WORLD POLICY JOURNAL
ARTICLE: Volume XVII, No 3, FALL 2000
The Rape of Okinawa
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A smog of smoke and smell darkens the site of the Second World War’s last major battle and last dirty deal. Okinawans are hardly the first to endure a martyrdom of geography, but few have done so with less recognition. After 55 years of abuse by Washington and Tokyo, it would have been good to see Okinawa’s designation as host of July’s G-8 summit as sunlight at last breaking through again on the Land of Constant Courtesy, as Asians once called the then-independent little kingdom. So it might have seemed on the face of it. So the summit’s public relations staff diligently broadcast. Actually, however, the choice of Okinawa served to mask relentless exploitation by the imperial powers that fought there with supreme savagery in April-June of 1945.
American casualties in history’s largest land-sea-air battle were more than double those on ghastly Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal combined, and ten Japanese died for every American. But the Good War’s last full-scale encounter killed more civilians than combatants. The instruments of that slaughter were Japanese cruelty to the people they claimed to be protecting and indiscriminate American munitions. The “typhoon of bombs and shells,” as the natives called the American explosives, slew and maimed more civilians than the Japanese defenders in the “underground battleships” they had made of their caves. But the 1.3 million current inhabitants of the island that is now Japan’s southernmost outpost must endure ignorance or indifference to their plight. Although most Americans know vaguely that an important battle took place on Okinawa, a kind of collective amnesia obscures the terrible cost that much contributed to the decision to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
The civilian toll on the beautiful and poor island probably exceeded Hiroshima’s, although the conventional figure of 150,000 Okinawan deaths is an estimate because virtually every structure of any significance was obliterated, including those housing population records. Before the battle, troops on both sides wrote home in shared delight of “a whole island shimmering like a gem in a dream world,” in a Japanese infantryman’s image. “Who thought that the whole of this fairy island would be burnt down in the flame of an inferno and turned into a pile of blackened rocks?” That was the fate of everything lovely there, including the “Confucian harmony” that once enchanted Chinese emissaries. And if innocence can be quantified, the meek islanders, long lovers of song and haters of swords, had more of it than the mainlanders, then gripped by their romance with honorable death.
But if exact comparisons with Hiroshima’s and Iwo Jima’s corporal, cultural, material, and spiritual devastation cannot be made, the central question now is a different one. Why does the Okinawan tragedy abide while the others are essentially ended?
For one thing, Okinawa’s old pain remains little known. The commander of the Sixth Marine Division, which fought the entire three-month campaign, left the island believing that 20,000 civilians had been killed, not seven or eight times that number. Few “home front” Americans knew of any civilian deaths at all because war correspondents scarcely mentioned them. The torment of the islanders who bore the brunt of Japanese bigotry – a racial mixture of Chinese, Japanese, and Micronesian ancestry, Okinawans, though Japanese citizens, were mocked and despised as “little brown monkeys” – and of the stupendous American firepower was less forgotten than never acknowledged.
Most Americans at the time visualized Okinawa as a second Iwo Jima, even though the two killing fields shared little apart from geography. Whereas no civilians inhabited the garrison island of Iwo, Okinawa’s then half a million people lived in an exceptionally civilized and playful culture, developed during a long history of tranquil farming and trading, for centuries having been known as the “Venetians of the East.” After ruthless Japanese plunder and colonization starting in the seventeenth century, America’s turn to govern began in the ashes of its battlefield victory six weeks before Tokyo’s surrender. The occupation of the island that would endure until 1972-20 years longer than on the mainland – was shameful, despite a few benevolent programs and admirable acts of individual generosity. Very few Americans knew anything about it. Back home after the campaign, those combat veterans who had an inkling of the civilian calamity from their inadvertent shooting of women and children from their foxholes at night wanted only to forget their nightmare.
The untaken glance back across the Pacific in 1945 would have shown no concern for Okinawans during their unsavory severing from Japan. Shortly after the Meiji government had seized the island in 1879, it offered to divide the Ryukyu archipelago and give half to China. The motive in 1945 remained the same: benefit to the Japanese mainland. Once more, Tokyo used Okinawa as a bargaining chip, now in negotiations with Washington. Having gambled that a massively costly struggle for the outpost would deter or delay an invasion of the home islands, it again sacrificed the incinerated battlefield, this time to save the mainland from further disturbance and disgrace, above all the stationing of far larger American forces there if it had not been able to offer silenced Okinawa for that purpose.
