By John Price and Satoko Oka Norimatsu
The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) are now regularly using the U.S.-controlled Kadena Air Base and White Beach naval port on Okinawa for their operations in the Asia Pacific.
Not only have such operations exacerbated tensions in the region, the CAF have become complicit in the ongoing dispossession of Uchinanchu (Indigenous Okinawans) who, for the past 75 years, have continuously fought to regain their lands, stolen by the U.S. military.
Particularly troubling is how the U.S. took advantage of the circumstances to turn Okinawa into a military colony. The dispossession of the Uchinanchu began immediately after the Battle of Okinawa in 1945 that left the Indigenous population, who were noncombatants, incredibly traumatized and imprisoned by the U.S. military.
To this day, approximately 26,000 American military personnel are still stationed in Okinawa and their military facilities occupy 15 percent of all Okinawa Island.
Closer to Taiwan than to Japan, Okinawa today has also become a prime tourist destination. But few are prepared for the unending barbed-wire fences ringing U.S. military installations, including the Kadena Air Base currently being used by Canadian forces.
As Indigenous people dispossessed of their land, and as victims of the war, many Okinawans have come to treasure the concept nuchi du takara—‘life is precious’. This spirit has provided them with the determination to fight for over 70 years to take back control of Okinawa.
The land has its own memory and tells its own stories.
Sites of remembrance
On the southern tip of Okinawa, at a location known as Mabuni Hill, stands a huge green space—Okinawa Peace Memorial Park—a sacred site for many Okinawans. The park memorializes over 200,000 who perished in the ferocious March 1945 land battle, often referred to as the “Typhoon of Steel”. Of the casualties, over 122,000 were Uchinanchu, Okinawans. The deaths represented one-quarter of the total population, caught in a deadly yet unnecessary showdown between the warring Japanese and American troops.
As described by the Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum: “A significant aspect of the Battle of Okinawa was the great loss of civilian life. At more than 100,000 civilian losses far outnumbered the military death toll. Some were blown apart by shells, some finding themselves in a hopeless situation were driven to suicide, some died of starvation, some succumbed to malaria, while other fell victim to the retreating Japanese troops. Under the most desperate and unimaginable circumstances, Okinawans directly experienced the absurdity of war and atrocities it inevitably brings about.”
The novel Odori, by Okinawan Canadian author and scholar Darcy Tamayose, has captured this absurdity and its extensive impact that affected her own family, part of the Okinawan diaspora in Alberta. Winner of the 2007 Canada-Japan literary award, Odori takes readers on a mystical journey back to wartime Okinawa. Epitomizing the spirit of nuchi du takara, it recounts the journey of an Okinawan woman coming to terms with the senseless loss of a twin sister caught in the crossfire of a needless battle.
The spirit of nuchi du takara has spread, giving birth to a peace-seeking culture on the island, prompting the construction of the Okinawa Peace Memorial Park, including the Cornerstone of Peace, a wall inscribed with the names of over 240,000 people who perished in the war—be they Okinawans, Japanese or American soldiers, or Korean forced labourers. It is a testament to the fact there are no winners in war.
And so today, Okinawa is an island of peace and an island of war.
The military colonization of Okinawa
The U.S. military took over Okinawa at the onset of the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, only to permanently attain the island nation as their Pacific stronghold.
Having suffered the loss of one-quarter of their population and the destruction of their homes and livelihood, the surviving Uchinanchu were rounded up and kept in virtual concentration camps by the U.S. military. As Takazato Suzuyo and others have documented, many women were raped, malnourished elderly and children fell ill, and many died.
Out of this trauma the notion of nuchi du takara—‘life is precious’—took hold. These words are believed to be uttered by Sho Tai, king of the Ryukyu Kingdom (Okinawa), as he was being banished from the Island in 1879. Japan annexed the Kingdom at that time and moved to assimilate Uchinanchu, discouraging use of the Okinawan language, banning female tattoos, and limiting ties with China.
After the war, the U.S. military became the new colonizers.
Simon Buckner, the head of the U.S. Army who led U.S. troops during the battle of Okinawa, wrote in 1945: “I hope that we keep this island after the war, since it is a vital strategic base to use for preventing trouble from any Asiatic power. It looks right down Japan’s throat, gives access to the China Sea and the Asiatic coast, cuts north-and-south traffic by sea in the western Pacific, and gives our fleet and air forces an operating base connected by Iwo Jima and the Marianas with a line of bases that cannot well be broken or isolated.”
An ardent white supremacist, Buckner argued: “We should not incorporate Okinawa into our country but control it as a ‘mandate,’ ‘protectorate,’ or some name that will keep the Okinawans from becoming American citizens and all coming to Anchorage.” A former commander in Alaska, he also argued against bringing Black troops to Alaska because that state was already “plagued with problems of Indians who are half Swede, half Chinese or half something else”.
