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  • Evangelia Papoutsaki

Okinawa: island of resistance, resilience and pacifism

Ichariba chode/イチャリバチョーー

(“once we meet, we become family”)


After several weeks of an idyllic existence, cocooned from the rest of the world in the peaceful and sub-tropical islands of Amami in the south of the Japanese archipelago, the ferry took me further south to Okinawa only to be confronted by the ghosts of the past, evolving geopolitics, history in the making, unwelcome military occupation, as well as human rights and environmental issues.

Okinawa has a long and proud history, linked to the independent kingdom of the Ryukyus that mainland Japan only annexed in 1879. Today it is mostly known as a Blue Zone island and for its concept of ikigai, an all-encompassing way of being that includes a strong life purpose, healthy diet and community spirit that has resulted in a high rate of centenarians. But it is also known for its large US military presence that has dominated the island’s politics, society and physical landscape since WWII.


Perhaps it is due to ikigai that these islanders have found the strength to endure, in their well-known pacifist ways, first the post-war American occupation that lasted over 30 years and subsequently the oppressive presence of their military bases that have seized over 20 percent of the main island. It’s hard not to miss their presence on a small, narrow piece of land that deeply punctures the islandscape, manifesting in physical, emotional and ideological ruptures and with a devastating impact on all aspects of the island life.


The bloodiest battle in the Pacific was fought in Okinawa in 1945, where an estimated third of the population perished, leaving a wound that has never fully healed, festering with the constant reminder of the American military presence. Today, over 70 percent of the US military presence in Japan is located in Okinawa, a form of military colonialism.


During my fieldwork, I talked to journalists, academics and ordinary Okinawans about the situation on the island. The issues are many and too complex to share here but the scars of the Battle and subsequent omnipresent US military have resulted in a pacifist culture with a multi-layered pacifist resistance movement. This island is a ticking bomb, many say, especially in the current geopolitical climate and it certainly felt this way in all my visits; it’s hard not to miss the overwhelming presence of a foreign military, noticeable even amidst the thousands of tourists that the island attracts.

Locals report finding American soldiers sleeping on their sofas after a night out drinking or pissing in their gardens while drunk. These are just some of the lighter offenses; there have been some well-known rape cases, including the abducting, beating and rape of a 12 year old that shook Japan in 1995. As part of our conversation about their strong anti-US bases sentiment, an Okinawan once explained to me that “it’s not that our people don’t commit such crimes, but they [American army] are guests here and we expect our guests to behave themselves”. But is there such a thing as a benign military ‘guest’ presence? The sheer presence of it is an act of violence, in my view.


I fully understand why Okinawans want the bases relocated and the island’s two newspapers have strongly advocated for that, much to the disapproval of the US army and the Japanese central government. While going through the Ryukyu Shimpo newspaper archives, I came across this article that encapsulates the Okinawan pacifist character. A local attending one of the many protests against building a new US base said the following about the US Osprey pilots who died in a recent crash: “Presumably, these soldiers had families. All human life is of equal importance. I prayed for the protection of the soldiers’ honour who fell victim to the crash... It is futile to conduct military exercises that have resulted in the loss of human life. We must certainly not allow the construction of a new base, which could lead to a rekindling of war. For the sake of Okinawa’s future from here on, I will continue to oppose construction of the new base.” Their anti-US military sentiment did not stop this man from expressing his humanity. As many told me, they are not angry at the American people; they just want their military bases out of their island. If they are angry at anyone, it's the Japanese central government in Tokyo that they feel has turned Okinawa into a military island without consultation with the locals or their consent.

At one time, I travelled up north to Nago City to meet with Hideki Yoshikawa, an environmental activist and anthropologist who took me to Henoko Bay and the protesters' camp outside the US military base. Despite the typhoon still going heavy that day, there were several of the regular protesters on their narrow strip of a camp across the base's main entrance. A man representing one of the Unions told me he has been coming every week for three years. When I asked him what he hoped to achieve with his peaceful protesting, he replied, "I want them gone from my island, but I know I can't make it happen quickly, so all I hope is to cause delays in the construction of the new base, perhaps our delaying tactics (blocking the entrance to the construction site) can buy us time, who knows what happens in 2-3 years". The construction was already three years behind schedule at the time. He told me of cases where retired teachers have been removed from blocking the gates by their former students, now policemen, or grandparents bringing their grandchildren to the camp over the summer holidays and other stories highlighting how much the US bases are part of their daily lives but also their concerns of losing the interest of the younger generation in their resistance movement.


Okinawans have many good reasons to oppose the relocation of the US base to Henoko Bay. The Okinawan Prefectural Office provided a good context to this and the wider issue of US military presence in Okinawa.

The concentration of U.S. bases imposes an excessive burden on Okinawa, accounting for only 0.6% of the total land mass of Japan. The construction of a new base at Henoko would make the excessive base-hosting burden on Okinawa as well as the disparity of the burden within the nation, permanent. Elections and other events demonstrated the public will of Okinawan people opposing this relocation. The Japan-U.S. security arrangements would leave a major problem unresolved if the relocation, which cannot gain the support of Okinawans, were forcibly implemented.


