Japan, in spite of its discriminatory practices and policies. At the climax of World War II, "They saw the Battle of Okinawa as an opportunity to prove, once and for all, their loyalty to Japan and their full assimilation as Japanese," writes Steve Rabson, a Brown University professor of Japanese language and literature who specializes in Okinawan writing.

And yet, "In perhaps the most outrageous betrayal of the Okinawans' determination to assimilate, Japanese soldiers shot thousands at point-blank range in their anger over defeat, accusing the Okinawans, sometimes on the basis of a few words uttered in dialect, of being spies."

Caught between the Japanese Imperial Army and U.S. armed forces, more than 100,000 Okinawan civilians lost their lives during the war's bloodiest battle.

The sense of betrayal did not end there. Under U.S. occupation, Okinawan farmland was seized for the construction of bases that would serve as a key Cold War outpost. Even after sovereignty was returned to the mainland in 1952, the San Francisco Peace Treaty allowed Okinawa to remain under U.S. control.

During this period, high rates of misconduct among servicemen created a "very ugly situation here," says Wallace C. Gregson, commanding general of the III Marine Expeditionary Force on Okinawa.

In his essay "Okinawa: Then and Now," Japan-based journalist Mike Millard, who served on Okinawa during the Vietnam War, puts it more bluntly: "It was a fine place for drinking and whoring, and better than months at sea launching bombing raids against Hanoi."

Disruptive protests by Okinawans resentful of their colonial status led to the island group's reversion to Japan in 1972, but with the provision that U.S. bases would remain. Again, the Okinawans felt deceived. "The deal made by the Japanese government was totally unfair, and unexpected," Rabson says. They thought the bases would be "reduced to mainland levels."

Thirty years later, 75 percent of all U.S. military facilities in Japan rest on Okinawan soil and occupy 20 percent of the main island. It's a good deal for mainland Japan, which basically provides facilities to U.S. forces in exchange for a commitment to defend Japan. At the same time, critics say, mainland Japan doesn't have to put up with a high level of base-related problems.

To compensate, "Japan has poured trillions of yen into improving Okinawa's infrastructure," Rabson says. The infusion has lifted the island group from Third World conditions, but it remains Japan's poorest prefecture.

The 1995 rape case galvanized Okinawans. In Ginowan, 85,000 people staged a protest that helped lead to the creation of the Special Action Committee on Okinawa, a Japanese-U.S. effort to find ways for reducing military operations and training on Okinawa.

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