Saturday, September 17, 2022

Why Governor Denny Tamaki won

My sincere and heartfelt congratulations to Denny Tamaki, the hapa haole governor of Okinawa, who was handily reelected to his post this past week. He easily defeated his challenger, the mayor of Ginowan Sakima Atsushi, who was backed by the right-wing Lib Dems and Komeitô. Tamaki won on a mandate to relocate the US Marine Corps Air Station at Futenma, not to a new location inside Okinawa, but outside of Okinawa or outside of Japan altogether. Tamaki won the gubernatorial post by pretty much the same margin as he did in 2018, by about 80,000 votes. Also notable is that Governor Tamaki succeeded the late right honourable Governor Onaga Takeshi, who selected Tamaki to succeed him before his untimely death, and also ran on the same platform of opposition to US Marines presence in Okinawa. This shows that the US Marines are deeply and perennially unpopular on the archipelago. In order to understand why this is, three historical facts must first be taken into account.

The first fact is that Okinawa used to be its own independent country, the Kingdom of Ryûkyû [Lûchû]. It had its own language, its own customs, its own government. The Okinawan people, or Uchinanchu, are broadly agreed to have descended, much like the Ainu people of Hokkaidô, from the ancient indigenous Jômon culture which inhabited Japan in prehistory—prior to the influx, or invasion, of the Yayoi [or Yamato] people from the Korean peninsula, who are the ancestors of the modern Japanese culture.

The Okinawan people were unified under the Shô Dynasty in 1429, which received aid in that goal from Ming Dynasty China. The Shô kings ruled Okinawa as an independent nation until 1872, when the archipelago was subjugated and conquered by the newfangled Empire of Japan—an unbroken independent rule of over 400 years. For comparison’s sake: Okinawa was already its own nation with a sovereign king and an established culture, nearly two centuries before the first Fujian settlers set foot on the island of Taiwan (which was of course already inhabited by Indigenous people—Indigenous people who, by the way, by and large do not support Taiwanese independence from China… but that is another topic).

Okinawa was subject to the same humiliating forced-assimilation techniques that were used on their Ainu cousins to the north. Japanese rule brought with it a public education system that systematically forbade the use of the Ryûkyûan language. Ryûkyûan dress was mocked and ridiculed as outdated, feudal, Sinitic. Schoolchildren who used their own native tongue were shamed by hanging ‘hôgen fuda’ placards around their necks while their teachers and fellow-students hurled abuse at them. Okinawa also bore the brunt of the Japanese Empire’s constant push to expand. The island archipelago was a natural staging ground for Japanese invasions of the Asian mainland. Conscription policies were harsher on Okinawa than elsewhere, and Okinawan society was flooded with militaristic propaganda and soldiers from the big island. At least 500 Okinawan women are recorded serving as ‘comfort women’ to the Japanese forces, alongside the much more numerous cohorts of Korean and Chinese sex slaves.

The second historical fact to be considered is that Okinawa has always borne the costs of war between Japan and its neighbours. Okinawa was the site of the only major land battle on Japanese territory in the Pacific theatre of WWII, and in that battle over 200,000 people were killed, including anywhere between 100,000 and 160,000 civilians. Throughout the battle the Okinawan civilian population was horrifically abused and slaughtered by both sides. The Allied forces treated the women of Okinawa in much the same way occupying soldiers treated the women of occupied territories throughout that war in each theatre. There were over 10,000 documented cases of rape committed by Allied GIs against Okinawan women during the 84 days of fighting. Many Okinawan girls committed suicide rather than be captured, tortured and bodily defiled by the Allies. But there, they had little choice: those who tried to surrender to the Allied forces were usually shot and killed anyway by Japanese soldiers who were embedded among the population. And the Imperial Japanese Army, shameless in their hideous brutality as they had been throughout the war, even against ‘their own’, had absolutely no qualms about using Okinawan civilians, including schoolgirls, as human shields against the Allies.

Even after the war was over, Okinawa still was forced to bear the costs. Despite FDR discussing with Chiang Kai-shek the possibility of Okinawan sovereignty in 1943 (either fully or in part under the Republic of China), Harry Truman immediately and unilaterally reneged on any such intentions. From 1945 all the way up until 1972, Okinawa was essentially a military dictatorship under the ‘trusteeship’ of the United States Army. (Japan’s sovereignty returned 20 years before, in 1952.) The Army dictatorship appointed governors for the island which (with one exception lasting all of five days) were drawn from the US Army brass.

Just as the IJA had done, the US Army used Okinawa as a military staging ground for its operations on the Asian mainland, particularly during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. The US Army seized arable land from the local residents for the purpose of building bases, forcibly evicting as many as 250,000 Okinawans from their homes and farms during the 1950s alone. And once they were established on the islands, they behaved toward the local population exactly as the Japanese imperialists had done. Okinawans were treated as second-class. Although they lived in what was officially a US territory, they had no rights as US citizens or even residents. Neither were they allowed to travel freely between Okinawa and Japan without a special permit. The military bases in Okinawa brought increases in noise and crime (particularly sexual crimes against Okinawan women), and many of the evicted Okinawans, bereft of their means of subsistence, lived under conditions of starvation and intense economic deprivation.

The American military presence on Okinawa, the effects on the local population and the propinquity of the GIs led many Uchinanchu to protest and resist the Korean and Vietnam Wars. The global counterculture and anti-war movement distinctly touched Okinawa. The Koza Uprising of 1970 is one direct example of this. During this time particularly, music became a focus for asserting a distinct Okinawan identity, as well as voicing political protest. Many musicians in Okinawa, from Miyanaga Eiichi to Kina Shôkichi and Rob Kajiwara, have engaged in peace activism and protests against military presence in Okinawa.

The third historical fact that must be remembered may be summed up in William Faulkner’s famous quip that the past is never dead; it’s not even past. The US bases in Okinawa are still foci of abuses and crimes against the Uchinanchu. There was one particularly gruesome incident in 1995 involving three US Marines assaulting and violating a twelve-year-old girl; and another high-profile rape-murder in 2016 committed by another former US Marine who worked on the base. But this is probably only the tip of the iceberg; according to The Intercept, between 2017 and 2019 the NCIS investigated eight separate incidences of sexual assault and misconduct by American servicemen—and then covered them all up, not reporting them to the relevant local or Japanese authorities, and not even reporting them to Congress as American law requires.

Okinawans are aware of, and justly incensed by, all of these incidents… which is why they keep electing anti-base politicians like Denny Tamaki. Governor Tamaki himself is the son of an Uchinanchu woman and a US Marine who left him and his mother before he was born: in his person, he symbolises much of Okinawa’s predicament and the way in which its history and identity have been shaped by occupation. Modern Okinawan artists like sanshin player Uema Ayano, and authors like Shun Medoruma, as well as the aforementioned Miyanagi Eiichi, Kina Shôkichi and Rob Kajiwara, also give voice to the deep desire of Okinawan people for disarmament and peace with their neighbours, as well as the sense of anger that most residents of Okinawa still justly feel over their treatment over one and a half centuries of what they still justly consider to be foreign occupation. It is my hope personally, that Governor Denny Tamaki is given the opportunity to follow through on his proposals, and benefit the Okinawan people by the demilitarisation of his native islands.

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