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Time to Give Okinawa its Due

Futenma Base

Marine Corps Air Station Futenma (SNA)

By Michael Penn

SNA (Tokyo) — It was 39 years ago today that the people of Okinawa finally escaped from the Pacific War, but they still await a more genuine era of self-determination.

The 82-day-long Battle of Okinawa in 1945 was a horror. Something like a quarter of the civilian population ― more than 100,000 by most accounts ― were slaughtered in the crossfire between an alien army determined to conquer them and an Imperial Army that had no intention of protecting them.

Even after the slaughter ended in June 1945, the people of Okinawa would have to endure another 27 years as a disenfranchised population under what was effectively the colonial rule of the US military.

It is the May 15, 1972, reversion of Okinawa to Japanese rule that is commemorated today.

It remains a bittersweet anniversary: Okinawans formally possess the full scope of Japanese legal rights, but theirs is the poorest prefecture in the nation, the public transportation network is weaker than in the main islands, and, of course, about 75% of all US military bases in Japan are still concentrated on their little island, in spite of the persistent opposition of the majority of residents.

In central Okinawa, hardly a day goes by without US military aircraft overhead providing them a constant reminder that they are still second-class citizens who aren’t in full possession of their democratic right to self-determination.

One of the greatest failures of Democratic Party of Japan since they came to power in September 2009 was their inexcusable betrayal of their Okinawan constituents.

All of the current DPJ lawmakers from Okinawa were elected on a platform of transferring the US Marines at Futenma to a location outside the prefecture, and this position was explicitly endorsed by then-party leader Yukio Hatoyama.

The sequel is well known: After agonizing months of back-and-forth with Hatoyama repeatedly trying and failing to find alternatives, the prime minister was forced to sign the humiliating May 28, 2010, US-Japan Agreement, re-endorsing the exact same plan to build a new Marine airbase at Henoko.

Yukio Hatoyama’s weak and indecisive performance over this issue ― combined with a personally painful campaign finance scandal involving his mother ― caused the first DPJ prime minister to resign in disgrace after less than a year in office. It also threw Japan’s new regime into a tailspin that it has never quite recovered from.

It has been almost a year since that little melodrama reached its climax, and in recent months we have learned more about what happened behind the scenes.

The extraordinary pressure from Washington ― especially from the Pentagon under Defense Secretary Robert Gates ― has always been perfectly clear. But the recent testimony of Hatoyama himself and new revelations from Wikileaks highlight the fact that Japanese diplomats and defense officials were secretly working against him all along.

Leaked US Embassy documents reveal that some foreign and defense ministry bureaucrats were advising Washington to take a hard line with their own political leaders and not to take a flexible approach toward the requests of the DPJ government. In any normal country, this kind of behavior might be called treason, but in bureaucrat-dominated Japan, it is still just par for the course.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan has tried to take the opposite tack by doing his best to go along with the US-Japan defense bureaucracy’s line on Futenma relocation. On the other hand, he has tried not to enflame too much the popular opposition from Okinawa by taking any rash actions.

As a result, we have heard Kan administration officials for almost a year pledge their loyalty to the sacred “state-to-state” US-Japan Agreement, repeatedly ask the leaders of Okinawa for their “understanding” ― and then do, well, not much.

It’s a strategy whose days are numbered. Before long, the DPJ is going to be forced to make a hard decision that will leave some people unhappy.

So will the DPJ throw in with the two-faced bureaucrats who undermined them and the Pentagon that pressured them? Or will they take up the cause of the people of Okinawa Prefecture who are still awaiting a government in Tokyo that will truly represent them?

We encourage the DPJ to have the fortitude and wisdom to correct an old injustice and to heal the frayed relationship between long-suffering Okinawa and the rest of the Japanese nation.

Even should the DPJ achieve nothing else during their time in power, this would be an honorable legacy.

Michael Penn is the President of the Shingetsu News Agency.