As China threatens Taiwan, Okinawa braces for war

‘At the skin level, people feel like war is continuing,’ Okinawa governor says

Eleven Okinawan civilians who were huddled in this hillside cave in 1945 were rescued when a passing U.S. Marine patrol heard a baby crying. After being assured that no harm would come to them, they emerged from their hideout, and here a Marine lends a hand to a mother and baby. (Official U.S. Marine Corps Photo/Bettmann Archive/Getty Images file photo)
Eleven Okinawan civilians who were huddled in this hillside cave in 1945 were rescued when a passing U.S. Marine patrol heard a baby crying. After being assured that no harm would come to them, they emerged from their hideout, and here a Marine lends a hand to a mother and baby. (Official U.S. Marine Corps Photo/Bettmann Archive/Getty Images file photo)
Posted October 19, 2022 at 4:00pm

NAHA, Okinawa — At the heart of a possible U.S.-Japanese allied effort to defend Taiwan in the coming years against a feared Chinese attack lies the long line of far-flung islands that make up Japan’s southernmost territory. People here are increasingly disturbed by the existential prospect of being caught in yet another bloody crucible between warring great powers.

The pervasiveness of the U.S. military footprint on Okinawa prefecture, which is home to some 1.4 million people, is contributing to a palpable anxiety among many civilians, argues Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki, whose father was an American Marine.

“At the skin level, people feel like war is continuing,” Tamaki said during an August interview at his office in Naha, the capital city of Okinawa prefecture. “The majority of the Okinawan people feel a sense of emotional crisis toward the possibility of war because of the fact that so many U.S. bases are located here.”

The last time war came to Okinawa was at the end of World War II, when an estimated 100,000 Okinawan civilians were killed in the fighting or ordered to commit suicide by the Japanese imperial military rather than surrender to conquering American troops.

The collective trauma experienced here after the 1945 Battle of Okinawa was further warped by the terms of the peace and security treaties between Washington and Tokyo — which, in addition to ending World War II and forging one of the most important security alliances of the 20th and 21st centuries, also cemented Okinawa’s status as the only one of imperial Japan’s colonies to have never regained its freedom after the war.

That sense of injustice continues to be felt by many Okinawans today and is a huge source of emotional fuel for the popular opposition movement to U.S. bases on the islands. And it suggests there might be significant local opposition to any potential moves by the U.S. and Japanese militaries to deploy additional weapons and troops to the islands in the coming years as a means of both deterring and responding to a possible Chinese attack on Taiwan.

Even though Okinawa prefecture, which includes 48 inhabited islands, accounts for less than 1 percent of Japan’s total land mass, over 70 percent of all U.S. military facilities in Japan are located there in addition to a growing number of Japan Self-Defense Forces sites.

On the main Okinawa Island, where there is little to no buffer in some places between dense civilian residential areas and U.S. bases — such as Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and Kadena Air Base, the largest and most active U.S. military installation in the Indo-Pacific — the U.S. military presence is unavoidable, particularly because of the noise created by low-flying American aircraft.

Notably, the strong opposition to the presence of the U.S. military bases felt by many Okinawans should not be conflated to mean they also hold broader anti-American views, although many Okinawan pacifists — a sizable minority of the population, especially among the older generations — have worries about how the U.S.-Japan alliance may pull their country into future regional conflicts.

Rather, the impression of Okinawan society drawn from over a dozen interviews around the main Okinawa Island with elected officials, academics, historians, journalists, business leaders, students and anti-war activists is of a noisy, diverse and complicated democratic system. It is one full of warm and welcoming people working to grapple with the significant economic, societal and security changes taking place all around them.

“I think there is an awful lot of the portrayal of the politics outside of Okinawa that has this kind of broad brushstroke: ‘Everyone in Okinawa is anti-base or anti-American or anti-Tokyo, everybody is on the left.’ ... ‘They don’t appreciate the national security importance,’” said Sheila Smith, a senior fellow for Asia-Pacific studies with the Council on Foreign Relations, during a virtual discussion organized in June by the Japan Society. “And nothing could be further from the truth.”

Kingdom to prefecture

The Kingdom of Ryukyu was established in 1429, and for the next 450 years the islands were governed by a line of Ryukyuan kings, although both Chinese and Japanese rulers considered it a tributary state of their countries. Japan’s Meiji government formally annexed Ryukyu in 1879, turning it into Okinawa prefecture.

Centuries of trade and immigration from Japan, China and Southeast Asia contributed to the multiethnic and multicultural diversity that is modern-day Okinawa.

Okinawa was under U.S. military occupation from 1945 to 1972. In that time and by agreement of both Tokyo and Washington, the U.S. military shifted some of the bases it had established at the end of World War II in mainland Japan to Okinawa so that the roughly 50-50 split of U.S. bases between Okinawa and mainland Japan settled into the 70-30 divide seen today.

