Sun, sand, sentinels

Staff Columnist

“As geopolitical tensions grow in East Asia, so does the discomfort of the balmy Ryukyu Islands”

(The Economist  February 4th 2017)

As I prepare this column for publication in two weeks, working here on April 24th, my Daughter, Eileen, is visiting our island home with her family.  Lots of families visit this key.  Eileen might be unique; you see she was born on Okinawa, in the Ryukyus.  We were stationed on that famous island for three years +.  Eileen was born there before the reversion of the Ryukyus from the United States to Japan.  We had occupied that chain since World War II.  The U.S. was the government with an American Three Star as High Commissioner.  When he flew away with our flag that midnight, Japan took over again.  Eileen arrived to a U.S. island  then a Japanese land.  Her  “homeland” ceased to exist.  She’s as American as all of us, have no doubt!

The Economist reports:  “At this time of year pack ice grinds the beaches of northern Japan, but in the Ryukyu Islands in the south farmers are cutting sugar cane.  The Japanese archipelago spans an immense distance: from Cape Soya in northern Hokkaido a smudge on the horizon reveals Sakhalin in Russia’s Far East.  From the tiny island of Yonaguni, the last in the Ryukyu chain, you can sometimes make out the mountains or eastern Taiwan.

Over lunar new year the Ryukyu Islands, which together make up Okinawa prefecture, were heaving with holidaymakers.  Okinawa has a growing reputation as an island paradise for all tastes.  Package tours poured families from mainland China into the airport at Naha, the capital, for winter sun, duty-free malls and hearty stir fries  –  spam is a specialty.  Some 400km further south, a cruise ship nosed between coral reefs into the main port of Ishigaki island and  disgorged  Taiwanese tourists in search of the local black pearls.  A few adventurers even made it to Yonaguni, where they dived among the hammerhead sharks or stood on the quay in Kubara to watch the fishermen bring in their daily haul of swordfish.  The island lies in the middle of the life-giving Kuroshio current, the western Pacific’s Gulf Stream.”

For Security types our cousins report the other side of this tale: “Okinawa is known as a garrison island.  The roar of F-15s is certainly a feature of life in Naha, but most visitors get little hint of the military presence.  The sense of peace is not a figment of tourist brochures.  Pacifism is hard-baked into Okinawans’ sense of themselves.  Masahide Ota, a former governor, once said the main features of the Ryukyu kingdom, which was independent until Japan annexed it in 1879, were a ‘devotion to peace and an absence of weapons’.

In truth, there were arms.  But squeezed between bigger neighbors, China and Japan, it suited the Ryukyuans to promote a sense of Confucian virtue.  And peace is a fragile thing, even today.  Just as Hokaido once lived on a cold-war tripwire, facing the Soviet Union, so the Ryukyu Islands are caught up in East Asia’s 21st Century geopolitics.”

Jumping to the present, the cousins at The Economist go on:  Few people in Okinawa think open hostilities with China are imminent, or perhaps even likely.  But many resent the way geopolitical tensions and a hawkish government are spreading the curse of military encampments:  previously the southern Ryukyus had but one small radar base. That stands in contrast to the northern end of the chain.  Okinawa, with 0.6% of Japan’s land area, plays host to three- fifths of all America’s facilities in Japan and half of the 53,000-odd American troops.  Nearly a fifth of the the main island is given over to American bases.  For 70 years, Okinawa has been the fulcrum of American military presence in Asia.”

“The Americans first came in the 1850s, with gunboats opening the Ryukyus as well as Japan to trade.  They reappeared at the end of the second world war, fighting their way towards Japan proper. The Japanese authorities, who before the war had tried to snuff out the local culture and language, mounted a furious defence in Okinawa to save the ‘home islands’.   Roughly a quarter of Okinawans  died, caught in the brutal fighting. When Okinawa reverted in 1972, the bases stayed.  The resentment feeds an Okinawan sense of separateness, and even a tiny independence movement.”

That is about the way I recall the local scene – even forty + years out.  My memory is that the locals did not think of themselves as Japanese, thought that they had borne the brunt of the final fighting in the War, and actually liked us Americans.  Memories fade, of course.

Finally, by the Economist : “In elections, Okinawans vote overwhelmingly for candidates opposed to the American bases and to the noise, accidents and crime associated with them. This week, (FEB 1st) the governor of Okinawa, Takeshi Onaga, flew to Washington to convince the Trump administration not to carry on with the construction of a hugely  unpopular new base for American Marines. (Marine Corps Air Station).  Yet the American Defence Secretary, James Mattis, ws also on his way to Japan,  reportedly to emphasise the firmness of the alliance.

Okinawa considers itself doubly colonised , both by Japan and America.  Sadly, with regional tensions only likely to rise, its continued subjugation seems assured.  And the curious mix of tourist paradise and bristling fortification will grow ever more jarring.”



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