Both former enemies made a gift to themselves of the island’s truncation. In contrast to what awaited the mainland, it wasn’t American civilians who drew the plans for and established the purposes of its postwar occupation but the combat forces that had waged the Okinawan battle. That difference was crucial. As intended, it gave overwhelming preference to military considerations. For its part, Tokyo did not object to placing hundreds of thousands of its shell-shocked citizens under foreign military rule for nearly 30 years. On the contrary, it volunteered to donate the island to the United States, like a bone thrown to divert the victors from larger demands on those sacred home islands. The same government that had tried to cajole traditionally peaceful Okinawans into joining the frantic wartime sacrifice by hawking racial unity now reverted to its old, deep-rooted view of them as inferior and dispensable. Stripped of the protection of Japanese laws and postwar agreements with Washington, the characteristically pliant and now helpless people could only submit. The unhampered American occupiers needed only occasional resort to bayonets and bulldozers to “lawfully” expropriate whatever land they wanted for new installations, while the public back home, enjoying the postwar boom in jobs and babies, took no notice.
Free to run “the rock” like one big military complex, an unsupervised Pentagon knew and cared little about the traditions and attitudes of the “gooks” it ruled. After a very brief enlightened start to the occupation by naval Asia specialists, the U.S. army took over. Its practice was to replace the local commander almost every year: no less than 22 of them, scarcely trained in Asian affairs or civil administration, would govern during the 27 years of American rule. Many had been exiled to this career dead end for their ineptitude. Even those not devoted to their own personal and professional well-being had little time to orient themselves, let alone explore Okinawan history or concerns.
Masahide Ota, a scholar who served as the governor of Okinawa Prefecture from 1991 to 1999, rightly concluded that the military government was “dominated by officers who felt little sympathy for scourged Okinawa’s `moonscape’ or for her ruined people.” They resented their assignment to “a now blackened, desolate island instead of the far more interesting [Japanese] mainland…. To put it simply, they neither liked their work nor had a professional understanding of it.” Okinawa became known as “the end of the line,” a “Botany Bay for bad bureaucrats and colonels.”
One of the war’s enduring ironies is the far more generous treatment of the aggressive Japanese home islands. While Americans never saw the home islands chiefly as a US military outpost, Okinawa was “basically strategic,” as Gen. Douglas MacArthur confirmed. And while the supreme commander’s Tokyo headquarters dubbed the emperor “the first gentleman of Japan” and entertained members of the imperial household, starving, scavenging Okinawans lived in miserable poverty, many in areas ravaged by malaria, all in deep shock after the killing of roughly a third of their number.
As in Germany’s immediate postwar years, the condition of many surviving civilians worsened after the war was over. “This looks exactly like the Somme,” said a visiting British official about the material and human debris as bulldozer flotillas leveled the remains of tombs, cemeteries, and other hallowed Okinawan sites for bomber runways. The “dumping ground” for American army misfits, to quote Ota again, served the same function for war surplus and garbage. The come-and-go occupation commanders were so little interested in native needs and so highhandedly autonomous that a witness described an assistant secretary of the army as “flabbergasted with what he saw” when he paid an unannounced visit in 1949.
But no one in postwar Washington objected that the same Far Eastern Command that was implementing its antimilitarist reforms on the mainland was relentlessly militarizing Okinawa. American installations-among the largest and most important concentrations outside the continental United States-soon occupied a fifth of the chronically overcrowded island, including much of the most desirable farmland. “Okinawa,” the occupiers quipped, “is on a military base” – rather than the other way around. And if Americans felt no need to reflect about the cultural or emotional effect on Okinawa’s “little” people, Japanese leaders apparently cared less.
