JPRI Working Paper No. 45: April 1998
Okinawan Dilemmas: Coral Islands or Concrete Islands
by Gavan McCormack

In the late 1990s, the words 'Okinawa' and 'problem' are almost synonymous. The 'problem,' as most commonly understood, is that these lush, semi-tropical Japanese southern islands host a huge U.S. military base structure, which their people clearly do not want. But there are other reasons for seeing Okinawa as problem-bound. I believe that Okinawa is a microcosm through which the unsustainability of the Japanese system as a whole becomes visible. The poverty of a simply 'cut the bases; expand development' formula for the future of Okinawa is demonstrated by the fact that the Japanese government now insists that the only way forward is to combine both, bases and development, and promises to do just that. Certainly, the bases should be removed, but just as certainly, I believe, development must be re-thought.

The achievement of 'parity with the mainland' (hondo-nami) has been the driving force of Okinawan politics for the past generation, but it has been a Sisyphean quest: irrespective of the effort devoted to it the goal seems ever to recede. The bounty of nature, the beauty of the environment, and the sophistication of its culture, were Okinawa's distinctive 'affluence ' but they are being sacrificed in the quest for this chimerical mainland-style affluence that depends on the constant creation of new and artificial needs rather than the satisfaction of real ones.

The relationship to the Japanese state and economy also has obvious implications for Okinawan identity. So long as the 'gospel' of the 1960s and 1970s was 'mainland parity,' Okinawa's problems would be resolved by elevation and absorption within the higher mainland state; its distinctiveness was almost equivalent to its backwardness. The superiority of 'Japanese' political and economic organization was believed with unquestioning fervor, and the aspiration to share its vitality and dynamism was universal. But are the Okinawans just sub-tropical 'Japanese,' or are they/do they wish to be a different people? And if the answer is the latter, is the Japanese state of today capable of reconceptualizing and restructuring itself as a multicultural, diverse, and politically and economically decentralized polity? Could a 'one-state, two-systems' formula be discovered that might contain but accommodate the different aspirations of areas such as Okinawa?


The chain of islands-around sixty of them inhabited and many more not-that make up Okinawa stretch for 1,100 kilometers (683 miles) along the Western Pacific between Japan's Kagoshima prefecture and Taiwan. The two most northerly islands of Tanegashima and Yakushima, which lie between 30 and 31 degrees north, were cut off from the Ryukyu kingdom during the 16th century and so they are excluded from consideration here. Slightly further south, however, between 28 and 29 degrees, the island of Amami, also administratively now a part of Kagoshima prefecture, is sufficiently close in cultural identity and political history to be thought of as part of the Ryukyu group. The main island of Okinawa is situated between 26 and 27 degrees north, but further south lie the Miyako and Yaeyama Islands (or Sakishima Group), between 24 and 25 degrees, much closer to Taiwan than to anywhere else in Japan. With Okinawa island, they constitute part of Okinawa prefecture. Administratively, the degree of control from 'mainland' Japan, in fact from the southern Kyushu administrative center of Kagoshima, weakened with distance, and a distinctive Ryukyuan (for most purposes identical with Okinawan) cultural identity developed in various of the islands, Okinawa itself being most notable.

Geologically the islands, linked to the Asian continental landmass until a million or so years ago, are now separated from it by a gulf sufficiently deep and dangerous to have allowed the emergence in relative isolation of a rich and distinctive botanical and zoological environment. One measure of this is that each ten square kilometers of Okinawan territory is biologically more than twenty times richer in life-forms than its equivalent elsewhere in Japan. In purely botanical terms, the differential is probably greater, as much as 45 to 1 according to one source. Such are its riches that Okinawa is sometimes referred to as 'Asia's Galapagos.' The climate is humid and sub-tropical, with an average year-round temperature in Naha, the Okinawan capital, of 22.4°C (72°F). It is 16°C (60°F) even in the winter month of January, which is also the month when the cherry blossom is celebrated. The average rainfall is 2,000 mms (about 79 inches) a year, considerably higher than the average for the rest of Japan, and half of it falls in the summer typhoon season between May and September. Much of the rain tends to flow quickly to the sea via the very short Okinawan rivers (the longest of which, the Urauchi on Iriomote Island, is a mere 19.4 kilometers, or 12 miles).

In pre-modern times, the combination of mild sub-tropical climate and good rainfall with a rich marine reef environment made life relatively comfortable. From the 15th century a flourishing autonomous state, the Ryukyuan Kingdom, emerged, developed its distinctive cultural and artistic style, and engaged in trading and cultural relations throughout the East and Southeast Asian region. Although it later became virtually obliterated from conventional historical memory, pre-modern Okinawa was an open, non-militarized, economic, cultural and political system, flourishing on the frontiers of the early modern Asia-Pacific. It constituted a vital and distinctive realm, from which the emerging 21st century Asian-Pacific order might learn much.

