JPRI Working Paper No. 71: September 2000
The Okinawan Summit Seen from Below
by Gavan McCormack and Julia Yonetani

When back in 1860 the last lunar eclipse darkened Japan's skies, the feudal shogunate was tottering; in July 2000, as the moon slowly disappeared from the northern Okinawan beach of Sedake, where the people of Nago were renewing their determination to resist a massive new U.S. military base, it seemed no less a climactic crisis was underway. The emerging centers of 1860s Japan were to be found in remote country towns like Hagi (facing the Sea of Japan in present-day Yamaguchi Prefecture), where discontented young samurai gathered and debated the future. In Japan in the year 2000 the center is not Tokyo but Okinawa, and within Okinawa increasingly it is Nago. Nowhere are the tensions and contradictions caused by Japan's dependence on and complicity with U.S. global military strategies and market forces as visible as they are in this peripheral locality.

The July 2000 summit meeting of the G-8 group of nations was in retrospect more notable for the fact that it was held in Nago than for anything it decided. When the late Prime Minister Obuchi announced in April 1999 that the summit would be held in Nago, he astonished everyone. It ranked at the bottom of all candidate sites, even on the government's own list. Yet the town was distinctive for one thing: it is here, on the coral reef off the coast of the village of Henoko, that the Japanese and U.S. governments plan to build a major new U.S. Marine base to replace facilities further south at Futenma.

Promises and Deals

On April 12, 1996, the U.S. and Japanese governments jointly announced their intention to deactivate and relinquish, within five to seven years, Futenma Marine Corps Air Station, which is surrounded by the sprawling town of Ginowan. This announcement was designed directly to precede U.S. President Bill Clinton's visit to Tokyo, and was a "symbolic gesture" to ensure that anti-base sentiment in Okinawa did not derail the historic U.S.-Japan "Global Security Partnership" that both leaders would declare four days later. Simmering resentment over the continuing U.S. military presence in Okinawa had boiled over only eight months earlier, when on September 4, 1995, three U.S. servicemen raped a twelve-year-old girl. The protests that ensued prompted then Okinawan governor Masahide Ota to refuse to act as a proxy in signing the leases of land used by the U.S. military.

Yet the final report on Futenma, issued in December 1996, confirmed that the promised return would actually amount to no more than a relocation of the air base within Okinawa prefecture. The speediness and secrecy of the negotiations gave rise to the suspicion that the entire deal was calculated to replace the outdated and inconveniently placed Futenma with a new facility more conducive to housing the state-of-the-art MV-22 Osprey tilt-wing aircraft.1 Governor Ota made some efforts to negotiate with the Japanese government but, faced with a majority of Nago citizens displaying their clear opposition to the construction of a new base, in early 1998 he came down firmly against the proposal. However, by December, at the end of three years of attempted compromise and resistance, and facing a deteriorating economy as a result of Tokyo's freezing all political and economic relations with the prefecture, Ota was defeated by the LDP-supported candidate, Keiichi Inamine.

There is no reason to doubt that a huge majority of Okinawans want the U.S. bases cut back (seiri shukusho). They said so in a prefecture-wide referendum in 1996. In a similar December 1997 referendum of Nago residents, despite Tokyo's resort to every conceivable pressure to influence the result, a majority affirmed that they did not want a new base at Henoko. But after Ota's defeat in the elections of December 1998, the situation changed. Tokyo brought into play an arsenal of techniques of persuasion, co-option, bribery, and division-- developed and deployed countless times in the process of foisting dams, nuclear power stations, and other "national projects" on reluctant communities. In economically depressed Okinawa, the fostering of a structure of dependence on public works handouts is a powerful instrument. As the pressure was stepped up, Tokyo committed large sums-- one hundred billion yen or approximately $1.2 billion over ten years-- to the development of Northern Okinawa. Late in 1999, both the mayor of Nago and Governor Inamine, together with their respective representative bodies, formally endorsed the Henoko base proposal. In elections in June 2000 for the Prefectural Assembly, candidates supporting Governor Inamine won thirty of the forty-eight seats, even though voter turnout was the lowest since Okinawa's reversion to Japan from the United States in 1972.