The Toy Kingdom Transformed
Throughout the centuries when Japan was almost hermetically sealed against foreigners, Okinawans welcomed their ships with a graciousness that startled passengers and crews. Although fear may have prompted it, the callers did not think so. Another eighteenth-century Englishman spoke for almost all such travelers when he reported Okinawans’ most prominent characteristics as “their gentleness of spirit and manner, their yielding and disposition, their hospitality and kindness, their aversion to violence and crime.” “For gentle dignity of manners, superior advancement in the arts and general intelligence,” another sailor maintained, “the inhabitants…are by far the most interesting, enlightened nation in the Pacific Ocean.” The Russian writer Ivan Goncharov was skeptical of such praise when he arrived in 1853. But “What a place, what people!” he found. “All exuded such a feeling of peace, simplicity, honest labor and plenty that it seemed to me…a longed-for haven.”
That changed when the Japanese, with their ancient love of the martial arts, annexed Okinawa in 1879 and launched a ruthless Japanization. It changed even more when the Supreme War Council fortified the island in preparation for the 1945 invasion. Reeling in its rubble, the victims remembered prophetic warnings that the militarization would invite attack by Westerners with whom they, the inhabitants, had no quarrel. Their overriding lesson from the battle was that far from protecting them from anything – the Japanese army having loftily promised them protection from bestial American invaders – military bases on their land invited their destruction.
That was their chief reason for voting to revert to Japan in 1972. They had been encouraged to believe that after the 27 years of an occupation configured to our military blueprints, the US bases would be eliminated or much reduced. Instead, the Japanese-American Defense Treaty of the same year – drafted and signed without consulting Okinawans – assigned the United States rights to their extended use. Washington was assured that its commanders would continue to enjoy virtual freedom of action on the island – which, outside the bases, remained impoverished while the home islands sprinted toward their unencumbered prosperity.
During the 28 years since Okinawa’s restoration to Japan, many pledges to shrink the bases have been made, the most notable in response to native protests after the 1995 rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl by three American servicemen. But even if and when the promised (largely cosmetic) changes are completed, American installations will continue to occupy almost their old fifth of the now even more overcrowded island (whose population has almost tripled since 1945). Some three-fourths of US bases and more than half of the American troops stationed in Japan are crowded on Okinawa, which constitutes only 0.6 percent of Japanese territory.
Mile after mile of base fences flank the major roads. Vast airfields and military housing complexes occupy the choicest sites. At least 15 percent of the most fertile farmland is buried under the concrete of US runways. Picture the reaction if something similar were imposed on the good people of, say, Long Island or Dade County.
Okinawans, with their long history of toleration, compromise, and peaceful relations with their neighbors – a history in sharp contrast with those of mission-bent Japan and America – have reason to especially resent the attendant intrusion. It takes place, almost inevitably, on the ground, where our servicemen, according to the Okinawan police, have committed nearly 5,000 crimes – including mugging, molestation, and murder – since the reversion, and far more during the arguably illegal American occupation. (The widely reported 1995 and 1997 rapes were but the last of many hundreds, about which the American public never heard a whisper. At this writing, a Marine arrested in June for allegedly molesting a 14-year-old girl remains under investigation. The latest of uncountable American hit-and-run drivers struck at almost the same time.)
The intrusion also takes place in the air, where screaming jets, operating with a freedom decreed by imposing severe restrictions on airspace allocated for civilian use, produce 100 decibels from early morning to late evening. And it takes place in the sea, where poisonous chemicals are secretly dumped. But Okinawa’s aversion comes from something deeper in its soul. A dissenting American recently called the imposition of the massive assemblage of weapons and the personnel who use them a “long-term rape of the entire island culture.”
Centuries of Subjugation
Determined to secure an American base there, Perry claimed suzerainty over the Ryukyus. By the time his report of this act reached Washington, the presidency had been assumed by Franklin Pierce, who, convinced the occupation would require congressional approval, ordered it to end. Still, the ambitious commodore compelled a captive Ryukyu monarchy to sign a flagrantly unequal, unjust “friendship” treaty that established a “permanent anchorage” on Okinawa for the United States.
General MacArthur’s assertion of the same was couched in strikingly similar language. The United States had to maintain dominion over the Ryukyus, the supreme commander insisted, because they were “absolutely essential to the defense of our Western Pacific Frontier…[and] in my opinion, failure to secure them for control by the United States might prove militarily disastrous.”