Nineteenth century visitors referred with pleasure to the lush and relaxed atmosphere of Okinawa (then known to the outside world as the Ryukyus, or the Loochoos), and when the U.S. Navy's Commodore Perry sailed in on his Black Ships en route to open Japan in 1853, his scientific advisers reported on a fertile, friendly, and prosperous state, a 'most rich and highly cultivated rural landscape ' with an agriculture more akin to horticulture, in a 'system which could scarcely be improved ' and its villages 'quite romantic, and more beautiful than any of like pretensions I have ever seen.' The French missionary, Furé, who spent the years 1858-1861 in Naha, described the villages as 'resembling the beautiful gardens of England.' It was by then diminished from its flourishing 16th century peak and maintaining a precarious autonomy through judicious expressions of respect towards its two powerful and sensitive neighbors: the kingdom of Satsuma (one of the domains, centering on Kagoshima, making up the loosely linked Japanese state structure) to the north, and the Ching court in Beijing to the West. Having no armed forces, the Okinawan kings relied on their relative remoteness and their diplomatic skills to preserve their autonomy. As the 'new world order' of expansive, rapacious, and militarized modern states spread in the era that followed Perry, that soon changed.

Once Imperial Japan constituted itself as a modern state (1868), it moved quickly to consolidate its frontiers. To the south that meant extinguishing the independence of the Ryukyus and incorporating them as Okinawa prefecture (1879), thereby opening the way to the process of assimilation as a discriminated frontier province, and impoverishment. By the time of the Osaka Industrial Exposition of 1903, Okinawan 'natives' were on display, along with Ainu and Taiwanese aboriginal people, as primitives. Ultimately Okinawa was sacrificed by imperial Japan in the catastrophic conflagration of March-to-June 1945, when one-quarter of the population died. Thereafter the Japanese backwater, Okinawa, became the American 'hub of the Pacific.' It remained an American military outpost for the next twenty-seven years, a kind of East Asian Panama. In Japan proper, the U.S. occupation ended in 1952; in Amami, the most northerly of the Ryukyu islands, in December of the following year; but in Okinawa itself and its adjacent islands it lasted until 1972.

Despite the political reversion, the U.S. military presence on the island of Okinawa was maintained virtually intact. The best agricultural lands, and much of the seas and skies, remained subject to U.S. military control. Two decades later, the Cold War ended and the enemy against whom the base structure had been directed collapsed, but the base complex (75 percent of U.S. military facilities in Japan, and 20 percent of the land area of Okinawa's main island) was still preserved with only minor modification. Some redefinition was negotiated following major protests in the late 1990s, but as the terms of the new 'Guidelines' became known during 1997 it became clear that the Okinawan demands were not to be met. The subordination of the islands to military purposes would be not one jot diminished.

Reversion and Development

Okinawa was undoubtedly neglected, both during the prewar and wartime decades, as the most backward Japanese prefecture (ultimately devastated by war), but also during the 1945-72 U.S. period. Its industrial and social infrastructure of communications, education, health and welfare was inadequate; the economy during these two and a half decades heavily depended on revenue from the bases; and there was no plan for Okinawan development as such. Twenty-five years after reversion, however, discontent still remains strong. The richest lands and most important locations remain outside Okinawan control, which makes it impossible to draw up any integrated plan for the development of Okinawa as a whole. Okinawan people feel that they are third-class citizens in their own land, with key decisions affecting them being taken by overlords in Washington and Tokyo. Furthermore, the bureaucratic and corporate power of Tokyo is so much greater than that of local Okinawa, and Tokyo priorities are rooted in the interests of 'Japan' as a state or in the global economy, that a distinctively Okinawan identity has been difficult to conceive or implement. The sense of grievance and 'victimhood' is strong. The Okinawan problem is how to convert these essentially passive and negative sentiments into a positive sense of subjectivity and shared Okinawan identity, and to generate an 'Okinawa-first' scenario for the future.

In 1996, the debate was reopened on strategies to take Okinawa in the direction of a promised land of demilitarization and prosperity. Despite the militarization of the 1945-72 period, at reversion Okinawa enjoyed certain large assets: its forests, coral reefs, rivers and fields were more or less unspoiled, its lagoon fisheries abundant, its climate mild, and its agriculture rich and sustainable. Essentially, in the 25 years that followed, in the name of 'development ' the patterns of mainland Japan's political economy were superimposed on Okinawa. The economy of post-reversion Okinawa has been described in terms of 'three K's:' kichi (bases), kokyo jigyo (public works) and kanko (tourism)-a triple external dependence, partly on Washington but largely on Tokyo. Locally generated (naihatsu-teki) elements gradually shrank, sustainability diminished, and Okinawa became in many respects just like anywhere else in Japan. The bounty of nature was squandered or depreciated, and the once base-dependent economy bequeathed by the U.S. gradually evolved into a public-works-dependent economy.

After 1972, the agriculture and fisheries sector slowly diminished in importance, and manufacturing remained at a low level. Bases slowly declined in economic significance from 19.4 percent of revenue to 5 percent. This was far from insignificant: at ¥160 billion per year, the income from the bases was more than that from primary and secondary industry combined, and it was nearly half as much as the income from tourism. The most distinctive feature of the economy of post-reversion Okinawa (and Amami), however, has been the centrality of public works. Okinawa ranks Number One among Japanese prefectures in terms of the dependence of its economy on public works. In the 25 years from reversion in 1972, just under ¥5 trillion was poured into Okinawa, 90 percent of which went into 'public works' or infrastructure development.