So blatant was the bribery that local governments around Okinawa began an unseemly rush to volunteer their localities as sites for the relocation of various U.S. military facilities, something unimaginable at any previous time. Higashi Village, Okinawa City, and Katsuren town (on Tsuten Island) are now vying with Henoko for the right to house the relocated Futenma Marine Air Station; Kin City has asked for the Sobe Communications Facility when its present site is returned to Yomitan village; Iemura has volunteered to host parachute training exercises; and Urasoe's Chamber of Commerce and Industry has urged that the Military Port facilities be moved there from Naha.2

Pre-Summit Fever and the "Okinawa Initiative"

Having promised lavish public works funds to erode Okinawa's opposition to the U.S. military, Tokyo then decided to hold the G-8 summit in Nago as a sort of trump card designed to achieve the desired base relocation. Summit fever swept across the island in a wave of self-congratulatory revelry spearheaded by a coalition of central government agencies, big business, and elements within the Okinawan elite. Tokyo announced a new two thousand yen note featuring the Shureimon (gate) of Okinawa's rebuilt Shuri castle, and it constructed a multi-million dollar Convention Center in Nago. Roads were resurfaced and trees and shrubs along them individually manicured.

However, in a sense the base issue is merely the expression of a much deeper problem. It is Okinawa's very difference that is an affront to Japan's state-centered nationalism. For example, shortly before he became prime minister, Yoshiro Mori, then secretary-general of the LDP, complained in a speech that Okinawans did not know how to sing the Kimigayo national anthem because Okinawan schools and media were all under the control of communists.3 Tokyo wants nothing less than a deep-rooted ideological conversion of the Okinawan people so that their unpredictable sentiments will not again disrupt the bureaucratic order of state. To this end, Japan has a grand design to reconstitute Okinawa's history, memory, and sense of identity and purpose. A hitherto unknown movement of conservative forces, supported by Tokyo, has launched a full-fledged campaign designed to neutralize critical political thought and anti-base opposition in Okinawa.

In 1999, the Okinawan historian Kurayoshi Takara first outlined the program to the Prime Minister's Commission on Japan's Goals in the 21st Century. His argument was further developed at the "Asia Pacific Agenda Project" attended by the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi on March 25-26, 2000. There it was given the label "Okinawa Initiative." Takara and his colleagues argue that the historic sentiments of the Okinawan people regarding the Battle of Okinawa and the subsequent military incorporation of the islands into the U.S.'s Asian strategy amount to a form of "victim consciousness" that impedes their positive engagement with the rest of Japan and the outside world. Takara believes it is time that the Okinawans got over the past and accepted the bases as a necessity for Japan's relationship with the U.S. It is time, too, Takara and his colleagues argue, to accept that Okinawa is an integral part of Japan and to recognize that the bases contribute not only to the peace and security of the region but also to the livelihood of the Okinawan people.4 Within those parameters, Okinawa could adopt a positive regional and world outlook and play a significant regional role mediating and linking the rest of Japan with the Asia-Pacific region.

Such a view dovetails nicely with the neo-nationalism current among intellectuals in Tokyo.5 It is also in this context that the moves by the prefectural government in 1999 to alter exhibits in the new Prefectural Peace Museum so as not to offend visitors with their "anti-Japanese stance" and the legislation in early 2000 to bar members of the Anti-War Landowners Association from public office may be understood.6 The "Okinawa Initiative" has aroused fierce criticism from other Okinawan intellectuals because of its implicit negation of the Okinawan experience, its assumption that a new Japan-Asia relationship can and should be predicated on indefinite Japanese hosting of U.S. military bases, and its assumption that the 21st century regional order, like the 20th, will be built on the use of force.

Despite initial euphoria over the summit, people in Okinawa never lost sight of their main concern-- the bases-- nor of the summit's concealed agenda. Few seem to have been swayed by the "Initiative." An opinion poll of December 1999 showed that opposition to a new base was running at 59 percent in Nago city (23 percent support) and 45 percent against (32 percent support) in Okinawa as a whole.7 Throughout the pre-summit period, many Okinawans keenly anticipated their opportunity to make known to the world Okinawa's "desire for peace" and the burden of the bases. Intellectuals and peace groups mobilized against first the attempt to alter the new Peace Museum exhibits and later the "Okinawa Initiative," sparking critical debate of a sharpness and intensity totally lacking in contemporary Tokyo.

