Mark in Yayoi comments on Futenma affair: grant Okinawa its independence from Japan!


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Hi Blog. After yesterday’s events, I feel my column on former PM Hatoyama and Okinawa Futenma was probably the best-timed one I’ve ever done, unfortunately. That said, I left a big stone unturned in it (happens when you have less than 1000 words): How Okinawa has been abused by both sides — Japanese and American — and how they deserve their independence from forced dependence. Mark in Yayoi, a scholar of Okinawan languages and dying/extinct cultures, offered an excellent perspective this morning that shouldn’t be buried within another post. So here it is for independent discussion. Arudou Debito in Sapporo


Mark In Yayoi Says:
June 2nd, 2010 at 11:56 pm

In context at

Debito, when reading your essay, I was surprised to find that I agreed with you, but for almost totally opposite reasons. I’m sure I’ll be torn to shreds by other posters, and again by the nationalist anti-Debito crowd on other blogs who might be reading this, but it needs to be said.

The American occupation of Okinawa, unjust as it might be, is a net benefit to the mainland Tokyo government, which gets protection while simultaneously pretending that it’s “Japan” bearing the burden when in fact it’s Okinawa that suffers — they’re the people putting up with the loud airplanes and unruly soldiers. And these people bearing the cost of the protection were never seen as equals by Tokyo — they were used as human shields in a hopeless defense of Japan in 1945, and used as tax-paying slaves in the decades before that.

The US bases need to leave, and Okinawa needs to be free. Not free from the US, and not free to be Japan’s 47th prefecture (both chronologically and on the status totem pole), but free to be its own independent nation.

Exactly what “sovereignty” can the Tokyo government legitimately claim over the people of Okinawa, if we’re trying to redress past wrongs?

In 1609, the Satsuma clan invaded Okinawa, forced the Shuri king to sign humiliating treaties, and taxed the people (first lightly, then very, very onerously) to the point that they were virtual slaves. By the 19th century, ordinary people in the Yaeyamas were forced to labor to the point where 86% of their productivity was siphoned off by the Satsuma, and local authorities were forcing pregnant women to abort their babies so that there would be fewer mouths to feed.

(See Toshiichi Sudo’s 1944 book 南島覚書 Nantou Oboegaki for exact figures on the taxes, and, if you don’t mind slogging through archaic Japanese, 南島探検 Nantou Tanken by Gisuke Sasamori 笹森儀助 for more info on the impoverished lives of Meiji-era Okinawans.)

The “head tax” continued until 1903 and monuments commemmorating its abolition still stand today.

The mainland rulers also treated Okinawans’ language with disrespect. Americans who refuse to learn the culture or language? They’re not half as bad as the mainlanders who came to Okinawa to administer the island before the war. Did they learn to speak Shuri (or any other Okinawan language)? Certainly not, and they even punished Okinawan children who had the audacity to speak their own languages rather than Japanese by making them wear big wooden “dialect tags” (hougen-fuda) around their necks.

And the Tokyo overlords did such a good job of eradicating the Okinawan languages that today you’re hard-pressed to find people who can still speak them.

So when it comes to oppressing Okinawans, the US military has nothing on the mainland Japanese.

Now, we can insist that the treatment of Okinawans by the mainland government before WWII is less relevant than how Tokyo has treated them since the reversion in 1972, and obviously the murderous taxes of rice and fabric and livestock have been dialed down quite a bit.

Still, the mainland government’s “have their cake and eat it too” position — whine about America being the big bad bully for domestic consumption while simultaneously accepting American protection from worse aggressors — needs to be addressed. As does the issue of what will happen with the bases when the US leaves. Surely Hatoyama wasn’t planning to just move the JSDF into all those fully-operational, ready-made installations, now was he?

I know that thia is pie-in-the-sky idealism, but what I really want to see is an independent Okinawa, with free-trade and free-entry agreements with Japan (and whatever countries they choose to deal with), and no national or consumption taxes paid to Tokyo whatsoever. At the very least, some kind of Hong Kong or Taiwan-like partial autonomy. I fervently hope that a solution can come about that respects not just the desires of residents near the bases, but also all those elderly folks who have been putting up with other disrespects and abuses since long before the first US base was built. The US is using those people, sure, but the Tokyo government has an even worse track record. An autonomous Okinawa is the only way.