The subsidies from Tokyo were funneled via the major Tokyo ministries, especially Construction (roads and dams), Agriculture and Fisheries (land 'improvement' and 'forest roads'), and Transport (harbors). The system worked to extend to Okinawa the characteristic patterns of Japanese-style 'development,' and the unmistakable stamp of these bureaucratic fiefdoms is more sharply etched for the fact of having been concentrated in a relatively short time. The early years of reversion, from 1972, were also the years of the ascendancy of 'Kakuei' politics, when Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei was pursuing his agenda of 'reconstructing the Japanese archipelago.' The two central fruits of this period in Okinawa were the Kin Bay project and the Okinawa Marine Expo of 1975. Upon reversion, the islands were divided into various development 'zones,' in accordance with Tokyo designs for decentralized growth. Mainland business was to be induced to invest and thereby bring the islands up to the industrialization levels of the rest of Japan. The Kin Bay (on the east side of Okinawa's main island) project amounted to a plan for a huge industrial base, to be built on a 33,000 hectare (81,543 acre) site of reclaimed land, which would comprise crude oil storage facilities, a refinery, a petrochemical plant, steel works, shipyards, a nuclear power plant, and an aluminum refining plant. By the time of the first 'oil shock' of 1973, the oil storage and refinery were already operating, and a road had been built across the Bay irrevocably altering its ecology. But the rest of the grand scheme was never fulfilled, nor were the other designated zones developed. The Marine Expo of 1975 was planned and implemented. It was not only an event, but the central element in a program of road, harbor and airport construction, water and sewage works, and regulation (seibi) of rivers and coast. The Marine Expo of 1975 gradually shaded into a profound long-term transformation out of which the tourist industry also evolved.

Yanbaru: Its Past and Future

Okinawa's political economy has three primary poles-military bases, public works, and tourism. Yanbaru, the large, 27,000 hectares (66,717 acres) sub-tropical forest in the northern part of Okinawa Island, illustrates all three. About one third of it is under U.S. military control (the Northern and Aha Training Areas), and has thus been preserved more-or-less intact, set aside by the U.S. for jungle training. Under the joint U.S.-Japan agreement of 1996, half of this U.S.-controlled area is slated for return, provided various conditions are met, by the year 2002.

The forest is largely made up of low (300 to 400 meters) hills covered with evergreen oak (itajii and urajirogashi), various subtropical trees, wild orchids, azaleas, wild cherry, ferns, mistletoe and other distinctive shrubs and flowers. It is also home to many kinds of rare and distinctive native fauna, including the flightless bird known as the Okinawa Rail (Yanbaru kuina), the Pryer's Woodpecker (Noguchigera), Pygmy Woodpecker (Kogera), Ryukyu Scops Owl (Konohazuku), Ryukyu Robin (Akahige), and many unique or extremely rare species of turtle, rat, frog, snake, butterfly, moth, newt, fish, beetle and other insects. However, the best current estimate is that only about 10,000 hectares is today really pristine, broadleaf forest, and most of that (ca. 6,000 hectares) because it falls within the U.S. base jurisdiction. In the 25 years of reversion, half of the area returned has been subject to various forms of 'development ' ranging from clear-cutting to 'undergrowth removal ' in the process of 'cultivated natural forest regulation works' (ikusei tennen-rin seibi jigyo).

The Japanese model of development attributes a peculiar significance to what is known as 'seibi.' Seibi is a characteristic modern Japanese word, common in general combinations such as 'infra-seibi' (provision of infrastructure), or with words for roads, city water supply and sewage, rivers, coastline, ports and harbors. It means 'regulating,' 'straightening out,' or perhaps most simply the 'fixing' of land, river, and sea-the conquest of the environment. As Okinawa came to the modern Japanese system late and in a poor, semi-destitute condition, it was in no position to query the wisdom or appropriateness of imposing over the delicate coral and sub-tropical forest environment the same public works practices and the same collusive structures of mainland Japan's 'construction state.' During the 25 years that followed reversion, these patterns and practices were firmly established, and the land, rivers, coast and coral were indeed subjected to 'seibi.'

The fate of the Yanbaru rivers after reversion is instructive. Between 1974 and 1997, six dams were built, three more are under construction, and at least one more is planned. On the eastern side of the Yanbaru, the chain of dams form a 'cascade' of mountain water channeled south, tumbling from Benoki, via Fungawa, Aha, Shinkawa, and Fukuji Dams, and a set of pipes and tunnels, to the more densely populated central and southern parts of the island. On the western side , the waters are channeled via a chain of nine pumping stations which sit astride the mostly small rivers, siphoning off their water into the same southward-directed complex of pipes and pumping stations to the central and southern parts of the island. The water, which constitutes the life-blood of the Yanbaru, is now appropriated almost exclusively for the center and south of the island, for town water, resort water, and agricultural and industrial water. The link between mountain and sea is broken, the flow of nutrient to the coral and marine life cut off, and mouths of the enfeebled rivers gradually become blocked. Although the upper reaches and watershed areas of the dams still remain within the U.S. military zone, the hand of the Japanese development state has already reached across this frontier sufficiently to prefigure its eventual intent.

Seibi: Fixing the Land

The decades of Okinawa's return to Tokyo were decades of rapid degeneration in the quality of Japan's forests as a whole, and that tendency has been reproduced in Okinawa. The same policy and market forces operated to give priority to economic exploitation over environmental conservation or ecological preservation. Although the short-term economics of the market dictated the clearing of old forest and the planting of fast-growing varieties of pine, the sub-tropical forest, once cleared, tends quickly to lose its thin layer of nutrient top-soil, which washes into river and sea. Five-thousand hectares (12,355 acres) of Yanbaru forest was converted to plantation, and the income of Kunigami Village now derives almost wholly from its heavily subsidized forest works and chip plant. The village has reportedly already ear-marked for logging the 'Northern Training Area' forest due to revert to it in the new century. From the narrow, 'economic' viewpoint, the continuing process of 'development' made a certain sense, if only because the employment effect of such projects was considerable. By the late 1990s, there were some thirty public works contractors in Kunigami (population 6,000), all of whom therefore had a vested interest in the forest's continuing 'development-cum-depletion.' Yet the economic value of plantation forest is likely to be short-lived and far outweighed by the long-term costs of coping with the complex damage caused. The mountains, especially those subject to clear-cutting and re-forestation (zorin), lose their capacity to retain water and soil drains off, clogging river and coast, species are lost, and rivers and sea degenerate.