Then, early in the morning of July 3, less than three weeks before the summit, a drunken nineteen-year-old Marine was arrested for molesting a fourteen-year-old Okinawan girl sleeping in her own home. Once again the gap between the U.S. military as "protectors" and Okinawa's predicament as host to uninvited guests was laid bare. American apologies were prompt and profuse, and the U.S. government ordered a curfew for American military personnel for the duration of the summit. The Liberal Democratic Party and other conservative groups in Okinawa also quickly reacted-- in well-publicized displays of "protest" and "anger" aimed at containing popular outrage. Even the present conservative governor, Inamine, repeatedly referred to discontent in Okinawa as "magma," which he said was continually threatening to erupt. On this particular occasion the magma did not explode, but it rose a little closer to the surface. Just as the breaching of the Berlin Wall in 1989 brought the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe to an end, when Okinawa does explode it is likely to bring down the entire structure of American military deployments in East Asia.

A Tropical Alcatraz

Of the 81 billion yen (US$750 million at ´108=US$1) Japan spent on hosting the summit-- ten times more than any country ever spent before-- about half went for security. Some 22, 000 policemen specially flown in from across Japan, backed up by twenty aircraft and one hundred naval vessels (including destroyers), patrolled the land, sea, and sky of Okinawa. Swimmers and divers were flushed from surrounding seas, the cavernous insides of ancient tombs were carefully inspected, and elaborate security precautions around all major roads used by the G-8 motorcades made it virtually impossible for local Okinawans to leave their homes, let alone get near the precincts of the summit conference. If anyone tried, police were quick to take down name and license number, and secret service officials in black suits stealthily recorded on camera the faces of local demonstrators conducting an innocuous "Nago peace walk." Stifled by this massive security blanket, Okinawa was indeed quiet. Typhoons did not materialize as temperatures soared to over 100 degrees, and fears of "another Seattle" proved to be exaggerated. As the correspondent of the English newspaper Guardian noted, holding the G-8 meeting in a remote island setting "briefly converted into a deluxe version of Alcatraz, did the trick."8 "By the end of the meeting," wrote the Sydney Morning Herald's correspondent, Michael Millet, on July 24, "the cost of the whole exercise and the tight Japanese grip on its proceedings had become as much of an issue as the agenda itself."9 Many in Tokyo were relieved that at least the sort of gaffes for which Mori has become famous were avoided (but see the box at the end of this paper). The foreign media response was at best cool and at worst scathing.

The Human Chain and America's "Footprint"

For a majority of the press, and undoubtedly for most Okinawans, much greater historical significance attached to the human chain protest at Kadena Air Force Base and to Clinton's speech on the cliffs of Mabuni than to the summit itself. The human chain of 27,000 people who joined hands around the seventeen-kilometer perimeter of Kadena on the eve of the summit reaffirmed Okinawans' determination to struggle against the bases in the face of unprecedented political, economic, and psychological pressure. It also became the climax of a tide of pre-summit events sponsored by NGOs (non-governmental organizations). The Clinton speech, by contrast, served to confirm that despite the biggest display of anti-base sentiment since 1995, the U.S. government was still determined to carry out its base-relocation plan.

The sweat poured down Clinton's face as he stood in front of the Cornerstone of Peace.10 It was the first visit by an American president to what the U.S. military calls its "Keystone of the Pacific" since 1960, when Dwight D. Eisenhower was met by protesters clashing with U.S. military police and chanting "Give back our land" and "Yankee, go home." Forty years later, a carefully selected audience stood before the United States's president in respectful silence. It was a speech that George Orwell would have appreciated. "In our time," Orwell wrote in 1946, "political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. . . . Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness."11

Clinton's carefully crafted speech contained four elements: a justification for the continuing American military presence, a commitment to "consolidate" the base structure, a lament over war, and a paean to peace. The central proposition was in the form of a begged question-- namely, that "Asia is at peace today because (the U.S.-Japan alliance) has given people throughout the region confidence that peace will be defended and preserved." The commitment to "consolidate" (strengthen, solidify) the bases was translated into Japanese as seiri (adjust, correct), a word which in the context of the bases is almost always followed by shukusho (reduce) and that therefore succeeded in conveying an impression opposite to what he actually said. Governor Inamine, among others, thought he actually said seiri shukusho.12 The phrase "reducing our footprint" was specific enough to sound genuine while vague enough to promise nothing. In the words of a top U.S. government official, it "presents the impression of the size of impact, range, or scale . . . without directly referring to numbers or capacity."13 Unfortunately, the word footprint (sokuseki) also conjures up the image of a jackbooted Marine standing on someone's face. As Nago City assembly member Yasuhiro Miyagi noted, what the U.S. military is imposing on Okinawa are not "footprints" but the "scars" of fresh wounds inflicted through the construction of a new base.14

