The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan


April 2014

An Ongoing Battle

Book analyzes Okinawans’ struggle for dignity and equality

By Vicki L. Beyer


Early in my career in Japan I worked with a woman from Okinawa. She took great pains to stress that while she was born in Okinawa, she was not Okinawan—her parents had moved from the Japanese “mainland” for her father’s work. She explained that she did not want to be mistaken for an Okinawan because she feared the prejudices of mainland Japanese.

In the late 1990s, I was reading a book about Japan while waiting at San Francisco International Airport for a flight. An older American man sitting next to me saw my book and struck up a conversation, telling me he had been in the American forces that landed in Okinawa in 1945. He told me of working with a nisei interpreter, shouting to the Okinawans sheltering in caves, trying to convince them that they would not be harmed if they surrendered. Chills ran down my spine as he told me of hearing screams as the people in the caves died, at their own hands or those of others in the caves, and of his own sense of helplessness and despair at that moment.

In light of the grassroots opposition to American bases in Okinawa that arose after the 1995 rape of an Okinawan girl by several American soldiers, on a recent trip to Naha I asked my cab driver his view. He was pragmatic, telling me that without the military he couldn’t earn a living. The military were, in his view, a necessary evil.

Resistant Islands: Okinawa Confronts Japan and the United States provides background information and analysis to draw together the threads of these observations and reveal an ongoing struggle by Okinawans for dignity and autonomy amidst prejudices, political agendas, and secret deals.

The principal focus is on the situation of the American military bases, particularly since the 1995 incident, and the impact to those bases of the Okinawan movement that emerged following this event.

The book begins with an overview history of Okinawa, from how it came to be claimed by Japan to its role in World War II and postwar occupation. Toward the end is a chapter of “Okinawan Voices,” the stories of a number of “ordinary” Okinawans. It is a pity this most meaningful chapter was not placed earlier in the book where it could better provide context for the book’s assessment of the treaties and political machinations of the past six decades.

Of the substantial American military presence in Japan, largely funded by Japan, more than 70 percent is situated in Okinawa. The book suggests that in spite of its reversion to Japan in 1972 Okinawa still has a lesser status than the rest of Japan. As Japan is a client state of the United States, Okinawa is a client state of Japan. Certain substances roll downhill.

US declassified documents have revealed secret deals between the governments of Japan and the United States, adversely affecting Okinawa. Notwithstanding this evidence, the deals are denied by Japanese bureaucrats. These same bureaucrats seem able to drive the agenda in the direction of American interests in spite of the views, and promises, of Japan’s politicians.

The book details how the 1996 undertaking to eliminate the Futenma Base morphed into its replacement with another, even larger, base elsewhere in Okinawa. It also relates how environmental impact statements and financial assessments have been distorted to facilitate the conclusion desired by the governments of the United States and Japan, but strongly opposed in Okinawa itself.

Additional context comes from an analysis of the way in which US military assistance in relief efforts after the 3/11 Tohoku disaster positively influenced public opinion, at least on mainland Japan, and a chapter on the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands that have recently been much in the news.

The power of the grassroots opposition to US bases that has arisen in Okinawa since 1995 is undeniable. Yet the question remains: where will it lead?


DividerVicki L. Beyer is a vice president of the ACCJ.