Between 1977 and 1994, the Okuni Forest Road was constructed for 35.5 kilometers (22 miles) through the heart of the Yanbaru. Costing over ¥4.5 billion (80 percent from national and 20 percent from prefectural funds), this five-meter-wide, concrete-based, bitumen road opened the forest to development. The new road also opened the forest to hitherto unknown feral animals-dogs, cats and mongoose-as well as to 4-wheel-drive vehicles which brought poachers, thieves, tourists, and even (according to some reports) groups of karaoke addicts who set up all-night stalls in the darkness of the forest. Thanks to this 'development,' pollution and garbage proliferate, and the prospects for survival of the forest's wild inhabitants are diminished.

'Land improvement' (tochi kairyo) is another policy with wide environmental implications. It means clearing, straightening, draining, and engineering of lands, usually for agricultural purposes. In Okinawa's case such 'improvement' was supposed to help farmers plunged into crisis by the shocks accompanying reversion and opening to the mainland's agricultural market. However, during the 1970s and 1980s, Tokyo was simultaneously paying farmers elsewhere in the country to take their fields out of production and opening sector after sector to the global market. If Japanese farmers elsewhere found that difficult, those in Okinawa found it doubly so. The rationale of Okinawan 'land improvement' was not so much designed seriously to promote Okinawa's agriculture (let alone its agricultural competitiveness) but to incorporate Okinawa into the national 'doken kokka' system of public-works-based, collusive and corrupt political economy. Undoubtedly some Okinawans welcomed it as part of what they believed to be the attainment of 'parity with the mainland,' particularly when at least the initial costs were met by Tokyo. But, as with so much else that was done, it was not spontaneously chosen and requested by Okinawa but imposed by Tokyo.

The effects of land improvement have been at best ambiguous. The major beneficiaries are the dokenya, often small-scale construction companies (as in Kunigami Village), which do the work and whose livelihood depends largely upon securing contract after contract. Some farmers also reap a benefit, but it is often short-lived and followed by costs likely to be much greater, in the sense that a major effect of the 'land improvement' is soil runoff and discharge into rivers and sea. Every year, according to a 1993-4 study, a total of 320,000 tons of top-soil is washed from Okinawa's fields and forests into the rivers and sea, with 'land improvement' being the major cause (57 percent), followed by agriculture (33 percent), and U.S. military activities (9 percent).

These various developments combined to bring to the Yanbaru something with which the rest of modern Japan is already familiar: the rule that levels of bio-diversity decline in almost inverse proportion as economic growth indices rise. Okinawa University's Ui Jun, the pioneer of modern environmental studies in Japan, estimates that since Okinawa's reversion 90 percent of the pristine nature of the island as a whole has been lost. By now, probably extinct species include the Okinawan 'giant bat,' the Ryukyuan wood pigeon, the Daito long-beaked cuckoo, and the Daito wren, with many others threatened. Indeed, Yanbaru is home to no less than 88 of the 283 species listed as 'endangered' for Japan as a whole.

So far as mammals are concerned, Yanbaru, with the rest of the Okinawan and Amami islands and also the Southeastern Ogasawara island group, constitute peculiarly precious places, home to nearly half (46 percent) of Japan's surviving mammals. Half of Japan's 174 land and sea mammal species are already either extinct or in grave danger of extinction, and the pattern for flora, other animals and insects, and bird life, is similar. In Amami, a staggering 247 varieties of birds have been recorded. Of Yanbaru birds, the Okinawa Rail (Yanbaru kuina) is a particularly delicate species, vulnerable because it does not fly. Discovered in 1981, it went on the endangered list soon afterward. The Pryer's Woodpecker (Noguchigera), which burrows and nests only in the dead branches of old oak trees-and insists on building a fresh nest each year-is also very vulnerable. Policies that favor opening the forest to 'development' and fast-growing and easily harvested varieties of timber for chipping, are inimical to birds such as these, and estimates of surviving Noguchigera range from 80 to 200. The cause of such birds may be easy to promote because their delicate beauty is apparent even to the untrained eye, but the fate of all sorts of bats, bugs, beetles, butterflies, mice, rats, and so on, is no less crucial; the crisis affects the ecosystem as a whole.

Other, even quite remote, islands also suffered from the onslaught of agricultural 'modernization.' Hateruma is a tiny (15 kilometer circumference), more-or-less flat, island lying in the most southern latitude of any Japanese territory. With a population of merely 600, it has no river, relying upon careful cultivation of the waters that accumulated as the rains percolate into underground storage. With 'improvement,' however, much of its forest was cleared, including the wind-break stands, allowing storms to sweep unchecked across the island. The natural cycle of percolation and storage thus fails, and the underground water begins to dry up. The modernizers have offered a new solution-something that was never necessary before-a desalination plant. That means, of course, escalating water costs. Islanders have begun to fear that 'modernization' and 'improvement' may turn their little island into a desert.