The boldness of the American presumption was plainest in Clinton's appropriation of the Okinawan peace movement's sacred credo, said to have been first articulated in 1879 by the last Ryukyuan king, Sho Tai: "The time for wars is ending, and the time for peace is not far away. Do not despair. Life itself is a treasure" (in Ryukyuan nuchi do takara).15 For Sho Tai, peace was indeed far away. Japan abolished his kingdom and incorporated its lands just as Japanese militarist expansion was commencing, a path that led to the catastrophe of 1945. What Clinton evidently meant was that the bases would remain, force would prevail, and Sho Tai's heirs would again be victims.

Post-Summit Outlook

On Monday, July 24, at the end of the three day blowout, Okinawa awoke exhausted and disheveled, in a state resembling that of a woman who has sold herself for a price. Yet the summit was certainly not the grand finale to the "Okinawa Issue" that Tokyo seems to have envisioned. Ultimately, it may serve to expose Japan's failure to deal effectively with either global or local issues and America's indifference toward both Okinawa and Japan. Tokyo now has to unveil its base construction plans, and the contradictions that divide Tokyo and Okinawa, latent when the issues were confined to generalities, will inevitably come to the surface. Governor Inamine says his government "insists" on a fifteen-year term for the new base-- "the limit the people of Okinawa should be asked to tolerate"-- and that it should be a joint civilian-military facility.16 Nago City mayor Kishimoto takes the same line. The U.S. opposes both conditions, and the Tokyo government, which has done nothing more than relay the Okinawan position to Washington, clearly expects Okinawa to yield. On July 5, Kazuo Terashima, director general of the Japanese Defense Agency, said precisely that.17 The Nago Assembly further insists that the base can only be constructed if the government can guarantee that it will not compromise the safety and environment of the Henoko region. Given the delicate coral located directly off-shore, which is also the habitat of a colony of endangered and protected dugong (a large whale-like mammal that lives in tropical seas and feeds on plants), this is probably an impossible demand.18 So, when Tokyo finally publishes the details of its Henoko plan, Inamine, torn between commitments to his constituents and pressures from Tokyo and Washington, will confront essentially the same insoluble dilemma that destroyed his predecessor.

John Dower recently referred to some of the contradictions of the postwar Japanese state by using the phrase "imperial democracy."19 The contradictions of Japanese constitutionalism are sharply etched in Okinawa. Okinawa's reason for being, as far as Tokyo and Washington are concerned, is as a center for the cultivation of the "war potential" that Article Nine of the Japanese Constitution prohibits. As it enters the 21st century, Japan-- by which is meant the political-bureaucratic apparatus of state located in Tokyo-- will make crucial choices, defining what sort of entity it will be. So far it has chosen the following:

1. Military alliance with the U.S. as paramount state policy, using bribery and intimidation to impose its will on a reluctant local population;

2. The priority of that alliance over constitutional principles, including not only the articles declaring Japanese state pacifism but also those guaranteeing freedom of opinion, thought, and conscience, and at a deeper level the principle of popular sovereignty itself;

3. The primacy of Prime Minister Mori's emperor-centered representations of national identity over Okinawa's citizenship and community-rooted, Asia-Pacific conceptions of Japaneseness;

4. The imposition of a huge public works program on Northern Okinawa-- the same formula that has been at the heart of the corruption, debt, and dependency of other regions of Japan and that now threatens the Japanese state with both bankruptcy and irreparable damage to its environment;

5. The sacrifice of one of Japan's most precious remaining ecological preserves, since construction of a new base will threaten several internationally-protected species.

The contest is one of militarism versus pacifism, arbitrary bureaucratic power versus the rule of law, manipulation by means of intimidation and money versus democratic citizen politics, and exploitation versus sustainability. "Tokyo" and "Okinawa" thus represent two diametrically opposite visions of the future.