18 comments on “Mark in Yayoi comments on Futenma affair: grant Okinawa its independence from Japan!

  • I think now is the time to act. Shoei Kina, one of the three main leaders of the Okinawan folk music scene which became world famous, insisted in conversation that Okinawa was “not Japanese, but an independent country”.

    His musician son, Shokichi Kina, was elected to the House of Councillors and has always been an outspoken critic on world affairs and is a peace activist, I d like to see him take up this challenge.

    I dont see why a kind of mini “Free Tibet” campaign amongst celebrity admirers of Okinawan culture the world over isnt possible.

    BTW, apparently 75% of mainland “investment” in Okinawa flows back to the mainland(sorry dont recall the source except my own essay on the topic at university); its the poorest prefecture in Japan.

  • If that is what the majority of Okinawans want, then they will have my full support.

    By the way, while we’re at it, let’s call for an independent nation of Hawaii too.

  • Having lived in Okinawa for most of my life in Japan and being happily married to an Okinawan; I would like nothing more than for Okinawa to become independent or autonomous. Okinawa could then lease it’s military bases to the highest bidder and become a filthy rich country while maintaining it’s historical culture of pacifism– the Casablanca of Asia.

    But alas, this will never happen as most young (30 and below) Okinawans can only speak a handful of very common hogens, and proudly consider themselves Japanese as well as Okinawan. As one friend and mentor put it, “We’d rather be Japanese by choice then Chinese by force.”

  • I live in Okinawa, and I certainly would like to see the bases go.

    I agree with all the historical narrative in the article, but I have the impression that it is not feasible anymore to create an independent Okinawa. It would be a poor country, with many of the infrastructure projects (like the research institute I work at) now being payed by the mainland government. The tourists would still come, though, I assume (and more so without the bases).

    Also, I have the impression that Okinawa and Japan have grown together. I work with quite a few people who are half Okinawan, half mainlanders. So, yes, there is a lot of hypocrisy in how the bases are shouldered on this island, but an independent Okinawa might not be the best solution.

  • Same here. Its a beautiful island. I served in the USMC there, and the people are shy but not so much trouble considering what we Marines did down there. Lots of drama and good memories. Now that Im older though, that is their island and their culture and some big brother has no business there. Lots of cultures are disappearing across the world due to this. James Carville was right also about Louisana and their special culture. The big companies are raping the enviroment. Not much different in Oki. Kadena should share their air space with the Marines or get rid of Tori station (nobody knows what that place is for or what they are doing) and give it to the corps. Much respect for the corps as they earn their pay, but I dont see any need to go building new bases in guam and heniko.

  • Is the attitude/way of thinking in Okinawa different than mainland Japan? Is it still unique in its culture, distinct compared to the rest of Japan?

  • Often, I hear people say “Oh, I’ve been to Japan. I was in Okinawa” and I always think “But that isn’t Japan”. I’ve always considered Okinawa a separate culture and nation from Japan. As it is, many vacation there because it is different from the mainland culture but close by. Something exotic and not their own. If Okinawa were to become a independent country, I would have no problem with it, and I question as to whether(politics notwithstanding) the average japanese would care, considering the mental disconnection already placed in their minds.

  • John (Yokohama) says:

    Ain’t gonna happen.

    I suppose Hokkaido should become independent as well and what the hell… just carve up Japan into little pieces and roll the clock back.

    IMHO there are bigger fish to fry that demand attention and solutions. Less pie in the sky and more reality would benefit everyone.

  • Allen-
    so true, it isnt Japan. But many ignorant people think so and broadcast that in the states. I dont even think most mainlanders consider Oki to be Japan. Its just a resort for them.

  • Valentina says:

    If Okinawa became independent or autonomous I would totally agree, and I’d like this to happen in other places, too. It’s always sad to see a culture and a language disappear, I think it’s a loss for humanity and unfortunately it happens in many parts of the world.

    But I wonder, like Colin, if currently Okinawa’s culture is still unique and different from mainland Japan’s…if most young people feel Japanese as much as Okinawan, as A says, then independence is not viable, in my opinion (not considering political and economical problems, of which I don’t have enough knowledge to talk about).

    — Mark in Yayoi, comment?

