The rising independence movement in Okinawa

Trefor Moss, “Okinawa: the Scotland of Asia?,” The Diplomat, July 24 2013

The tension over the large U.S. military presence on Okinawa seems never to subside, the U.S. Marines’ deployment of noisy, and possibly quite dangerous, MV-22 Osprey aircraft having been one recent trigger. And yet, if asked to vote today, Okinawans would overwhelmingly stick with the status quo: a recent poll by Ryukyu Shimpo found that only 5 percent of citizens favor independence, with 62 percent opposed. Then again, these things start from humble beginnings, and independence is at the very least being discussed seriously. Okinawa has a complex relationship both with Tokyo and with the U.S. military, and it is too casual to dismiss the notion of independence as the pipedream of just a handful of local activists.

The weak support for independence can be explained by “the long history of colonial rule over Okinawa by Japan,” believes Tomochi Masaki, a founder of the independence movement’s latest incarnation, the Association of Comprehensive Studies for Independence of the Lew Chewans (ACSIL) – the Lew Chewans being Okinawa’s indigenous people – and an associate professor at Okinawa International University. The long process of assimilation has amounted to “brainwashing,” he says, the steady dismantling of the Okinawan people’s distinct sense of identity, but ACSIL’s founders hope to start reversing that process by opening up a forum “where we can discuss the independence of Ryukyu intensively.” …

However, Matsumura thinks that comparisons with Scotland are misleading. “There’s no cultural parallel,” he argues, adding that “Puerto Rico might be a better analogy than Scotland” in that Puerto Rico is a dependency rather than a country-within-a-country.

The biggest flaw in the Scottish paradigm is surely the qualitative difference between Scotland’s relationship with London and Okinawa’s relationship with Tokyo. Scotland has its independence referendum because the UK government granted one. But the Japanese government is not about to hand the same privilege to Okinawa. “The local elite have spoken about this cause for the last six decades,” says Matsumura, “but they blatantly have no chance [of securing independence].”

China’s rise, and renewed speculation about Okinawa’s status in the Chinese media, has made Okinawa’s breakaway even less likely than before, Matsumura feels. “Okinawa is now indispensible for defense vis-à-vis China,” he says. “All Japanese are sorry that they have to co-exist with American bases, but we can’t do anything about it because the need for those bases will only increase more and more because of China. It may also be that the Okinawans themselves feel that they need the solid presence of the JSDF and the U.S. military.”

However, Tomochi rejects the idea that China has any designs on claiming Okinawa. “Right-wing people in Japan who hate China are trying to spread a rumor that China will invade Ryukyu,” he says. “But to us, this hypothetical story that China’s taking a risk to invade Okinawa is too unrealistic.” In fact, Tomochi believes, the removal of U.S. and Japanese forces from Okinawa would make the islands safer by establishing them as a “center of peace for East Asia and the world.”

Read the full article here.