The imbalance is huge, but it could be that Okinawa, and in particular Nago, is the weak link within the system, deeply embedded and crucial to it but sufficiently far away from the center to bring about change. The gathering on Sedake beach in mid- July was vastly different from the samurai meetings in Hagi in the 1860s, but the two are similar in being attuned to the future. The contest is far from over.


1. Yoichi Makishi, "Naze ka kieta kaigai isetsu keikaku" (The Plan to Relocate Overseas that Somehow Disappeared), Shukan Kinyobi, April 7, 2000.

2. Masachi Osawa, "Fuhenteki na kokyosei wa ika ni shite kanoka" (How Is It Possible to Achieve the Common Good?), Sekai, August 2000, pp. 150-159, at pp. 151, 158.

3. Okinawa Times and Ryukyu Shimpo, March 23, 2000.

4. "Prime Minister's Commission on Japan's Goals in the 21st Century," First Sub-Committee, "Japan's Place in the World," July 28, 1999. For a more recent statement of Takara's position see, "Kichi no sonzai sekkyoku hyoka" (Positive Evaluation of the Bases' Existence), Asahi Shimbun, May 15, 2000, and the articles by Takara in the Okinawa Times, May 24 and 25, 2000.

5. See Gavan McCormack, "The Japanese Movement to ÔCorrect' History," in Laura Hein and Mark Selden, eds, Censoring History: Perspectives on Nationalism and War in the Twentieth Century (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2000), pp. 55-73; and "Nationalism and Identity in Post-Cold War Japan," Pacifica Review, in press.

6. On the censorship of the museums, see Julia Yonetani, "Peace Wars: The Politics of Presenting the Past in Contemporary Okinawa," JPRI Working Paper, No. 65 (February 2000).

7. See the results of an Asahi Shimbun and Okinawa Times survey of opinion, published in the Okinawa Times, December 19, 1999.

8. Larry Elliott, "G-8 Fails Test of Leadership," Guardian Weekly, July 27 to August 2, 2000.

9. The official conference records are available at

10. Yoichi Funabashi, "Kensho Ôheiwa no ishiji' spiichi" (Examining the "Cornerstone of Peace" speech), Asahi Shimbun, July 27, 2000.

11. George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language," in Inside the Whale and Other Essays (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1962), p. 153.

12. Asahi Shimbun, July 25, 2000.

13. Funabashi, op. cit.

14. "Futan oshitsukeru kogan hatsugen" (Audacious Remarks Imposing Burdens) [Clinton's Speech at the Cornerstone of Peace], Okinawa Times, July 27, 2000.

15. "Clinton Thanks Okinawans, Pledges to Reduce Footprint of U.S. Military," Yomiuri Online, July 21, 2000. Also see the article by one of Okinawa's most prominent writers, Tatsuhiro Oshiro, on the poem attributed to Sho Tai, Ryukyu Shimpo, July 31, 2000.

16. Keiichi Inamine, "Okinawa as Pacific Crossroads," Japan Quarterly, July-September 2000, pp. 10-16, at p. 14.

17. Okinawa Times, July 7, 2000.

18. See the website of the Save the Dugong Foundation

19. John W. Dower, "The Showa Emperor and Japan's Postwar Imperial Democracy," JPRI Working Paper No. 61 (October 1999).

GAVAN McCORMACK is Professor of Japanese History at the Australian National University and author of The Emptiness of Japanese Affluence (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1996). His many reports for JPRI include "Paving Over the Kansai," Occasional Paper No. 1 (November 1994); "Afterbubble: Fizz and Concrete in Japan's Political Economy," Working Paper No. 21 (June 1996); "Holocaust Denial &Mac246; la Japonaise," Working Paper No. 38 (October 1997); "Okinawan Dilemmas: Coral Islands or Concrete Islands?" Working Paper No. 45 (April 1998); and "Dilemmas of Development on the Ogasawara Islands," Occasional Paper No. 15 (August 1999).

JULIA YONETANI is a Ph.D. candidate in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies of the Australian National University and the author of "Peace Wars: The Politics of Presenting the Past in Contemporary Okinawa," JPRI Working Paper, No. 65 (February 2000). Her dissertation is on the prominent Okinawan scholar and former governor, Masahide Ota. During the period 1994-1999 she studied at the University of Tokyo and made many research trips to Okinawa. She is currently a graduate research fellow at the University of the Ryukyus.

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