    The problem with this argument: Encouraging precedents of politics by fait accompli hardly discourages future attempts at cultural genocide.

  • I once worked with a young man from Okinawa, and the rest of the Japanese were from the Kanto area. His face was different from theirs and he told me they treated him different, he could feel it. There arent any jobs down there he told me, so he had to come to the mainland. He was a bit more freed up inside than the Japanese I worked with. He also told me that when they played the morning Japan anthem at games etc, the Okinawans never gave it no respect or attention. I think allot of them are already seperated from the mainland in their heart anyhow.

  • Valentina says:

    “The problem with this argument: Encouraging precedents of politics by fait accompli hardly discourages future attempts at cultural genocide.”
    You have a point. I would agree with Okinawa becoming independent for the historical reasons explained by Mark in Yayoi (it’s basically a conquered country whose culture and language was destroyed), but if it’s true that now most Okinawans consider themselves both Okinawan and Japanese, I guess they don’t feel such a strong need to become independent, at least not for reasons of national identity (there could be other reasons for wanting independece, though, such as political and economical ones). In any case, I think Okinawans – and every population – should have the right to decide for themselves whether they want independence, autonomy or to maintain the status quo.

  • If Okinawa did want to become independant, how would it do so? Im sure there is nothing in the Japan Kenpo that allows for it. Would it be an UN issue?

  • Ive always thought a solution to the Oki problem would be to make Okinawa a Macau of Japan. Ishihara was trying to work up a plan somewhere in Tokyo. Okinawa is a much better option I think, its already a resort area with a history of foriegn influence. They should move 3rd Mar Div/3rd FSSG and all the other Marine units to Camp Zama, move USARJ Zama to Yokota and keep Kadena down there. Zama is nothing but a place to homestead for retirees etc. That way you still got a military presence here in Japan and finally free up Oki for the Okinawain people and provide employment. Make it a zone for foriegn investment while your at it. Let the mainlanders get a taste of what the Okinawains been dealing with for years, get rid of all the homesteaders up here wasting tax money. I see a win win situation.

  • Mark in Yayoi says:

    Valentina, I agree that the post-1972 generation is as much Japanese as it is Okinawan — it was dismaying, last time I was in Yaeyama, to hear a young boy talking exactly like someone from Kanto, and to then find out (after assuming that he’d moved to Tokyo for college and was back home visiting) that he was in fact still in high school and had never left Okinawa! He’d picked up that way of speaking just from the media. (To be fair, few people around him talked like that, or approved of how he spoke.)

    I too think that as the pre-1945 generation passes away, it will become harder and harder to maintain Okinawan identity. The mainland government timed their reacquisition of the islands well — demanding them back in, say, 1950, would have been met with protests, as even young people on the islands lived through the horrible treatment at the hands of the Imperial Japanese Army, and there were still many people alive who had paid those terrible slavery-like taxes (they were imposed on anyone aged 15-50 and ended in 1903, so this is people born before 1887) and would have welcomed any master more benevolent than the Japanese; the US cooupation certainly qualifies. By 1972 such people had dwindled to a minority, just as people who remember the imperial era before WWII are in the process of doing now. (They’re surprisingly magnanimous, if you ask me, about their grandkids openly welcoming a language and culture that was forced on them with the threat of punishment 70-80 years ago.)

    There are still a few younger people who value their heritage and culture. Byron Fija (Google him) produces videos teaching the Shuri language. Shokichi Kina sings in Okinawan, as does Rimi Natsukawa, and there are quite a few others. At the very least, I hope Okinawan pride doesn’t totally collapse, and that bland mainland culture doesn’t overwhelm things. And if the mainland wants military protection, let the mainland host the bases themselves.

  • Valentina says:

    Mark in Yayoi,
    thank you for the valuable information. I find the part about the timing particularly interesting, I never thought about it before.
    For the Okinawan culture not to be completely overwhelmed by mainland culture it is first of all necessary that young people are fully aware of their history and their distinctiveness. I don’t know if they actually are (I suppose it’s quite so, given that there are still people who remember the imperial era and WWII and so could have talked about them to their children and granchildren), but if they were they would at least have the oppurtunity to try to prevent Okinawan culture from being completely wiped out. Obviously, it would also be necessary that they were interested in saving it, but I understand often this is not the case, since they have embraced the Japanese culture.


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