However severe the problems of land development or 'improvement' on Okinawa Island, as well as Hateruma and other outlying islands, the thinking at work in such cases is the same as that guiding assumptions about value and development throughout all Japan's regions: nature developed or improved is superior to raw nature, the former contributes to the GDP, while the latter has no economic significance. This is true even in the case of land at the center of the U.S.-Japan negotiations of 1996-7-the huge U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station that sits astride Ginowan City just outside Naha and which the U.S. promised to return between 2001 and 2003. The post-return prospect for the patches of forest (Tengunomori) that have survived or grown around the military facilities is for clearance and development of one kind or another, not for preservation. Developmentalism, in other words, is seen as the promise accompanying reversion, and not as a threat. In common with other regions that perceive themselves to be backward and are intent upon closing the gap with affluence, Okinawans tend to see their land and sea as a resource, rarely grasping the difference between what economists describe as 'resource' on the one hand and nature as the ultimate ground and source of value on the other. The modern insistence on market rationalization, economies of scale, and maximization of growth, sits ill upon the complex harmonies of the sub-tropical natural order.

Since improvement of the land has been supposedly for the benefit of agriculture and fisheries, how has this sector fared since reversion? Okinawa's once self-sufficient rice economy was drastically shaken-up by the impact of imports first from the U.S., then from Japan proper. Having squared, rationalized, and often irrigated its fields, and having reorganized its agricultural sector to meet the requirements of bureaucratic Tokyo conceptions of it as an industry, Okinawan farmers are still hard-put to compete in the globally open agricultural commodity market. Cash crops-sugar, pineapples, pork, even flowers-are proving either marginal or exact so heavy a toll from the environment as to be unsustainable in the long term.

Sugar cane and pineapples were two crops thought to be specially suited to Okinawa. With liberalization of pineapple imports (1990), however, Okinawa's fruit was costing about two to three times the world market price. Its canneries shrank from 23 to 1 (1997), and only a heavy subsidy from Tokyo kept the industry going at all. A 1995-6 study found pineapple plantations, which accounted for only 3 per cent of Okinawa's agriculture, responsible for over half of the soil run-off on the islands as a whole. Sugar cane was similarly problematic, with Okinawan sugar costing seven to eight times world market prices for raw sugar.

Some new agricultural sectors, such as the pork and (cut) flower industries, have been more successful. Both have a significant export orientation, but they too exact a different kind of price. In the case of flowers, the industry is increasingly conducted along mainland lines, in vinyl house structures with heavy reliance on energy and chemical inputs. Insecticides, at 3,661 kilograms (16,606 pounds) per year, are the most commonly used agricultural chemicals in Okinawa, and seven of the nine varieties employed are designated as toxic. As for pork, Okinawa currently has 300,000 pigs, an inflated stock made possible by the adoption of extraordinarily lax effluent emission standards. With each pig producing effluent equivalent to between six and ten humans, wastes equivalent to those of between two and three million people are poured virtually untreated into the rivers and sea. As Ui notes, it is highly ironic that this should be the case, in the name of protecting industry even as vast sums are expended on the processing of human wastes.

Seibi: Fixing the Water

Traditionally, the Okinawan population was concentrated in the center and south of the main island because this was where the richest sources of water were to be found, while the forested north of the island was left more-or-less untouched. A complex system of ka, springs or wells, was fed by rainwater as it percolated and circulated underground. This precious resource was carefully tended, high levels of purity were maintained and the 'gods' of these springs were revered. When Perry's expedition observed Okinawa in the 1850s, they were especially impressed with Okinawa's 'beautifully clear and pellucid streams' which seemed 'universally distributed over almost every mile of its surface, and in the pure fresh springs, finding their way out from among the crevices of every hill side, and often near the summits.' Immense care over water reticulation and the avoidance of erosion seemed to Perry to be the 'central considerations in all their operations.'

The Ministry of Construction has concentrated on the building of roads and water supply systems, and on the concreting of rivers and coastlines, determined to bring Okinawa up to 'mainland' levels in these respects. In the decades since reversion, the traditional system of reliance on rivers and springs was replaced by a 'modern,' mainland system based on centralized, piped water and sewage systems. The cost of installation was prodigious, estimated at about ¥2 million per person, but cost was deemed an irrelevance because the money was all coming from Tokyo. As the populated sections of Okinawa were, from 1972 onward, transformed along the lines of 'mainland' water practices, water consumption grew steadily, the traditional springs began to dry up, and the springs and rivers of central and southern Okinawa Island became polluted by a combination of agricultural chemicals and red-soil run-off from road and agricultural 'modernization' works. Three of Okinawa's rivers now rank among the five most polluted rivers in Japan. Because the mainland practice of 'regulating' rivers by concreting the bottom and sides (sanmenbari) has also been widely adopted, with disastrous effects on local stream ecology, much more water has to be extracted from the Yanbaru.

Whereas Okinawa's rivers were once renowned for their purity, today they are three-colored--red, white, or black, depending on the chemical composition of the different soils which, eroded and dislodged by 'public works ' flow into them with the rains. Overall, and especially in the north of Okinawa Island, red (or red-yellow), the color of the highly acidic Paleozoic phyllite (agrillaceous schist), is the most common; after rain, the rivers and bays look as if nature itself were hemorrhaging. White is the color of the slightly alkaline Cenozoic Ryukyu limestone rock of the south of the island. Although less conspicuous it has the same causes and the same effect, especially in reducing sea transparency and stifling coral. Black is the color of the untreated wastes of the pig industry, especially in the center and south of the island. Perry's crew would be hard-put in the late 1990s to recognize in these red, black and white streams the 'pellucid' waters that delighted and impressed them 140 years ago.


