JPRI Critique Vol. V No. 11 (December 1998)
The LDP Takes Over in Okinawa
by JPRI Staff

Masahide Ota and the End of an Ideal
by Patrick Smith

The LDP Takes Over in Okinawa
by JPRI Staff

On November 15, 1998, Governor Ota lost his bid for a third term as governor of Okinawa. His challenger, the Liberal Democratic Party-supported candidate, Keiichi Inamine (former chairman of Ryukyu Petroleum), took 52.1 percent of the vote compared to Ota's 46.9 percent. Voter turnout was 76.5 percent, fourteen percent higher than four years ago.

The LDP orchestrated the outcome from Tokyo. Ever since Ota and the voters of Nago rejected the LDP's plan to build an off-shore heliport for the U.S. Marines, Tokyo stopped all contact with the prefectural government. It suspended subsidies and allowed the economic situation to fester. The result was that Okinawa, in addition to having the lowest per-capita income in Japan because of the U.S. bases, was now handed the country's highest unemployment rate, 9.2 percent.

Inamine ran a clever campaign. He adopted positions as close to those of Ota as possible--for example, Inamine too came out against the floating heliport--but he promised that he could reopen the money pipeline from Tokyo. Five days before the election, the LDP announced that it was abandoning the heliport idea and would negotiate with Inamine over where to move Futenma Marine Corps Air Station. The two Marine hit-and-run cases that occurred just prior to the election (one resulting in death) saw U.S. Ambassador Thomas Foley running to the Foreign Ministry to apologize and offer financial compensation. The people of Okinawa, already worn down by the relentless pressure of the Pentagon, seem to have settled for money instead of the ideal of self-government.

But the forced retirement of the most effective prefectural governor in postwar Japan does not mean that the Okinawan problem is solved. The U.S. expects to keep its forces in Okinawa indefinitely and have Japan continue to pay for them through the 'sympathy budget.' Meanwhile, many Japanese are starting to ask themselves whether they really want to support such expensive mercenaries who, at the same time, can dictate the next conflict in which they will involve Japan. The Okinawans know at first hand what living with such a risk entails and that is why they remain so angry.

Masahide Ota and the End of an Ideal
by Patrick Smith

Yuki Uema's tragic death from a brain contusion did not warrant headlines in the U.S., but it was powerful news in Okinawa and the rest of Japan. On October 7, the 18-year-old Okinawan college student was knocked off her motorbike outside Camp Zukeran, a U.S. military base north of Naha, Okinawa's capital, by a hit-and-run driver. A week later, Uema slipped away without regaining consciousness. The alleged perpetrator: Randall Eskridge, a 23-year-old Marine corporal accused of being drunk at the time of the accident. Eskridge, who was apprehended only because the marine guard at Zukeran's gate noticed the badly damaged car, now faces trial in a Japanese court. And Uema has become the latest casualty of the much-debated U.S. military presence in Japan's poorest and most remote prefecture.

We've been here before. Three years ago, the rape of a 12-year-old by several servicemen became a potent symbol of the sacrifices forced on Okinawa by its heavy concentration of U.S. military installations. But the protests that re-erupted last week were tempered by some uncomfortable realities. Since the rape incident, Tokyo and Washington have been negotiating the relocation of one big base, Futenma Air Station, and the outright return of other facilities. If there are still few Okinawans who favor the U.S. bases, even fewer know what will replace them--and the subsidies Tokyo sends to towns that reluctantly host the American military. "If it's possible to get rid of these bases, we'd all like to," says Mikio Higa, a prominent executive in Naha. "But we've suddenly got to ask ourselves, 'What's next?'"

It is easy to understand the near-universal conviction among Okinawans that they would be better off without so many uniformed Yanks in their midst. Three-quarters of the U.S. bases in Japan--more than 40 facilities--are crammed into 0.6% of the nation's land. They occupy a fifth of Okinawa--and cause all manner of economic, environmental and social problems. Along the coast in the north, the town of Kin is 60% given over to Camp Hansen, which has shelled the surrounding hills into a moonscape that now erodes into a once-pristine sea. Futenma takes up a third of Ginowan City, causing safety problems, crowding and noise levels that routinely stop conversations. In Ginowan and other cities, the larger problem is simply put: After half a century hosting bases, they have simply run out of room to grow. "As long as Futenma sits in the middle of our city," says Mayor Seiko Higa, "it's impossible for me to imagine the future."

But what would Okinawa be like without the Americans? Mayor Higa points to a nearby locale called Hanby Town to suggest the economic advantages that will come from getting the bases back. When Hanby Town was Hanby Auxiliary Airfield, it employed a handful of locals and produced 207 million yen in annual revenues for Okinawans--those working on the base and the landlords who leased the ground it stood on. The same land now boasts shops, restaurants, theaters and residential streets much favored among Okinawans. It employs almost 1,200 people and turns out 80 billion yen in goods and services annually. "There's only one problem," Mayor Higa says in his cramped office high above Ginowan's sprawl. "The Americans gave up Hanby in 1981. It's taken 17 years to make something of it."

That's the rub all over Okinawa. While the prefecture's cities and towns regularly petition Washington to get occupied real estate back, some are already dotted with weed-filled acreage the Americans vacated years ago--empty tracts with no streets, no electricity, no water. To the landlords who lease plots to the Americans and the contractors who bid for base work, these are frightening sights. Give us a redevelopment plan we can all agree upon, they say, and we'll gladly take our land back. But it can take a decade or more to produce such plans, chiefly because officials must orchestrate scores of small-time landowners, sovereigns of tiny domains with their own ideas about the best way forward. Even in the business community, the ideal future does not include a U.S. presence. But worries about lost income once the bases depart make landowners and others in the business community a small but influential constituency that favors the American presence out of necessity.

Is Okinawa simply hooked on the Americans, an addict unable to kick a messy habit? Certainly not, most economists say. But there can be no question of the prefecture going cold turkey, either. As the landlords' predicament suggests, Okinawans need a long-term strategy. The U.S. bases contribute far less to the Okinawan economy than they used to: less than 5% now, compared with nearly a fifth 25 years ago. But the subsidies Tokyo ties to the bases are considerable. As a result, public works rank second behind tourism as a growth engine. What will replace those handouts when (or if) the Americans finally fold their tents?

No one really knows--not yet, anyway. One obvious answer is tourism, already the prefecture's No. 1 industry. In fact, Japan's recession, which has dampened the Japanese passion for overseas travel to places like Europe and Hawaii, has benefited Okinawa. Another current idea is to turn sleepy, semitropical Okinawa into a bustling entrepot--a role it played for centuries before Japan made the Kingdom of the Ryukyus a prefecture in 1879. Last spring, Tokyo passed legislation that allows Naha to designate part of the prefecture a free-trade zone. Since then, Federal Express has opened a regional facility near Naha's airport--just the sort of enterprise Okinawans talk about. Intense interest in Okinawa has also come from another curious quarter: Taiwan, which is eager to continue its indirect trade with mainland China and appears to want an alternative to Hong Kong, now that the former British territory has reverted to Beijing's control.

The trouble with these ideas is that they are ideas. Okinawa needs a lot more than one investment from a courier service, and it has to compete for it in an increasingly tough economic environment. It has too little infrastructure for some investors and too few natural resources for others. It may also have too many political problems: While the Taiwanese look like comers, the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo seems reluctant to let the prefecture play serious ball. Not only does Tokyo worry about complicating relations with China over the Taiwan question; Beijing has never recognized Japanese sovereignty over the old Ryukyu kingdom.

In the end, some Okinawan executives say, the prefecture suffers an attitude problem: After depending so long on the bases and Tokyo's handouts, the business community is simply too passive to imagine its own future--and pursue it. "What should a 21st century economy be like? No one really knows," says Mikio Higa. "Most if us are still groping in the dark."

Ordinary Okinawans are groping, too. The recession that has gripped Japan for the past seven years has hit them especially hard. Tourism from other Asian countries is way off from previous peaks; so is fixed investment. Recession has also made it tougher for young Okinawans to find work on the main islands--a traditional safety valve for the local economy. As a result, unemployment is now running above 9%--more than twice the national average. Joblessness in the cities matches the very un-Japanese levels of France and West Germany; Ginowan's unemployment rate, for instance, is 12%. And one look at a streetcorner almost anywhere in the prefecture will tell you who is feeling the pinch most acutely of all: Roughly three-quarters of those without jobs are below 35.

Just how Okinawans view their future may become clearer on November 15, when Masahide Ota, the prefecture's charismatic governor, faces re-election. Ota, a U.S.-trained scholar who remains youthfully energetic at 72, is a passionate defender of the Okinawan cause. First elected in 1990 on an anti-bases platform, he has stood firmly against the U.S. presence--and given Okinawans a voice in the matter for the first time. Since the rape incident in 1995, he has rejected a controversial proposal to relocate Futenma to a floating heliport off a small fishing village called Nago. "Impossible," Ota said when asked about the idea. "We can't move Futenma anyplace else in Okinawa--it simply has to go." The governor wants all U.S. bases out by 2015.

Until recently, Ota's re-election was a foregone conclusion. His leading opponent is Keiichi Inamine, a former oil executive who represents the business community--and reportedly enjoys the support of the Liberal Democrats in Tokyo. While Inamine plays down the LDP connection, he does advocate a more conciliatory approach to the problem that haunts Okinawans. Instead of confronting the national government, he says, Okinawans should negotiate flexibly--and be willing to compromise for the sake of economic development. On the future of Futenma, the cutting edge issue at the moment, not even Inamine wants to relocate it indefinitely. In his view, the base should be given a home elsewhere in the prefecture, but only for 15 years.

Inamine's abrupt arrival on the local political scene--he announced his candidacy only in August--reminded Okinawans that while Ota has articulated their problems well enough, he hasn't come up with any solutions. Inamine, though he promises Okinawans an economic future, is also short of bright ideas. But he effectively managed to cast the election as a stark, unappealing choice between idealistic principles and economic growth. Governor Ota may still speak for Okinawans, but the sound of their own voice has begun to make them nervous.

One further point worth noting: As regional crises evaporate, it is becoming clearer that Okinawa is essentially a platform for the projection of U.S. power far away from Japan--and from Japan's concerns. In other words, it is becoming easier for some Japanese to argue that Okinawa serves U.S. interests alone. This, too, is viewed by some as a potential problem, particularly in light of U.S. saber-rattling in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere.

PATRICK SMITH was in Okinawa October 5-8, 1998. He is the author of Japan: A Reinterpretation, which won the Kiriyama Prize in 1997. A version of this article also appeared in the Asia edition of Time Magazine, November 9, 1998.

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