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Racism Emerges in Okinawa Base Confrontation

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SNA (Tokyo) — Racism has always been an essential element in the struggle over US military bases in Okinawa, but on October 18 this reality emerged into the consciousness of the mainstream Japanese media in a manner that was unprecedented. The trigger was two amateur videos showing riot policemen deployed from Osaka using discriminatory language against Okinawan anti-base protesters.

In one case, an annoyed policeman called the protesters “natives” (in the 19th century pejorative sense of the term) and in the other case a policeman denounced the protesters as “Chinamen” using the antequated and often discriminatory term shina rather than the more respectful term chugoku. Of course, describing Okinawans as being “Chinese” is itself an assertion of that particular Japanese rightwing conspiratorial view that liberal protesters are disloyal agents of Beijing rather than concerned citizens working for a better society.

In fairness to the individual policemen caught on video making these statements, they were definitely in the midst of stressful situations and were being relentlessly provoked by angry protesters. Their verbal frustration should be judged in that context.

However, much more serious and troubling were the reactions of some senior conservative politicians. Osaka Governor Ichiro Matsui, head of a significant national political party, responded to news of the discriminatory comments by praising the riot policemen for their service in Okinawa. Yosuke Tsuruho, the government minister in charge of Okinawa policy, described the pejorative language as being “not wrong.”

In a way, both the frustrated policemen and the conservative politicians did the Okinawan protesters a big favor by making the issue of racism explicit. The most important reason why US military bases are still concentrated in Okinawa, and why efforts to deploy US Marines elsewhere have foundered, is because Tokyo recognizes that the political ramifications of US military crimes and accidents can be best minimized and contained by foisting them upon a distant island people who are regarded as “not quite us” by many main island Japanese. When Tokyo and Washington speak of Henoko base construction as “the only option” for Futenma relocation, this unspoken racism is always part of the equation. From a military point of view it is obviously nonsense to suggest that the US Marines can only perform their functions if they are based at Henoko and nowhere else. Rather, what “the only option” really means is that it is the only choice that is regarded as politically feasible or, put another way, that main island Japanese will countenance forcing the burdens of hosting US military bases on the inferior, lazy, undisciplined Okinawans, but would not be willing to do so on one of their own islands.

Like much else in Japan, this racism is very subtle to the point that many, probably most, main island Japanese are not even aware of it, and some would indeed be shocked to have it pointed out to them. That is precisely why having this issue emerge into the mainstream press is potentially important. No doubt many Japanese will be uncomfortable with the picture that they see in the mirror. Racism is widely understood in this country to be a bad and undesirable thing.

For Okinawans, on the other hand, there will be nothing new in these events as they are already keenly conscious and sensitive to issues of discrimination toward themselves. Their media has highlighted such instances for decades. For the anti-base forces, the discriminatory comments are in a sense a political windfall as they provide the righteous cause of anti-discrimination to mobilize behind.

Indeed, the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly is preparing to use this episode to demand the withdrawal from the prefecture of the highly unwelcome riot policemen confronting the anti-base protesters on a daily basis.

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