To avoid association with nineteenth-century imperialism, the defense of our “frontier” was said to greatly benefit Okinawans too, just as Japan had claimed throughout the much longer history of its mistreatment of the island. Even today, Pentagon strategists maintain the island still needs our protection, now against China’s expansionist potential. Citing the threat to Taiwan, some 400 miles to the southwest, they argue that the Okinawan bases are “the linchpin” of America’s Far East strategy.
Some military experts doubt the bases are a right or necessary linchpin, or that Okinawa is suitable for training troops; Hawaii or Guam, both said to be willing to accept a transfer, would be better. Moreover, these experts argue that withdrawing our installations from the island, which is “dangerously vulnerable” to missile attack, would enhance our Pacific defenses by freeing us from an obsolete Cold War stance that also impedes the rapid deployment of the highly mobile forces more likely to be needed to meet current crises. Aircraft carriers for launching quick strikes at distant targets have become much more valuable than fixed bases. But whatever the rights and wrongs of that dispute, the major powers’ pursuit of their own strategic interests is precisely what has long tormented Okinawans. They might consider the burden of the bases less onerous if they could understand their benefit to them. Even before the Soviet Union’s collapse, some Okinawans were emboldened to ask what the bases were protecting them from. Never having had an argument with Moscow and now having none with Bejing, the majority fear the purportedly “protecting” installations, with their dangerous equipment and potential as targets, more than any conceivable enemy.
Take Your Weaponry Elsewhere
The question is further complicated by the hugely disproportionate share of the Japanese Self-Defense Force they also unwillingly host, causing many even more anxiety than does the American behemoth. Not long ago, a British writer lamented that after many years living and traveling on the home islands, he could “count on the fingers of one hand the Japanese who reacted to me as just another human being.” But although that experience is common for gaijins there, where even the most polite receptions seem stiffened by inhibition, foreign visitors to Okinawa sense something markedly different the moment they leave their planes.
The casually hospitable natives attach far less importance to nationality-except, paradoxically, in the case of their fellow citizens from the mainland. Statistical evidence supports travelers’ observations that many feel more comfortable with Americans than with ethnic Japanese, some of whom continue to treat them as racial inferiors. We like you, they tend to tell us. We just wish you would take your weaponry elsewhere. But if the bases must stay, many quietly prefer them to remain in American hands than be given over to Japanese.
However, distrust of mainland intentions has not changed a clearly expressed wish for relief from the huge military establishment. Its half-century of dominance, starting in 1945-46, when virtually the only jobs on the Okinawan “moonscape” were as laborers building the runways, has complicated aspects of the base issue, but not its essence. Polls reveal that the great majority of Okinawans, an unusually consistent 80 percent since 1982, want the installations eliminated or sharply diminished. Japan’s current economic troubles, which are particularly severe on tourism-dependent Okinawa, have softened that position, but not by much.
Nevertheless, our policymakers continue to claim that the bases afford Okinawa great economic as well as defense benefits. Adjusted for political correctness, they echo the US high commissioner who, shortly before the reversion, admonished that a base – deprived Okinawa would “revert immediately to a barefoot economy, dependent on sweet potatoes and fish.” That argument flies in the face of the experience of the Philippines, where military spokesmen also predicted bankruptcy when Manilla demanded the closing of even larger US bases at Clark Field and Subic Bay. On the contrary, new commercial ventures on the sites the United States vacated in the early 1990s sparked an economic spurt. But on goes the old canard about “economic ruin,” while the massive installations, distended golf courses and all, continue dominating the little “piece of rope on the horizon,” as Okinawa’s neighbors refer to it: punishment for being in the wrong place – or the right one, as Tokyo and Washington still see it. The speck of others’ land remains captive to our global objectives and the Japanese government’s traditional imposition of its will on the former colonials, including a continued ban on the kind of foreign investment that helped ignite prosperity elsewhere in Asia.
