Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Okinawa -- 40 Years On

courtesy of Viaje con JAPOPLAN
of Flickr
Wednesday May 16, 1:19 p.m.

Earlier on NHK News this morning, the report came out that Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko left Japan for England to attend the Diamond Jubilee celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II. While the UK and royalwatchers worldwide are enjoying the 60th anniversary of the Queen's ascension to the throne, Japan is also noticing and not particularly celebrating an anniversary of its own.

40 years ago, on May 15 1972, Okinawa was handed back to Japanese authorities after having spent the previous 27 years as basically an American protectorate. During that time, the presence was most felt via the building of US military bases at places such as Kadena and Futenma. It'd been thought, naively as it turned out, that once the US handed over ownership back to Japan, the military would go, too. But now well into the 21st century, the bases are still there as are growing resentment, resignation and frustration from the Okinawan prefectural government and people.

The news arc that has always been there with me during my 17 years in Japan is the Okinawan issue. It almost seems like an annual media ritual to show very grim-faced officials from Nagatacho meeting with equally grim-faced Okinawan governors in a media-filled lounge. It's the same exchange of words leading nowhere: the national government begging/ordering for Okinawa's understanding about the need to keep the military bases while the governor blandly reiterates his people's wishes for the bases to go. All that is accomplished is an uneasy stalemate, simmering forever like an abandoned pot of souki soba.

A lot of Okinawans (I'm not sure if all Okinawans feel the same way) have been holding up protest cards over the decades with the kanji for 'anger'(怒)and exhortations for the bases to go. The persistent deafening roar of US fighter jet engines over their homes, and accidents & crimes involving US military personnel & Okinawans have chafed for a long, long time. It's like the  house guest who has long worn out his welcome.

But the sad fact of the matter is that the likelihood of American bases pulling out of Okinawa is as remote as Russians pulling out of the disputed northern Kurile Islands off of Hokkaido. Both the Japanese and American governments are aware that Okinawa is a major bulwark against North Korea and China. And as much as Japan and China have tried to keep up good relations over the years despite some of the diplomatic snags, the People's Republic is still seen by many to be more rival (if not enemy) than friend. And nothing needs to be said about the DPRK. As long as those perceived threats remain, the US will never pull out of Okinawa, as galling as that news will be to the citizens there. Unless Japan can pull off another technological miracle such as creating man-made islands further west, Okinawa represents a major lynchpin in the US-Japan defense network. The Japanese government is frankly in the middle....between an angry island population and an indifferent defense ally. And not helping matters is that other prefectures have flatly refused to consider taking on some of those US bases, because of all of the publicized problems that have resulted.

Frankly, the 40th anniversary of the handover is less a historical footnote and more of the checking of the pulse of a chronically ill patient.