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US Okinawa Bases, Alliance or Punishment for defiance? Part II

By Imtiaz Gul

Weekly Pulse, Nov 18, 2011

Some of the wounds that the world war II inflicted on Okinawa, the southern-most prefecture of Japan, still seem to fester. Until the Japanese moved into the island to use it as a first line of defense of the mainland, Okinawans took pride in being people of peace. They boasted a history rooted in peace; back in 1609, the ruler of the Ryukyu Kingdom had decreed against possession of weapons by common people. The Kingdom was supposed to be weapons-free. That is why the concept of peace became important for Okinawans and has been part of their lives ever since. A small island nation, according to the King’s philosophy, should have good political and trading relations with neighbours, rather than amassing weapons or initiating conflicts. The Okinawans still consider themselves as a distinct nation, culturally and geographically away from Japan; Japan draws on the history of the Samurai - the warriors. Japanese decorate their houses with swords and spears, usually displayed in guest rooms. Very much in the spirit and tradition of the Samurai . In Okinawa Sanshin – the musical instrument adores homes. It symbolizes peace as well as culture and civility. The fact that Okinawa gave birth to Karate – the art of self-defense - also illustrates the history of peace in this island, which hosts almost two-thirds of the US military facilities across Japan.“We say it is not offensive but defensive – that again the hallmark of Okinawa,” former governor Masahide Ota told us in Okinanawa. Historically Okinawa is non-militant, non-violent but this peaceful society was badly brutalized for several years – first by the Japanese and then by the incessant bombardment by the American aircraft that dropped some 200,000 of tons of ammunition on Japanese military installations here, particularly in 1944, forcing the area commander, General Ushijima to commit suicide, before he ordered all his soldiers to prefer suicide over capture. Okinawa Island houses the majority of US bases in Okinawa, taking up 18.4% of its total land . About 32 US military facilities are spread over about 88 sq.miles, while the total landmass of Oiknawa measures about 466 sq.miles. It is home to about 91% of the prefecture’s population, and approximately 80% of the Island’s population is concentrated in the southern half, where various industries are also located. The US military bases located in densely populated and commercialized areas greatly restrict urban functions, traffic system and land usage – a continuous eye-sore for many Okinawans who believe they are sandwiched between the interests of the United States and Japan.People like Kouki Yoshida, a veteran art director of the National Theatre, for instance, speak of structural discrimination against their island; many Japanese don’t consider Okinawa as part of Japan and thus we continue to suffer discrimination by a much stronger centre.Professor Yamazato Katsunori, a disciple of Kouki Yoshida proudly told us about the non-violent and non-offensive nuances in the Okinawan culture; we don’t say good-by. We say “see you tomorrow,” explained Katsunori, while reminiscing the scars that the world war left on the residents of Okinawa. The militarism of the Royal Japanese army and the ensuring destructive response by the Americans left us badly bruised – both physically and psychologically, said local writer Oshiro Sadatoshi. The humiliation in the aftermath of defeat, the US occupation until 1972 has left deep scars on us all. “These historic events caused an identity crisis for the Okinawans, we lost our distinctive culture and way of life under the burden of the US occupation. “Many survivors remember how the Japanese army, almost on the verge of defeat, forced civilians out of bunkers and told them to die before Americans can capture them. Soldiers in fact executed many civilians to make room for wounded fighters. The civilians were left on their own because the soldiers wanted to save on safe space and food. These horrific memories sit deep in the minds of many, including Ms. Miyara Ruri,( Katsumi Maedomari) the curator of Himeyuri Peace Museum. The 83 year old curator still remembers clearly what happened 66 years ago when she was only 17. Together with 239 other students and teachers of the Women’s Normal School and the First Prefectural Girls’ High School, she was drafted to the Himeyuri Student Corps. The Student Corps was ordered to provide support to the medical units of the Okinawa Army Field Hospital. They had to attend wounded soldiers on the battle fields under extremely harsh condition. The Student Corps was faced with the death threat of ravaging bombing outside the bunkers as well as the curses and threats by the desperate soldiers, who were in great pain because of the lacking in sufficient medical treatment. The horror was still vivid when the curator recalled that they had been ordered to give poisoning milk to the critically wounded soldiers and their pain and struggling before their last breath had lapsed. 123 students and 13 teachers lost their lives amid the fighting. With the wish to convey the reality of war and to console the souls of the dead, Ms. Yuri together with other survivors of the Student Corps created the museum in 1989. Through the exhibits of students’ belongings that were retrieved from caves, testimonies by the survivors, portraits of the deceased, and a life-size diorama of the cave used by the field hospital, the museum strives to inspire people to think deeply about issues of war and peace. Only when people seriously reflect on these issues, can the scourge of war be avoided, so the curator and other survivors deem. The similar theme of revealing Japanese not only as victims but also cruel victimizers over the war, who brutally killed their fellow Japanese soldiers and civilians and mercilessly forced the Japanese women to become comfort women, can be detected in both Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum and Haebaru Town Museum in Okinawa. The message is clear and straightforward: war is an evil machine that turns humanity into ugly demons. The painful experience and memory of war enables Okinawans to transcend a narrow interpretation of war as drawing a straight line between victims and victimizers or invading and being invaded. For them, war is the source of evils and peace is the only way out of atrocities.

The US returned Okinawa to Japan in 1972. Until then, the governor used to be an appointee by the Americans. Dollar was the currency and Okinawa was practically an American colony.Okinawans also carry a deep sense of guilt; many writers feel responsible as probably being perpetrators, rather than supporters, pointed out Sadotoshi. At the same time he attempted to draw distinction between Okinawa and Japan. “Constitutionally we belong to Japan but practically we are not Japanese,” he insists. But he is not alone in taking pride in being different from Japan. In most conversations the Okinawan nationalist pride clearly comes through. But, one can also discern, this pride is pretty much embedded in conservatism. Okinawans usually look at Tokyo and other major prefectures as being “too materialistic, too fast.” That is no life, said ferry driver, who also teaches music – San-Shin– in the evening to the local community youth at Kudaka, a small Okinawan island, comprising about 145 families.

Having worried that younger generation no longer mastered Okinawa dialects, Mr. Koki, the Director of Planning and Producing/ Artistic Director of National Theatre Okinawa, was happy that younger Okinawan generation started to enjoy their cultures again despite that their understanding was still superficial. This could be the beginning of “renaissance” of Okinawa culture.However, the full swing of the revival may still need time.

Although the Okinawa may consider referendum for independence if their demands for ending the US occupancy are continuously ignored by the Japanese central government, according to Mr. Ota Masahide, the former governor of Okinawa, the national identity based on a common culture, language, and value is yet to be formed for Okinawa to move in this direction, given the current education system dominated by mainstream Japanese language and culture.

Imtiaz Gul is the Executive Director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and is currently a Fellow of International House of Japan/Japan Foundation, Tokyo

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk