JPRI Critique Vol. XII, No. 6 (October 2005)
Japan's "New Orleans"
By Kozy Amemiya

As a Japanese long resident in the US, I stopped watching the television news the day after 9/11, because I could no longer stomach the onslaught of propaganda put out by mouthpieces of the Bush administration masquerading as journalists. But for five days after Hurricane Katrina broke the levees and flooded New Orleans, I was fixated on the television reports. I watched the horror of tens of thousands of people, mostly poor and black, abandoned by their government without food, water, sanitation and medical care at the Superdome and the convention center. Each day the conditions became more incredibly desperate, more inhumane, and more shocking. I was enraged at the US government for leaving those people in such a desperate situation. I realized the catastrophe I was witnessing was not only the result of the Bush administration's pro-military, pro-business policies, but also due to prolonged neglect by the government and indifference by the rest of Americans to the plight of poor minorities. What was unfolding was America's disgrace -- the exposure of structural racism. While I was enraged by the enormous suffering of the people on the TV screen, something was poking me in the back. I turned around, and there I saw Okinawa.

Like New Orleans, Okinawa is popular with visitors and known for its distinctive culture and easy-going, tolerant ambience. Most visitors to New Orleans, who flocked to the French Quarter where they enjoyed its cuisine and jazz in its warm semi-tropical air, did not even notice the poverty of the majority of its residents. Likewise, tourists in Okinawa flock to resort hotels on the pristine beaches, savor the regional cuisine, are entertained by local music, marvel at traditional folk arts, enjoy the generous hospitality of the locals, and go home without a hint of the burden of the US military bases the Okinawans have been forced to shoulder throughout the postwar period.

Like those New Orleansians who were abandoned in the Superdome and the convention center, Okinawans have been betrayed and abandoned by the government over and over again. Just to look at the postwar period, Okinawans were betrayed in 1945 by the Japanese military which turned their land into one of the fiercest battlegrounds in history. Again in 1952, they were abandoned by the Japanese government to be exploited by the US military, which expropriated their land for new military bases and continued to occupy Okinawa until 1972.

Having lost their land and livelihood, Okinawans sought jobs on the military bases, thus developing economic dependency on the US military. Some sought a refuge overseas. Those who were shipped to Bolivia in 1954 were sent to a jungle with no drinking water, and with a vain promise of fifty hectares of land to each family. The American investigator and the Okinawan elites who had surveyed the prospective settlement site beforehand had no qualms about sending a large number of immigrants into the deep jungle. Their offhand attitude shows that they regarded the prospective Okinawan immigrants in the same way that Barbara Bush dismissed the suffering of the victims of Katrina caused by the government's negligence as they "were underprivileged anyway." [1]

The United States kept some military bases in postwar Japan as well. However, in the 1950s and the 60s, the Japanese public vehemently opposed their presence, threatening the continued rule of the LDP, which would have jeopardized the Japan-US Security Pact. Hence, the United States transferred most of the military bases from Japan proper to Okinawa with the ultimate goal of maintaining its military hegemony in East Asia through the Japan-US Security Pact.[2] Today, 75 percent of the US military bases in Japan are concentrated in Okinawa on what amounts to only 1 percent of Japan's total area. Okinawans were betrayed again by the Japanese government at the time of the 1972 reversion with no change in the status of the US military bases in their land. To this day, Okinawans are still forced to shoulder this burden on behalf of all Japanese.

Because of the concentration of these military bases, Okinawa has been unable to develop viable industries, except for tourism. Like New Orleans, Okinawa's unemployment rate is twice as high as the national average. While Okinawans have struggled under this military occupation, the Japanese have achieved economic prosperity and enjoy their peaceful way of life, ignoring the dangers and burden they have placed on Okinawans.  

Okinawa's hurricane is the US military bases, and Okinawa has had numerous Katrinas, the latest one of which was the crash of a US military helicopter on the campus of Okinawa International University in August 2004. It was only luck that there was a fraction of the usual number of people on the campus on that day due to the summer vacation. Nonetheless, the crash once again laid bare Okinawans' fear of living under constant threat to their lives by having US military bases on their island. It also revealed the imbalance of burden-sharing between Okinawans and Japanese, and yet the Japanese media remained indifferent. The two main Okinawan newspapers issued an extra edition without delay to report the crash. On the same day the major Japanese newspapers also issued an extra edition, but not about the crash; it was about the retirement of an owner of one of Japan's professional baseball teams. The Japanese media treated the crash in Okinawa as minor news.[3] Unlike the uproar about New Orleans and Katrina, and the ensuing public debate about race and poverty in American society, Okinawa's Katrina failed to bring about any public discussion of the perpetual unequal treatment of Okinawans by the Japanese government and people. The Japanese media's indifference to the Okinawans' plight was revealed once again over an incident of sexual molestation of a 10-year old girl by a US serviceman in July of this year. Not only the Okinawan newspapers but also the online edition of British newspaper The Independent reported it immediately, and yet none of the major Japanese newspapers did so.[4]

If Japanese were watching on TV the deepening disaster in New Orleans comparing it to the orderliness in post-earthquake Kobe, I would urge them to think again. Kobe is not comparable to New Orleans. Japan's "New Orleans" is Okinawa.

Kozy Amemiya is a member of the Board of Advisors of the Japan Policy Research Institute and is continuing her research on Okinawan immigration to Bolivia.


1. Barbara Bush's interview in American Public Media's "Marketplace" program was quoted in " Barbara Bush: Things Working Out 'Very Well' for Poor Evacuees from New Orleans," Editor & Publisher website. [Return to Text]

2. Arasaki Moriteru, Okinawa Gendaishi [ Contemporary history of Okinawa ] (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1996), pp. 9-13. [Return to Text]

3. Nomura Hiroya, Muishiki no Shokuminchishugi: Nihonjin no Beigunkichi to Okinawajin [ Unconscious colonialism: The US military bases of the Japanese and the Okinawans ] (Tokyo: Ochanomizu Shobo, 2005), p.232. [Return to Text]

4. David McNeill, "Anger in Okinawa as US airman faces child sex charges," The Independent (05 July 2005). [Return to Text]

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