This decision by the U.S. and Japanese governments to saddle Okinawa with the disproportionate economic and societal burden of hosting the U.S. bases, which included the expropriation of public and private land and the forced expulsion of residents for a time into internment camps, was partly a result of the region’s prime geopolitical position.

The bases on Okinawa have allowed the projection of U.S. military power toward China and given the United States the option of surging forces to respond to a potential flare-up in tensions on the Korean Peninsula while supporting an active maritime presence in Southeast Asia.

But there is also a more insidious reason for the concentration of U.S. military forces in Okinawa, argued Shima Yoko, the politics editor of Ryukyu Shimpo, one of Okinawa’s two biggest newspapers, which have avowedly anti-U.S. base editorial stances.

With the U.S. military occupation of mainland Japan ending in 1952, the country’s expanding middle class began protesting the disruptive presence of U.S. bases there, most famously at Sunagawa on the outskirts of Tokyo.

“In order to oppress and calm down this anti-base movement during the 1950s, both Japan and the U.S. government transferred the existing U.S. bases in mainland Japan to Okinawa ... especially those most troublesome, most noisy, loud U.S. bases,” Yoko said in an interview at her downtown newsroom here. “It happened simply because the [Japanese] government discriminated against the Okinawan local people. We were an independent country, the Ryukyu kingdom, so they think we’re different from mainland Japan and not the same as them.”

Today, U.S. bases occupy over 8 percent of all Okinawan land, including nearly 15 percent of the territory of the main Okinawan Island, according to the Okinawan Prefectural Government. Since Okinawa reverted back to Japanese control 50 years ago, the U.S. military has reduced by nearly 34 percent the amount of island land it exclusively controls, allowing the returned land to be redeveloped into prosperous business districts.

The successful redevelopment of this land in places like Naha City and the Kitamae District in Chatan Town has fed an argument by anti-base activists and Okinawan politicians like Tamaki that the U.S. military presence is a drag on the local economy and that returning even more land would allow Okinawa to better develop its tourism and information services sectors and finally catch up with the prosperity enjoyed by mainland Japanese.

Okinawa’s per capita income is 70 percent of the national average, and it is the poorest of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

‘Not capable yet’

For much of the last decade, the biggest political issue in Okinawa has been the proposed relocation of the Marines’ Futenma base, which is located in the center of Ginowan City, an urban area of some 100,000 people, to the less populated Henoko coast at Camp Schwab, about 25 miles away. While Tokyo and Washington support the planned relocation of the base, now years behind schedule, Okinawans broadly oppose it, demanding instead for the base to be moved entirely out of Okinawa.

This political debate in Okinawa has swirled for so long and consumes so much local attention that it now risks diverting both public and policymakers’ attention from the greater and possibly more immediate challenge of how to prepare Okinawan society for the role that may be forced upon it if China makes good on its military threats to Taiwan in the next five to 10 years.

Aiko Shimajiri, a lawmaker from the governing Liberal Democratic Party, whose district includes Henoko, the site of the proposed base relocation, said the Futenma issue has been exploited by local politicians who know there is little chance of moving the base off the island but still claim it’s possible to fire up voters.

Rather than constantly being at odds, Tokyo and Okinawa need to have constructive dialogue with each other around the more pressing and immediate challenge of how to safeguard the islands in the event of a regional war over Taiwan, she said.

“Okinawa is so vulnerable. I don’t want lawmakers and decision-makers to make decisions by emotion, but logic,” Shimajiri said.

“As a country, we need to respond as swiftly as possible in the event of an invasion. Unfortunately, we are not capable yet. The SDF does not have enough capability to respond fully,” the lawmaker said, adding she supports the deployment of Japanese Self Defense Forces and weapons to Okinawa’s smaller outer-lying islands near Taiwan.

Japan is opening new SDF sites in Okinawa, particularly the southwesternmost islands. Those deployments include establishing this year an “electronic warfare unit” in Naha; fielding part of the Japanese air force’s 53rd Warning Squadron to Yonaguni island, which is just 100 km from Taiwan; and transferring from mainland Japan to Ishigaki island a surface-to-air guided missile unit, according to the Japanese Defense Ministry’s 2022 white paper, released earlier this summer.

And the Japanese government plans to research the feasibility of constructing bomb shelters on the remote islands that could be used in the event of a Chinese bombing attack, according to a September report by the Jiji Press.

The Japanese government did not respond to an interview request.

Tokyo is expected to release its new National Security Strategy at the end of the year. In the introduction to his ministry’s 2022 white paper, Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said it would establish “new strategies boldly and creatively ... in order to preemptively deter changes to the status quo by force and to also be fully prepared for modern warfare, including information warfare and cyber warfare, both seen during Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.”

“We are continually consulting with the government of Japan about ways we can collectively optimize our defense cooperation to meet regional security challenges,” Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Col. Martin Meiners said in a brief statement about the future direction of U.S. policy toward Okinawa.

