If there is one place in the increasingly troubled East Asian region that captures all of the tensions over national identity, accidents of history, and the current geopolitical tensions that threaten to spill over into actual conflict, it is Okinawa. Consequently, it offers a small but illuminating window into some wider issues, and not just for students of Asian geopolitics.
The island has two principal claims to fame above and beyond its natural charms and the celebrated cheerfulness of its inhabitants. First, it was the scene of one of the most brutal and costly conflicts of the entire Second World War. Okinawa was the last island before American forces faced the prospect of invading the main Japanese islands. Resistance to American occupation was ferocious.
The American invasion resulted in the deaths of one third of the civilian population, some of whom committed mass suicide by throwing themselves from cliffs as the Americans advanced - in line with the advice of Emperor Hirohito. In addition to more than 100,000 Japanese military deaths, the US also lost more than 12,000 men in the single bloodiest conflict of the Pacific campaign. The prospect of having to repeat this process in the rest of Japan undoubtedly made the subsequent nuclear strikes in Hiroshima and Nagasaki more attractive. As ever, some lives are more valuable than others.
Whatever the you might think about the use of atomic weapons, in retrospect what is most remarkable, perhaps, is that when Hirohito eventually told his people that the game was up and that they should surrender, they did. The horrors of Okinawa were not repeated in the rest of the Japanese archipelago primarily because people thought differently about the situation they found themselves in. Obedience to authority and the abnegation of personal responsibility can have complex and unpredictable consequences – something we might do well to remember.
Given this sort of history, though, it is hardly surprising that so many Japanese people are fiercely opposed to any suggestion that Japan should become a “normal” country with the sort of attitude to defense that many scholars and – more importantly - policymakers think is not only appropriate, but unavoidable. Indeed, many Japanese people remain implacably opposed to revising the so-called “peace constitution” which limits the role of Japan’s military to self-defense.
The second reason Okinawa is significant, therefore, is that it’s a very tangible reminder of how difficult it is to change the political facts on the ground, no matter what the majority of the people might want. Despite the reality that more than 80% of the locals are against it, Okinawa is home to one the US’s largest overseas military bases and provides a convenient “unsinkable aircraft carrier” close to China - Japan’s historical regional rival and the principal challenge to continuing American hegemony.
This is not simply an anti-American issue, though. Many Okinawans are unhappy with the way their views are ignored and over-ridden by their own government, too. The fact that successive Japanese governments lied about the presence of American nuclear weapons is but one, especially sensitive source of aggravation. It is no coincidence that a growing Okinawan independence movement is looking toward Scotland for inspiration. Even in the all too likely event that this separatist impulse does not get very far, it is emblematic of the difficulty any Japanese leader faces when dealing with a geopolitically crucial but perennially restive province.
While the US may finally have found the sort of “decisive” leader they have been hoping for in Japan, the rise of Shinzo Abe may create more problems than it solves, and not just for Japan. True, Abe is an enthusiastic supporter of the pivotally important alliance relationship, but this may only embolden him to take a harder line with China. After all, Abe must believe he can count on the US to underwrite Japan’s security in any possible conflict with China; that’s the very least he might expect from doing his bit of regional strategic “burden sharing”.
Lest some readers think this all sounds a bit far-fetched, it is worth pointing out that more than 50% of the public in both China and Japan think there will be a war between the two countries at some time in the future, possibly in the next few years. While popular opinion doesn’t always count for much that doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant either. This is why Okinawa is so potentially important: it may have wider lessons. Interest in independence movements may become contagious if Scotland goes its own way; Okinawa may not be alone in developing further symptoms.
Large military bases and the presence of foreign troops have always had the potential to have a deleterious impact on the local population, as we have seen in the Philippines, Thailand, and Japan. It’s not obvious that we will see the same sort of thing in Darwin or Garden Island - which looks increasingly like being the next link in a lengthening chain of bases - but we can’t be sure. One thing we can be confident of though: just like the Okinawans we probably won’t be consulted about something that could have a major impact on our collective security – however it’s defined.