Tourism is a major Okinawan industry. The 1975 'Marine Expo' marked the beginning of mainland attention to the tourism potential of Okinawa's tropical climate and unspoiled beaches, presaging the wave of steel and concrete that was to sweep over the islands in subsequent decades. Growth in the industry was spectacular, from 800,000 visitors in 1974, just two years after reversion and the year before the Marine Expo, to 1.8 million in 1975 and 3 million by 1992, with a target of five million per year by the year 2002. Okinawa aims to join Hawaii and the Australian Gold Coast as a 'super mega-resort' and part of the 'Golden Triangle' of tourism.

Following the passage in 1987 of the Resort Law, the whole of Okinawa, including the outlying islands, became caught up in a frenzy of resort development schemes. On Okinawa Island itself, some thirty resort hotels and golf courses were built. Some involved the privatization of beaches and the creation of tourist 'enclosures,' so that mainland visitors could enjoy a life-style of conspicuous consumption without the inconvenience of contact with local communities.

The Miyako Island group may be considered an example of the workings of 'resortism.' On Miyako Island itself, between 1987 and 1996 the village of Ueno (19 square kilometers; 1997 population: 3,186) constructed a remarkable resort, known as 'German Culture Village.' It featured a faithful reproduction of a medieval German castle (Marksburg), the 'Fraternity Palace Resort Hotel,' a golf course and other facilities, including a fine fishing port, although it has no fishing industry. The German connection amounts to the fortuitous rescue in 1873 of some German fishermen who were shipwrecked in waters off the village. There is no attempt to produce anything recognizably German, neither bread, nor beer, nor wine nor cheese, nor was there any significant German involvement in the planning and building of the village, although some advice was evidently rendered on medieval German thatching techniques. Built at the height of the 'bubble ' 90 per cent of the costs of the Culture Village were borne by Tokyo. It now sits, grandly if rather incongruously, in its remote rural surroundings, while local village authorities struggle to contain their operating losses and wait for the mass tourism that might one day make the Culture Village economically viable.

Setting aside the fiscal problems implicit in such grandiose projects, the availability of water alone also makes them dubious ventures. Miyako Island and its adjacent, smaller islands have no rivers. However, around 40 percent of Miyako's annual rainfall of 2,200 millimeters (86.6 inches) percolates through the porous limestone surface of the island and constitutes a well-nourished ground water supply. Since reversion, however, the forest cover on Miyako has been cut by half, to around 16 percent (against a national figure of 67 percent, or the Okinawan prefecture figure of 47 percent), and the natural water-retaining properties of the island have deteriorated. The island's first real water shortage occurred in 1994, while ammonium nitrate levels (mostly attributable to chemical fertilizer usage) have risen to worrisome levels. In short, the bureaucratic modern 'solution' to the problems of Miyako has served to worsen its situation.

Tourism remains a key development strategy for 21st century Okinawa. The growth in the industry in the 1970s and 1980s was dramatic, but whether it can continue to grow and serve as a core industry in a future sustainable Okinawa must be open to some doubt. Tourism, as presently structured, calls for 1,000 liters (264 gallons) of water a day to satisfy the life-style requirements of each tourist (as against the average for the residents of the islands, even including the U.S. servicemen, of 370 liters, or 98 gallons a day). With the traditional ka now neglected and often unusable, and with the northern rivers already largely harnessed, and underground water reserves being rapidly drawn down and threatened by chemical pollution, the plan to double the current number of tourists seems questionable. The installation of desalination plants might offer one possible solution, but the trial plant which has begun to operate on Okinawa's main island, is small scale, dependent on fossil fuel, and expensive.

Coastal Seibi and Coral

The damming and appropriation of river flow has fed a process of deterioration and erosion in coastal estuaries, for which the bureaucratic response has been: more seibi. Since reversion, the extent of the prefecture's coastline in a natural state has declined overall from 90 to 70 percent, but in the most populated island of Okinawa the figure is 49 percent (58 percent on its west coast). The wall of concrete continues to creep around all the islands, including even the shores of remote island marine parks. This process is known for budgetary purposes as 'coastal preservation.'

The fate of the coral reefs around Okinawa parallels that of the land environment. In global terms, the fate of the world's coral reefs has only relatively recently come to public attention. Whereas it took about 8,000 years for the world's forest-cover to be eroded by two-thirds, the global 'marine forests' of coral were more-or-less intact until recent times. Coral reefs nourish a complex, bio-diverse ecology, comparable to rain-forests: they absorb around two percent of human emissions of CO2 (500 million tons per year), as well as sustaining rich fisheries and helping to reduce global warming. But, like rain-forests, they are delicate and vulnerable before the rush of development. By now, 600,000 square kilometers, or about ten percent, of the world's coral is gone, and thirty percent more is expected to go in the next twenty years, even without taking possible global warming into consideration. Without forests and without coral reefs, mankind might survive, but it would be a fragile civilization, de-linked to a historically unprecedented degree from its natural surroundings.

