ROUGH SEAS AHEAD FOR OKINAWA’S NEWLEY ELECTED GOVERNOR
As I write this column on September 30, the people of Okinawa Prefecture are voting to choose a successor to former governor Takeshi Onaga, who died of pancreatic cancer in early August. The southernmost prefecture comprising more than 100 islands is still suffering from the aftermath of last week’s severe typhoon, which has now moved on to Honshu.
The guest of my regular “Genron” Internet new show last Friday, two days before the election, was Ms. Masako Ganaha, an Okinawa-born conservative political activist who made some insightful observations of the politics of Okinawa. She stated:
“As we all know, it is supposed to be a two-man race between conservative Jun Sakima, backed by the coalition ruling party, and progressive Denny Tamaki, supported by the major opposition parties. Strangely, however, it actually has turned into a race between Sakima and the late governor.
“Aware of the favorable effects of waging an emotional campaign to ‘avenge Onaga’s death’ as it were, Tamaki has been vigorously promising voters that he will carry out the last wish of Onaga, who had bitterly opposed the American military presence on Okinawa. Tamaki has chosen not to discuss his policies much, hiding behind Onaga’s shadow instead.”
Under such circumstances, voters tend to sympathize with the deceased and the candidate who vows to follow in his footsteps—the scenario the Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner Komeito Party have feared most.
Okinawa’s two leading liberal dailies—the Ryukyu Shimpo and the Okinawa Times—have come together to support Tamaki. Ms. Ganaha showed identical ads that the two dailies have run.
Right in the center of the ad is a blown-up photograph of Onaga looking frail, with a handwritten banner above reading: “We
Okinawans will never fail to follow your last wish…Thank you for everything you have done for us, Governor Onaga.” Printed in the corner of the ad is a small head-to-shoulders photo of Tamaki.
Commented Ganaha with an amazed look:
“Looking at such an ad, one wonders for a second whose campaign poster it is meant to be. Tamaki is dependent on the popular image of the late governor to a great extent. As a matter of fact, one cannot fail to see Onaga’s photographs everywhere across Okinawa today. As you drive around, you see groups of people on the sidewalks waving campaign posters carrying enlarged photographs of Onaga. Looking every inch like activists, these people spend the whole day untiringly waving Onaga posters. “
Although Tamaki has so far concentrated mostly on appealing to voters’ emotions, refusing to respond to a challenge for policy debates by his opponent, he has failed to completely avoid direct confrontations with Sakima. Ganaha further explained:
“In point of fact, Tamaki has twice agreed to debate with Sakima. In both, he was completely overwhelmed by his conservative opponent, as even his supporters had to grudgingly admit. His policy proposals are flawed, with many contradictions.”
Precarious Policies of a Dreamer
Tamaki asserts that the real question at issue in this election is whether or not Okinawa should approve the projected transfer of US Marine Air Station Futenma from the heavily populated area of Ginowan City to the less populated coastal Henoko City on the northern coast of the main island. Clearly, he will not approve the transfer if he is elected.
Tamaki is also opposed to the government plan to deploy JSDF (Japan Self Defense Force) troops on any of Okinawa’s islands. His reason: islanders have not agreed to the plan, which is bound to create divisiveness among them.
If Tamaki as governor would not approve the base’s transfer or the deployment of JSDF troops, an unwelcome situation will develop in which neither the Japan-US security framework nor the JSDF will function satisfactorily. How then does Tamaki expect the Senkaku Islands to be protected? He has naively stated that he expects the government to resort to diplomacy and international law to resolve any crisis.
As China’s rampant behavior in the South China Sea has amply demonstrated, it is plain that diplomatic talks not aligned with military strength will not be effective. In 2016, the Hague-based International Court of Arbitration handed down a landmark ruling, dismissing Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea against the Philippines. But China rejected the ruling outright as “nothing but a mere scrap of paper,” relentlessly forging ahead with militarizing a number of islands.
Diplomatic measures and international law don’t count for much with China.
“Tamaki doesn’t know what he is talking about. Trying to resolve the friction over the Senkakus diplomatically means sitting down at the negotiating table with the Chinese. In the first place, however, the Senkakus are Japan’s legitimate territory, and there is absolutely no territorial issue pending between Tokyo and Beijing. Tamaki should know better.
“And yet, he insists on settling the Senkaku issue diplomatically. That just isn’t congruent with the government’s policy. Confronting the adversary on their own ground itself is a major setback. This man has served four terms as a member of the Diet. It’s incredible that he absolutely fails to understand the most basic of the basics of diplomacy.”
Ganaha said she could not believe Tamaki had been elected four times to serve as an opposition member of the Diet (2009-2018).
By comparison, Sakima’s policy proposals are much more convincing. Setting a well-thought-out economic agenda, he also advocates measures to make Japan militarily capable of protecting the islands of Okinawa against the threat from China. In line with this thinking, he voices strong objections to any violation of the Japanese territorial waters around the Senkakus.
Tamaki has allegedly made an even more perplexing statement regarding Okinawa, according to Ganaha, who noted:
“In its September 23 edition, the local daily Yaeyama Nippo quoted Tamaki as declaring that, if elected, he will strive to ‘take back Okinawa from Japan and the US.’ So Tamaki sees Japan and Okinawa as two separate entities, refusing to recognize Okinawa as part of Japan. Onaga, the former governor, would constantly refer to Okinawa’s ‘right to self-determination’—an assertion that would justify the potential independence of the Ryukyus from Japan.”
Abrogation of Responsibility by Okinawans
Okinawa specialists Akira Shinohara and Jun Okubo explain in Inconvenient Truths about Okinawa (Shincho-sha, Tokyo; 2015) that there exists in Okinawa a popular notion of “structural discrimination against Okinawa (by Japan).” The co-authors note that this thinking, pitting the Japanese and the Okinawans against each other as two separate peoples, is critical not only of the Japanese government but of all Japanese people. The authors further explain that the Okinawans feel the Japanese are against any move to transfer US military bases to Japan proper because of this inherent discrimination against Okinawa.
It is true that American military bases are heavily concentrated in Okinawa, but there has been a peculiar geographical, political, and historical background that makes it difficult to trace Okinawa’s problems to discrimination by Japan alone. As we have seen over the years, whenever the government has attempted to proceed with a reduction of US bases, there have risen stern protests from various sectors of Okinawan society. The uneven distribution of the US bases (some 70% of all the US bases in Japan are located in Okinawa) is closely linked to the state of the economy and social structure of the islands.
Holding the Japanese alone responsible for the uneven distribution is tantamount to the Okinawans abrogating their own historical responsibility.
Shinohara and Okubo put this question to the Okinawans—aren’t the people of the main island guilty of their own discrimination against the people of Amami, Miyako, Yaeyma, and other outer islands? The authors also point out that the “structural discrimination” argument, and the criticism of Japan in general are employed by progressive forces in Okinawa to conveniently obscure a multitude of problems and contradictions Okinawa is saddled with.
As I continued writing this column, election results in Okinawa were becoming more certain little by little. As of a little past 8 p.m., after the polling stations had been closed, I watched NHK TV news which reported that Tamaki was pulling ahead, although he had not yet been projected to win.
If Tamaki’s win is finally confirmed, Okinawa will have elected a new governor who, like his predecessor, adamantly asserts that Okinawa has been structurally discriminated against by Japan—a dreamer who believes the Senkakus can be protected by diplomatic skills and international law alone. Must we now face another four years of Okinawa led astray by a politician unable to determine what is best for his people?
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 822 in the October 11, 2018 issue of The Weekly Shincho)