When President Barack Obama visited Hiroshima this year, there was an effort to persuade him to put Okinawa on his travel itinerary, but as has happened frequently throughout the long tortured history of Okinawa, the request was ignored. In an important sense, Okinawa is the most shameful legacy of Japan’s defeat in World War II, exceeding even the sites of the atomic attacks by its daily reminders of a continued encroachment on national dignity.
Actually, Okinawa is being victimized by overlapping exploitations with that of the United States reinforced and legitimized by mainland Japan. For the United States, Okinawa serves as a hub for its strategic military operations throughout the Pacific, with at least 14 separate military bases occupying about 20 per cent of the island. Kadena Air Base was used for B-29 bombing missions during the Korean War more than a half century ago, and the island was used as a major staging area throughout the Vietnam War. It has also been used as a secret site for the deployment of as many as 1,000 nuclear warheads in defiance of Japan’s declared nonukes policy. Actually, in recent years, Okinawa rarely receives global news coverage except when there occurs a sex crime by American servicemen that provokes local outrage, followed by the strained apologies of American commanders.
Japan’s role in the misfortunes of Okinawa is more than one of a passive acceptance of the enduring side effects of its defeat and humiliation in World War II. After a series of military incursions, Japan finally conquered Okinawa and the Ryukyu island chain, of which it is a part, in 1879, and then imposed its rule in ways that suppressed the culture, traditions, and even the language of the native populations of the islands. What is virtually unknown in the West is that Okinawa was the scene of the culminating catastrophic land battle between the United States and Japan in the spring of 1945 that resulted in the death of an astounding one-third of the island’s civilian population of then 300,000 and its subsequent harsh military administration by the United States for the next 27 years until the island was finally turned back to Japan in 1972. Despite an estimated 60-80 per cent of Okinawans being opposed to the US bases, confirmed by the recent election of an antibases governor of the prefecture, the government in Tokyo, currently headed by a dangerous militarist, Shinzo Abe, is comfortable with the status quo, which allows most of the unpopular continuing American military presence to be centered outside of mainland Japan, and hence no longer a serious political irritant within the country.
What the plight of Okinawans exemplifies is the tragic ordeal of a small island society, which because of its small population and size, entrapment within Japan, and geopolitical significance, failed to be included in the decolonizing agenda that was pursued around the world with such success in the last half of the 20th century. This tragic fate that has befallen Okinawa and its people results from being a ‘colony’ in a post-colonial era. Its smallness of a population (1.4 million) combined with its enclosure within Japanese sovereign statehood, and its role in pursuing the Asian strategic interests of the United States, as well as joint military operations with Japan, make it captive of a militarized world order that refuses to acknowledge the supposedly inalienable right of self-determination, an entitlement of all peoples, according to the common Article 1 of both the human rights covenants. In this respect, Okinawa, from a global perspective, is a forgotten remnant of the colonial past, which means it is subjugated and irrelevant from the perspective of a state-centric world order. In this respect, it bears a kinship with such other forgotten peoples as those living in Kashmir, Chechnya, Xinjiang, Tibet, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Palau, and Marianas Islands, among many others.
When we raise questions about the future of Okinawa, we come face to face with the role and responsibility of global civil society. For Okinawans, long integrated into the Japanese state, earlier dreams of independence seem to have faded, and the focus of political energy is currently devoted to the anti-bases campaign.
In this respect, acting as citizen pilgrims means giving attention to injustices that the world as a whole treats as invisible except when an awkward incident of lethal abuse occurs. Okinawa has been effectively swept under the dual rugs of statism and geopolitics, and even the mainly Japanese peace movement may have grown fatigued and distracted, being currently preoccupied with its opposition to the revival of Japanese militarism under Abe’s leadership. Whether attention to the plight of Okinawa will give rise to false hopes is a concern, but the aspiration is to produce an empowering recognition throughout the world that for some peoples the struggle against colonialism remains a present reality rather than a heroic memory that can be annually celebrated as an independence day holiday. Until we in the United States stand in active solidarity with such victims of colonialist governance we will never know whether more can be done to improve prospects of their emancipation. This awareness and allegiance is the very least that we can do if we are to act in the spirit of a citizen pilgrimage.