Generational divide

Shimajiri was able to win her parliament seat in 2021 elections against the incumbent, an anti-base lawmaker with the opposition party. That the LDP, the center-right party pushing to increase Japan’s military capabilities and to leave behind the country’s postwar pacifist posture, has been able to do relatively well in recent elections in Okinawa speaks to the generational changes happening among local voters, she said.

“The older generations have not changed their minds,” she said. “They have a belief that China is a friend.”

A common remark among local anti-base activists when asked if they worry about Japan’s security if the U.S. military withdraws, as they want, is that while Japan and the United States have both invaded Okinawa, China never has but rather traded peacefully with Ryukyu for centuries when it was independent.

Generally speaking, younger Okinawan voters, who have only ever known the American military presence and who read most of their news online from mainland Japanese news outlets, are more concerned about Beijing’s increasingly belligerent policies under President Xi Jinping than their parents and grandparents, who still prefer to read one of the two main Okinawan newspapers with their unrelenting anti-base editorial stance.

Or at least that’s what a group of 17- and 18-year-old boys from the Okinawa Shogaku High School, who were taking part in an internship with another LDP lawmaker from Okinawa, Konosuke Kokuba, told CQ Roll Call one day after school. The boys, still clad in their uniforms of off-white shirts and black ties, were dismissive when asked about their opinion of the local newspapers.

Kokuba said he worries the high degree of polarization around the U.S. military bases has created an easy opportunity for Russia and China to use their propaganda apparatuses to amplify and exacerbate local tensions.

“Both Russia and China want to exploit anti-American sentiment among Okinawan protesters and lawmakers to divide and destroy the unity of our alliance,” he said. “If the Japan-U.S. alliance is destroyed they win, so Okinawa is a very vulnerable target to Russia and China [misinformation].”

Tokyo for years has viewed the more hard-line Okinawan anti-base actors as playing into Beijing’s propaganda goals even if little concrete evidence has been provided of any collaboration between the two sides.

Pro-Ryukyu independence groups, who want to see all U.S. and Japanese military forces withdrawn from Okinawa, reacted with outrage five years ago when Japan’s Public Security Intelligence Agency asserted in a report that Beijing had used academic exchanges to promote internal division inside Japan by questioning Tokyo’s legal jurisdiction over Okinawa.

The Association of Comprehensive Studies for Independence of the Lew Chewans, which the report appeared to be referring to as the pro-independence group, in a 2022 article in their academic journal accused Japan’s internal security intelligence agency of inciting “racial or ethnic discrimination directed against Lew Chewan peoples by utilizing a so-called ‘Theory of the Chinese Threat.’” Lew Chewan is another name for Ryukyu.

Masaki Tomochi, an economics professor at Okinawa International University, is a proud independence supporter for Okinawa and a member of ACSIL. He argues the Okinawan islands have been turned into a “concrete barrier” protecting mainland Japan and the continental United States. “You like to live behind the concrete wall. Nobody wants to be on the barrier.”

“Having so many military bases on this small island means that we will become a target. They don’t protect us,” he said in an interview at his small university office, packed with pro-independence memorabilia including a bright yellow poster emblazoned with the bold words ‘OKINAWA IS NOT JAPAN.’

Nearby was the site of the infamous 2004 crash on the university’s campus of a large U.S. Marine helicopter.

“Okinawa is the first colony [of Japan] and the last colony. It is still a colony. It is colonized,” proclaimed Tomochi, noting that a poll conducted earlier this year by the anti-base Okinawa Times newspaper found that a surprisingly high 29 percent of those surveyed supported independence for Okinawa.

Tamaki, the governor, noted he and most Okinawans are not calling for a complete withdrawal of all U.S. military bases as they recognize the key geopolitical role the islands play in providing for Japan’s national security.

Rather, he wants Tokyo to be more appreciative of the shared sacrifices Okinawans have borne for decades on behalf of mainland Japan and to take seriously their concerns about how further militarization of the islands to prepare for a feared “Taiwan contingency” risks painting an even larger target for Xi to lash out against in the event of a regional war.

“Because if any emergency takes place concerning Taiwan, as long as we on Okinawa have U.S. bases, we know we are so vulnerable to any kind of retaliation or backlash and the Okinawan people want to avoid being targeted,” he said.

Additionally, Tokyo should respond to and grant his long-standing request for joint and detailed contingency planning for how to evacuate in an emergency parts of Okinawa prefecture that might be threatened by Chinese attacks as well as how to handle a wave of Taiwanese refugees that might also seek safety in Okinawa and other parts of Japan, said Tamaki, who was handily reelected to another term last month.

“In the near future, we have to plan with the central government ... how many private ships, how many airplanes we can secure in case of a Taiwan contingency for an evacuation plan,” he said.

— Makiko Segawa, a local journalist, contributed to this report.

This report, the seventh and last in a series, was made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.