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Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2000

Okinawa's Ota makes a case for redress

Staff writer
ESSAYS ON OKINAWA PROBLEMS, by Masahide Ota. Gushikawa City, Okinawa: Yui Shuppan Co., 2000, 302 pp., 1,600 yen (paper).

Okinawa's history is essentially that of a poor ethnic group at Japan's southern extremity. The island has been continually exploited and abused for the interest and convenience of the Japanese government, whose chief beneficiary has been the industrialized areas of the home islands to the north. -- Masahide Ota, former governor of Okinawa

Surrounded by pristine white beaches, green palms and turquoise waters, it's easy to think you've found paradise -- until the deafening roar of a low-flying jet fighter jolts you out of your reverie.

World War II may be bordering on ancient history for most people, but the existence of vast military installations surrounded by barbed-wire fences and the presence of foreign soldiers in the streets keep its legacy alive for Okinawans.

Even though it constitutes less than 1 percent of Japan's territory, the island prefecture hosts 75 percent of the U.S. military installations in Japan. While supporters of the status quo say the bases make an economic contribution to the prefecture and ensure the nation's security, a substantial number of Okinawans would like to see the U.S. presence reduced.

There has been no more vocal critic of the militarization of Okinawa than Masahide Ota. Conscripted while still a high-school student and wounded at the Battle of Okinawa, the only land battle of World War II to take place on heavily populated Japanese soil, Ota has dedicated his life to eliminating what he views as injustices suffered by the prefecture.

First as a professor at the University of the Ryukyus, later as Okinawa's governor (1990-1998), and presently the director of the Ota Peace Research Institute in Naha, Ota has written over 60 books and numerous articles on the challenges facing Okinawa.

Take the essence of these publications and you end up with the central argument of this book -- that the prefecture's problems mostly stem from the fact that Tokyo has never considered Okinawa to be a true part of Japan, but rather a quasi-foreign territory to be exploited in ways that best served the country's interests.

This outlook characterized the Satsuma clan's rule of Okinawa from 1609 to 1868, which "reduced the Okinawan people virtually to tax-paying slaves." It continued after the Meiji Restoration, when the central government kept taxes high but delayed land reform -- already introduced on the mainland -- for three decades, leaving most farmers to work as virtual serfs.

In its most horrific manifestation, says Ota, this outlook led to the deaths of over 150,000 Okinawan civilians -- one-third of the population -- during the Battle of Okinawa, far more than the number of Japanese soldiers killed.

Planned by military leaders who regarded Okinawa not "as part of the 'Imperial land' ('koodo') but as sort of 'foreign territory' ('gaichi')," the Battle of Okinawa was conceived as a delaying tactic for saving the mainland.

"Imperial Headquarters expected the Battle of Okinawa to be concluded by 'gyokusai' (death without surrender)." Okinawa's civilian population was expected to share the same fate as soldiers, Ota says.

The sacrifice of Okinawa on the mainland's behalf did not end with the war. In the immediate postwar period, says Ota, the central government "offered up the island to U.S. military occupation in order to help gain independence for the mainland."

Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, Ota says, even mulled the idea of offering a 99-year-lease of Okinawa, and the Showa Emperor is said to have sought to secure his own position by expressing his hope "that the United States will continue the military occupation of Okinawa."

Although Japan regained sovereignty over Okinawa in 1972, the militarization of the island prefecture by U.S. forces remains essentially unchanged, Ota points out. U.S. military facilities on the mainland have been reduced by 60 percent since 1972, but only by 15 percent on Okinawa.

Ota contends that this constitutes a violation of the Japanese Constitution, which guarantees equality under the law.

"If the Mutual Security Treaty is important for Japan," argued Ota before the Supreme Court in 1996, "the responsibility and burdens under the treaty should be assumed (equally) by all Japanese citizens."

Ota gives short shrift to the argument that the U.S. bases make an essential contribution to Okinawa's economy, pointing out that, as of 1997, revenues generated by the U.S. bases made up just 5 percent of the prefecture's gross product and that the bases employed only 8,200 Okinawans.

In fact, he asserts that the U.S. military bases, which occupy 20 percent of Okinawa Island alone, have stunted the development of Okinawa's industrial sector and are responsible for the fact that Okinawa's per capita income was far lower than the mainland average and its unemployment rate double.

Arguments that the U.S. bases on Okinawa are vital to Japan's security don't hold much water with Ota, either. His bitter wartime experience taught him that "military forces cannot protect people," especially "in a small country such as Japan."

In Ota's vision of the future, Okinawa would be reborn as a global information and industrial center, with Naha Airport serving as a major international hub.

For this to happen, though, Ota says both Washington and Tokyo must stop viewing the prefecture first and foremost in terms of security and instead think of the people on these "strategic" islands who have long shouldered far more than their share of the hardships imposed by the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty.

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