Although Buckner died at the end of the battle for Okinawa, his colleague Chester Nimitz, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, carried out the plan, asserting U.S. military control over the entire island.
Soon after, U.S. president Harry Truman approved a proposal to assert sovereignty over the islands (National Security Council policy 13/3). This act of colonization was embedded in the San Francisco Peace Treaty that Japan was obliged to sign on September 8, 1951, as the price for postwar independence. On the afternoon of the same day, prime minister Yoshida Shigeru signed the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. The U.S. thus gained not only complete control of Okinawa but also the right to place bases and troops on Japan’s four main islands.
The U.S. military then proceeded to dispossess many Okinawan farmers of their lands to build military bases throughout Okinawa and neighbouring Ie Island, a coercive process dubbed by Okinawans as “Bayonets and Bulldozers”.
Although left destitute, Okinawans resisted their dispossession and by the 1950s major protests erupted against the U.S. military’s control over the island. In that decade, organized resistance mushroomed into a dedicated movement called shimagurumi (all-island struggle).
The shimagurumi struggle of 1956 was a driving force behind the election of Senaga Kamejiro as mayor of Naha, an outspoken advocate for Okinawan rights. The peace movement in Okinawa converged with that of Japan to demand an end to U.S.-Japan military collaboration and respect for Japan’s peace constitution.
Faced with mounting opposition, the U.S. government responded by having the CIA abet Japan’s right-wing politicians, including in Okinawa where they successfully conspired to unseat Senaga. The U.S. ambassador to Japan Edwin Reischauer advised interference with Okinawan elections in 1960s through the U.S.-backed Liberal Democratic Party on the Japanese mainland. U.S. interference in Okinawa and Japan was only one of sixty-four fully documented, covert regime-change operations carried out to protect the U.S. empire abroad.
In the 1960s, U.S. B-52 bombing missions against Vietnam were carried out from Kadena Air Base. The Wall Street Journal revealed that nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons were stored in Okinawa. And base-related sexual assaults all fuelled huge protests and the demand for freedom from U.S. control in Okinawa and in Japan.
The peace movement’s demand for the U.S. to relinquish its control over the islands finally led the U.S. to give up its colonial control over Okinawa. In 1972, the Japanese government regained control over the island. A precondition, however, was that the U.S. be permitted to keep its bases on Okinawa intact and, under a secret agreement, even to re-introduce nuclear weapons to Okinawa in case of emergency.
An uprising against the terms of the new agreement rocked the island and Japan’s mainland. Still, the U.S. retained its vast network of bases—a military colony legitimized through integration into the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty.
Matters came to a head in 1995 after three U.S. servicemen stationed in Okinawa abducted and raped a twelve-year old girl, leaving her for dead. She survived but was hospitalized with severe injuries. The rapists were arrested and eventually tried, convicted, and sentenced to seven years imprisonment.
News of the atrocity quickly spread prompting another anti-U.S. uprising and creating a crisis for the U.S. military. The result was a travesty—at the end of 1996, the U.S. and Japanese governments announced that the U.S. would return some of its bases in Okinawa, including the U.S. Marine Futenma air base, but on the condition that a new “replacement facility” be built further north on the eastern shore of the Okinawa Island, which turned out to be at Henoko/Oura Bay, Nago city.
This “replacement facility” was originally thought to be a small helicopter pad or something of its kind, but as recently reported, the plan evolved to be one that includes a “dual 1800-metre runway structure protruding ten metres above the surrounding sea, a deep sea port, and an ordinance storage facility”. Residents of Nago, where the new base is under construction, have consistently opposed the construction of the new base, with 54 percent voting against in a 1997 plebiscite and various polls finding 60 to 70 percent of residents opposed to the base.
The most recent poll in early July showed that 70 percent of the people of Okinawan there did not want the new Henoko base. This uprising against Henoko revived the notion of shimagurumi under Governor Onaga Takeshi, who called for Okinawan unity of conservatives and progressives in resisting the base, and the new bi-partisan political force in Okinawa led by Onaga was called the “All-Okinawa Movement.”
And in recent elections, Iha Yoichi, former mayor of Ginowan City and anti-base activist, won re-election as for the House of Councillors in the Japanese Diet.
The fight to reclaim Okinawa continues despite ferocious opposition from the ruling parties in Japan who take advantage of their power and the fact some Okinawans’ livelihoods depend on base-related employment or business. This resistance is part of a larger movement for Indigenous rights, peace, and justice across the Pacific.
Next: The Pacific Peace Alliance Challenges RIMPAC.