Elderly American combat veterans who oppose “losing” the island where so much of their blood was spilled tend to relent when informed of the vastly greater volume of Okinawan blood that soaked the same soil. But when other objections fail, our spokesmen often fall back on another, supposedly decisive argument. We have a defense treaty with Japan. Besides, the Japanese want us to remain on Okinawa. Their Japanese counterparts like to end the debate with the complementary “clincher.” We have a treaty with America. And it requires us to accommodate Washington’s military needs. But that treaty was conceived 28 years ago, amid the tensions of the East-West struggle, when the Second World War’s only other major battlefield still under occupation was Berlin. More than that, it was forced on Okinawa without consultation. Why should it not be rewritten?
A Test for Fairness and Decency
Which returns us to the G-8 summit and Tokyo’s explanation that it chose the venue in order to make amends by boosting Okinawa’s shaky economy, while what its enormously expensive show there-on which it lavished vastly more than any government had spent on any previous summit – really sought was tacit world acceptance of the status quo. The strongest evidence of that lay in the case of the Futenma Air Base, which has been long been “a disaster in waiting for an errant landing or takeoff,” in a journalist’s recent descriptions. Forty-five thousand landings and takeoffs are made each year over dense housing and shops surrounding the base. (Forty-odd military planes have crashed into Okinawa since the 1972 reversion. Tokyo’s request of our Department of Defense to suspend training flights during the summit kept the G-8 leaders from appreciating the intrusiveness of the air operations, while a nighttime curfew and a drinking ban for American servicemen kept things quiet on the ground.)
It took the outrage over the 1995 rape, the first Okinawan protest to catch the attention of the international press, to force US authorities to acknowledge the danger the Futenma base posed to civilians. They agreed to move it to a less populated location – not on the mainland, predictably, but elsewhere on the island. After vigorous protests by the proposed new site’s residents, however, the authorities announced that the base would be moved to the village of Henoko. Why Henoko? Japanese officials denied any connection between the choice and the recent awarding of a ten-year national subsidy of ¥100 million (roughly $1 million) to the city of Nago, site of the summit – whose administrative boundaries happened to include Henoko.
And what of the villagers themselves? One 72-year-old was among her generation’s luckiest in 1945, when her family managed to survive the destruction of their house and four months of morbid near-starvation while hiding from both Americans and Japanese patrols. After Henoko was chosen as the site of Camp Schwab in 1959, the seedy “night business” that flourished in the local bars upset the then youngish woman and her fellow villagers as much as the felling of cherished old trees and other environmental abuse. Now she feels “the Americans are coming again” – this time probably in force, for although Camp Schwab, largely used to store ammunition, is relatively quiet apart from helicopter landings, moving the Futenma operations there will end the last of a once-treasured serenity (as well as threaten the habitat of a local sea cow).
But moving the Futenma base, although the centerpiece of recent Japanese-American promises to diminish the harassment of civilians, is largely a sop. The Kadena Air Base, which is mere miles away, to take just one example, is three times larger. The Japanese government’s extreme determination to host a successful summit – for which it deployed no fewer than 22,000 security officers to the island to reinforce its prodigal allocations, or payoffs, to local communities – prevented any major embarrassment during the July weekend when the world’s attention was focused on the island. Still, 27,000 angry natives held hands to encircle the giant Kadena base in protest, while other residents pursued lawsuits against the American and Japanese governments for the harm caused them by, among other things, massive air and noise pollution. More and more Okinawans are overcoming their traditional reluctance to assert themselves.
Although their antimilitarism has not yet advanced to insurgent anti-Americanism, the swelling exasperation is less likely to disappear than to one day cost Washington and Tokyo more than their strategic bargain is worth. The Pentagon disagrees, but its view of the national interest is not always rich in long-term political perspicacity or appreciation of native threats to stability.
Why Okinawans have remained docile for so long is less important than their waxing resentment of the exploitation that continues into the new millennium. Their seemingly immutable occupation, which is essentially what our overpowering military “presence” amounts to, keeps them haunted by the ghosts of the war that laid waste to their island. Does anyone care? Now that the G-8 summit is over and the Land of Constant Courtesy has returned to its old obscurity, will President Clinton’s pledge to reduce “our footprint” on the island be honored? No Okinawan asked for its planting there.
This article was made possible by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.
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