The precious natural environment around Henoko and Oura Bay should be preserved. Over 5,800 creatures are confirmed to exist in this area, including 262 endangered and 1,300 unidentified species. The number of species in this area exceeds the number in Japan's World Natural Heritage sites. The Okinawans consider it their responsibility to preserve their proud, rich natural heritage for the next generation. They also argue that it runs against the international trend of biodiversity conservation that the Japanese government moves ahead with constructing a new base without doing academic surveys or taking any protective measures. The fact that part of the island is now recognized as a UNESCO Natural Heritage site testifies to its rich biodiversity.

The pacifist resistance has permeated all aspects of island life, including art and media. Visitors, for instance, to the residence of the U.S. Ambassador in Tokyo in 2010 were met with the display of an Okinawan bingata (kimono), brightly dyed with images of the islands’ flora and fauna. At a closer look though, one would have recognized among its traditional motifs some far modern ones: parachuting soldiers, Osprey aircraft and the government construction platforms occupied by Okinawans protesting against the U.S. Marine Corps base on Henoko Bay. Given the kimono’s position at the heart of U.S. power in Japan, it’s a wildly subversive piece. This is something that only art can do,” as Yuken Teruya, the kimono’s creator, explained. “It can pass through gates and draw attention to sensitive issues, such as the Okinawa peace movement, in ways which newspapers or other media cannot… It’s easy to express anger in art, but few people will listen if you do so. If you can bring in beauty and humor, it will help many more people to approach the issue” (Japan Times). His 2014 creation, “Parade From Far Far Away” (Bingata technique on banana leaf fiber), exemplifies this pacifist belief. The banner-like work features over 100 men and women celebrating an imagined post-base Okinawa. Some of them hold aloft an Osprey made from the island’s broccoli-shaped trees, representing residents’ struggles to block the building of helipads in the northern Yambaru jungles. The artist felt that such a prominent display would give Okinawa’s pacifism the international recognition it deserves: “The peace movement is part of Okinawa’s cultural heritage. It is nonviolent, patient and sincere democracy in practice. Watching from a distance, I hope the world will gain hope for their own countries’ futures, too” (Japan Times).


During my fieldwork, I had many more inspiring encounters, including a peace educator and a community media/entrepreneur, all presenting aspects of the island’s active resistance and pacifist nature. Nishihara-san, one of these rare humans whose presence improves other people's lives, was born in 1945, right at the end of the horrific battle of Okinawa. He lost his father in the aftermath of the war, and his family home was taken by the US army base. That, however, did not stop him for devoting his life to be at service to others: a Red Cross peace educator; a high school teacher; a cultural enabler and an active contributor to his island culture; prisoners music teacher, and a "heart" connector between Okinawa and its big diaspora in Brazil.


But it was Ikehara-san that got my full attention. An entrepreneur, innovator, inventor and fluent speaker of Uchinaaguchi (Okinawa’s language), he was looking for ways to promote the island's fast-declining language and he thought the best way of doing this is not by some top-down government prefecture language program but through bringing the language to everyday life of ordinary people. Since vending machines are so popular in Japan (you will find a vending machine even in the middle of nowhere in this country), he came up with the idea of using recycled vending machines to offer drinks, food and island souvenirs using the local language and also to broadcast his FM Nirai using old smartphones inserted in them. I could not help noticing one of the vending machines outside Starbucks in Kadena’s American village (the location of the biggest US base), loudly playing island music. Astute as it is business-wise, given the area attracts thousands of tourists, I could not help seeing this as a subversive act of resistance, loaded with symbolism given its location.


Okinawa is more than the US military bases. Its richly lived culture and hospitable and pacifist inhabitants make a visit to the island a joy. There is so much to do and enjoy: from following the Okinawan pottery trail in Naha and spotting its many Shisha dragons that adorn entrances and rooftops to visiting the karate Center - Okinawa is considered the birthplace of karate; traveling up north to the UNESCO Natural Heritage site in the Yanbaru Forest; stopping to eat at Emiko Kinjo’s Emi-no-Mise organic eatery that is based on the island’s “nuchi gusui/life-medicine” food approach, in the Ogimi coastal village” known for its centenarians; crossing the bridge to the tiny island of Ojima in the southeast to try its famous tempura in the company of its many cats; taking a trip up to spectacular Cape Hedo, Okinawa's northernmost point, where South China Sea from the West merges with the Pacific Ocean from the east; being entertained by the island music; exploring the famous Makishi marker in Naha (my favorite spot in town); or opting for day visits to the nearby pristine nature islands to mention but a few. But, if you visit Okinawa, make an effort not to see it only as a tourist destination but also as an occupied island.


*Dr. Valia Papoutsaki is the co-editor of the Okinawan Journal of Island Studies' special issue on island activisms (vol 5, March 2023).




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