Over 90 percent of Japan's coral is in Okinawa prefecture. The fertility of the coral reefs and the lagoons was a major source of prosperity and cultural distinctiveness in pre-modern Okinawa. Okinawan fishermen traditionally earned their living within the reef, taking an abundance of sea grasses, shellfish, crab, shrimp, octopus, and various kinds of fish. In many parts of Okinawa, people could simply walk out to the reef at low tide to fish. The island of Hatoma, for example, a mere square kilometer in area, until recently supported a population of 600 people by carefully harvesting an area six times as large within its reef-protected lagoon. Such was the bounty of the sea that Okinawan people rarely lacked protein.

The reef resource built over thousands of years has been drastically depleted in the decades since reversion. According to an official study published in 1996, the proportion of live coral around Okinawa Island is mostly less than five per cent, and although healthy colonies are still to be found on other islands, they too are mostly shrinking. This means that it is still 'coral ' but in the same sense that a preserved Egyptian mummy is human: it is lifeless and inert, no longer the cradle of bio-diversity that coral is in its vital, healthy state. In the seas around Yanbaru, the tell-tale blood-red soil blocks river mouths, stems the flow of nutrient and river and marine life between land and sea, and stifles the coral. This can be done either directly, by asphyxiation, or by a process of chemical reaction whereby the acidity of water gradually rises under the load of aluminum ion, which is both highly toxic and highly soluble, reaching pH4.5 at the point of entry into the sea. This aluminum ion has recently been discovered to be a major component of the acid rain devastation in Northern European lakes. As it proliferates, the coral weakens and dies and native fish disappear.

Most native fish, including the Ryukyu ayu, or sweetfish, are now to be found only on the outlying islands, while imported fish predominate in the center and south of Okinawa itself. Degeneration of the reef environment has produced a steady decline in the traditional fishing industry, driving many to adopt the mainland-style, capital-intensive mode requiring powerful boats that venture far beyond the reef to specially constructed floating artificial reefs a number of hours' journey away. In this, as in other respects, Okinawa is becoming 'mainland-ized.' Unlike the rest of Japan, however, the coral-protected islands of Okinawa are directly threatened by global warming and the anticipated rise in the level of the oceans, since the former may well kill the coral, and the latter inundate it.

The Cold War's Unfinished Business

The 'Okinawa problem' is inseparable from the role the islands were forced to play in the Cold War. Militarized, and turned into the key to the U.S. chain of East Asian command, Okinawa now faces a choice between being incorporated in the nation-state-centered regional and global order as a hyper-peripheral, hyper-dependent backwater to be despoiled by the 'slash-and-burn' of rampant development (ran-kaihatsu) or, alternatively, becoming a base for the creation of the 21st century's new, decentralized, sustainable and naturally balanced order. The latter could only be accomplished by a prodigious concerted effort, almost certainly of an international character.

Twenty-five years ago, at the height of the Cold War, Tokyo laid down, and Okinawa in general welcomed, a formula for reversion that combined retention of the U.S. bases with a set of policies to achieve 'parity with the mainland.' Today, nearly ten years after the end of the Cold War, the formula remains essentially unchanged. The bases may be more high-tech, more concentrated and rationalized geographically, but their strategic and military purposes, their sheer weight upon the landscape and society, have not been altered or reduced. The use of every instrument available to the Japanese state to foist a huge new offshore 'floating heliport' onto Nago, in northern Okinawa Island, despite local opposition, was typical and likely to be repeated in the future.

As for parity with the mainland, the post-reversion era in Okinawa has been characterized by the imposition of metropolitan patterns, priorities, and engineering practices irrespective of climatic, geological, or social/cultural differences. In place of the heavy and chemical industries of the 1960s and 1970s, we now see a series of fancy schemes woven around the ideas of internationalism, culture, environmentalism and leisure, with special projects-plans for a 'cosmopolitan city,' a 'free trade zone,' and a 'revitalized' Northern District-plus a special tax status and perhaps visa-free status reminiscent of the 'special industrial zone' promotion of 1972. The 'International City' design is being drawn up by bureaucrats in Tokyo and Naha out of left-over bits and pieces of the many desktop schemes developed during the 1980s bubble. The idea of Okinawa as some sort of 'go-between' facilitating the Japan-Southeast Asia, or the Japan-China, relationships was also part of the reversion deal twenty-five years ago, but it came to nothing. The promise of a liberal transfusion of mainland money is the real bottom line.

These end-of-century scenarios are predicated on the assumption that the Okinawan people can be persuaded, cajoled, or pressured, rather than consulted or respected as an autonomous and subjective force. Whether it concerned the Nago base, or the various formulations of a 'cosmopolitan' future, or the construction of new dams, Okinawan conceptions of 'modernity' and 'value,' let alone 'life,' have rarely been considered. Naihatsu, or 'inner-directed' or 'bottom-up' orientation is lacking. In crucial respects, the Okinawan people face the governments in Washington and Tokyo as late 20th century colonial subjects, recalcitrant 'natives' to be brought to heel rather than citizens in a democratic polity.

And yet to say merely this is to miss an important point. To date, force has not been necessary to impose the Tokyo design because persuasion has worked, and it is far from clear that it will not continue to work into the late 1990s. Why is it that the Okinawan people are so vulnerable to Tokyo's blandishments and manipulations? It seems likely that persuasion can work because they share the national religion of growthism and GDP-ism, and are as susceptible in the late 1990s to the slogans of development, progress, and industrialization as they were at the time of reversion in the early 1970s. Perhaps the sense of victimhood, strong in Okinawa because of the tragedies of the recent past, also predisposes people toward passive acceptance of externally-imposed solutions, for the victim is one 'to whom things are done.' Whatever the reasons, the fact is that the 'Okinawan problem' is almost universally seen on the islands as one of bases, not development, and the problem of development is seen as one of how to maximize, not how to constrain, it.

