There’s an issue that should concern all American progressives committed to democracy, peace, and the environment. It’s a fight we can win. However, few progressives are even aware of it.
The United States and Japan are intent on building a new base for the U.S. Marines in Okinawa, and the people there don’t want it. Their reasons are varied: environmental protection, a strong aversion to militarism, the excessive burden of bases on Okinawa, and the noise, accidents, and crime that bases inflict on surrounding communities. For the details, see Jon Letman’s excellent article. And to hear it straight from Okinawans, I can’t recommend this video enough.
Sure, we’d like to stop drones from killing noncombatants, turn off the spigot of weapons to tyrants and war criminals, and bring troops home from bases around the world. But that’s a tall order. If we want to close down hundreds of bases, how about starting by preventing the construction of one?
Defying two governments, Okinawa’s task may seem impossible. Okinawans, though, have several factors in their favor. First, while Tokyo was long able to buy off local politicians by promising development funds, Okinawa now has political leadership reflecting the electorate’s determination. The cause is so mainstream that anti-base Governor Onaga is a conservative by Okinawan standards, and the business community has lent support as well. Military bases, it seems, are bad for business.
Furthermore, while some Japanese (and as the case of Kevin Maher shows, some Americans) look down on Okinawans, such attitudes are far less widespread and virulent than America’s Islamophobia. The resistance is nonviolent, making Okinawans hard to demonize (though Stars and Stripes does its despicable best). When base opponents are mistreated, people sympathize with them, and sense that when peaceful protesters are targeted so unjustly, their cause is often just.
Finally, Okinawa’s struggle has drawn support from well-known figures outside the prefecture. Anime director Hayao Miyazaki (My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, The Wind Rises) is helping to raise funds in support of anti-base activities. In North America, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Daniel Ellsberg, and Oliver Stone have made common cause with Okinawa. And while some Japanese are happy to have U.S. bases as long as they are far away in Okinawa, a plurality of opinion has turned against this particular base.
Ultimately, this is Okinawa’s fight to win. But it’s a fight on two fronts, one of them in Washington, D.C. Our government’s contempt for Okinawan self-determination is shameful, and it is our task to shame it. Organizations like Veterans for Peace are leading the way, but much more must be done.
The biggest obstacle is a virtual blackout on the part of the news media. If 35,000 people rallied against the building of a military base for Russia or Iran, it would be on the front pages of the New York Times and Washington Post. But when 35,000 Okinawans rallied against a U.S. base, it got hardly a mention. When the resistance is covered at all, it’s frequently portrayed as a conflict between Okinawa and Tokyo, as if the U.S. were an innocent bystander.
But how can we expect the mainstream media to cover this issue when progressive media does so sporadically at best? The latter, it seems, is just as prone to “if it bleeds, it leads” thinking as the former. We hear plenty about Baltimore and Gaza, and I’m sure we’ll hear about East Asia too if war breaks out there – when it would be too late to stop it. We need to be informed about the region now, before a war starts – a war in which U.S. bases in Okinawa would be heavily involved. That’s one reason Okinawans oppose them – they fear a repeat of the Battle of Okinawa, in which a fourth of the population perished 70 years ago. So progressive media need to step up. This means you, Democracy Now. This means you, The Nation. This means you, The Intercept. Governor Onaga is in Washington, D.C. until June 5, and may get some attention even from mainstream media. But we can’t go back to ignoring Okinawa when he goes home.
Look, I know you’re busy. You’re struggling to keep up as it is, and here I am putting more on your plate. But this is not a zero-sum game. Showing solidarity with Okinawa doesn’t detract from your solidarity with anyone else. For one thing, I believe Okinawans will reciprocate. A win here would demonstrate the vulnerability of antidemocratic and militaristic U.S. policies everywhere else. And couldn’t we use a win?