I am not proposing that unspoiled, pristine and natural poverty is somehow preferable to developed prosperity. Development and growth are both positive and desirable, but the distinction has to be drawn between growth that is sustainable and that which is not. Since the Rio Conference of 1992, even the Japanese government, at least in theory, has recognized that growth may not be sustained for long at rates that outrun the regenerative and restorative capacities of nature. To the extent that they pay little heed to the fundamental requirements of long-term sustainability, Okinawan development strategies, based on the mainland model, offer only short-term prospects.

Furthermore, not only has the process of Okinawan development been unsustainable-as my discussion of the forests, coral, rivers, and agriculture should have made clear-but it has also been deeply flawed in purely economic terms. Dependency has deepened, nature (the crucial support of the economy) eroded, and sustainability shrunk, since reversion. The one great new industry successfully created has been public works, the archetypal 'problem sector' of mainland Japan's economy. Without the transfusions of capital for bases, public works, and tourism, Okinawa as presently structured would collapse. The deepening fiscal crisis of the late 20th century Japanese state constitutes yet one more reason for doubting the long-term viability of the Okinawan economy.

This is not the place to develop an elaborate blue-print for a sustainable Okinawan economy, but some basic principles might be essayed. The resources Okinawa has are its people, seas, forests, rivers, and fields: their long-term health must be nurtured, and only within sustainable limits can the fish, farm, forest, marine, and tourism industries be maintained. In place of the tourist industry's preferred resorts, with their affectation of luxury, gourmet food, a profligate use of water, and the golf culture that epitomizes it, one might imagine more widely available minshuku-style accommodations for longer stay visitors, offering them a form of ecotourism that explored the linkages between education, health, ecology, and culture. One might offer special tours for bird-watchers, butterfly-watchers, whale- and fish-watchers and stargazers, and facilities for poets, scholars, composers and artists to work for extended periods in close proximity to nature and in close contact with local specialist guides.

As for agriculture, it will have to return to the organic principles sacrificed in the pursuit of a share of the mainland market, since increasingly the market itself demands it, and since the costs for Okinawa of chemical agriculture are already too high. Likewise the application of ecological principles will involve a radical rethinking of traditional industries. The ecological philosophy of 'zero emissions,' for example, should transform sugar cane from being merely cane for sugar into the raw material for a range of industries, including fuel, distillation, fermentation, and fibre (high quality paper and cellulose). The recovery of the reef and of the forest will be the prerequisite for establishing sustainable industries in those sectors, and both will depend upon high-level scientific expertise to understand and explore possible future applications for the largely unknown riches they offer.

The public works sector will require the most drastic restructuring, but its role as a major employer of local labor could be maintained even while its 'works' role is reversed from laying concrete to removing it, from cutting to planting trees, from the plumbing of highly centralized, bureaucratically-dominated water systems to the task of recovering as much as possible the traditional, decentralized system. Many more highly skilled workers will have to be trained for these tasks, and as specialized marine and forest park rangers to maintain these resources. Far from countenancing further 'development' in the conventional sense, the time has come to invest heavily in a long-term program to secure the forests and waters for coming generations.

Okinawa's human resources require careful cultivation as well. Along with mainland models of agriculture and industry that have proved either inappropriate or plainly damaging in Okinawa, mainland practices in education were also followed. Yet Okinawa is unlikely ever to pass through the stage of requiring its youth to be trained as salarymen for a mainland-style industrial wage-labor force, and mainland Japan itself is gradually awakening to the folly and wastage of its education system. The qualities of independent, imaginative thinking, and the cultivation of artistic sensitivity are likely to be the seedbed of a new entrepreneurialism for the 21st century. As even the economic value of non-homogenized culture grows, education for the 21st century will have to be revamped to meet such ends. During a visit to the Shiraho region of Ishigaki Island in 1989, it occurred to me that the demand within mainland Japan for the skills and arts of living, forgotten during the dour concentration on wage-labor and accumulation for high growth, were such that the dancers, singers, talkers and dreamers engendered by the traditional culture of Ishigaki (and other islands) might well play a 21st century role in Japan. Okinawa's social and cultural diversity may turn out to be as precious as the bio-diversity of its nature.

The pursuit of such a 'local' Okinawan development path will depend on the cultivation of Okinawan values and identity. No visitor to Okinawa can fail to be impressed by the difference between the values and priorities of life in Okinawan communities and elsewhere in Japan. Japanese manufacturing capitalism and its salaryman culture have made only the smallest inroads in Okinawa, and the 'pre-modern' communitarian, celebratory, nature-rooted ways of thinking, sacrificed elsewhere in Japan, although eroded have not been lost here. The myths of a unique, superior Japanese identity, imperial or corporate, never had credibility here, and the 'Asia-Pacific,' long a lived reality, was never an ideology.

GAVAN McCORMACK is Professor of Japanese History in the Australian National University. His latest book is The Emptiness of Japanese Affluence (M. E. Sharpe, 1996), an excerpt from which, "Paving Over the Kansai," appeared in JPRI Occasional Paper No. 1 (November 1994). Affluence has just been published in Japanese by Misuzu Shobo. He is also the author of JPRI Working Paper No. 38 (October 1997), "Holocaust Denial à la Japonaise."

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