A new flag flies in East Asia, as the Republic of Ryukyu becomes the world’s youngest sovereign state. Riding a wave of democratic independence movements that has already seen Catalonia, Quebec and Scotland calve from their respective countries, the people of Okinawa and its neighboring islands have just voted decisively in a referendum to break away from Japan.
The split has profound implications. In Tokyo, an embarrassed central government collapses, having failed to maintain the integrity of the Japanese state, and a period of political and economic turmoil ensues. The U.S. military, given three months to leave by the new national government in Naha, starts pulling back to its bases in Guam and the Japanese mainland, while Washington sets about rethinking its entire Asia-Pacific strategy. And the Okinawan administration, having inherited the Japanese claim to the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu, cedes the sea-rocks to China in return for a huge investment package from Beijing, which it says will kick-start its economy and guarantee its viability as a sovereign nation….
Rewind to July 2013, and the reality is an Okinawan independence movement that is a long way from achieving its goal. Though hardly new, it forever seems a nascent force only just setting out on a political journey that might yet lead nowhere.
The tension over the large U.S. military presence on Okinawa seems never to subside, the U.S. Marines’ deployment of noisy, and possibly quite dangerous, MV-22 Osprey aircraft having been one recent trigger. And yet, if asked to vote today, Okinawans would overwhelmingly stick with the status quo: a recent poll by Ryukyu Shimpo found that only 5 percent of citizens favor independence, with 62 percent opposed. Then again, these things start from humble beginnings, and independence is at the very least being discussed seriously. Okinawa has a complex relationship both with Tokyo and with the U.S. military, and it is too casual to dismiss the notion of independence as the pipedream of just a handful of local activists.
The weak support for independence can be explained by “the long history of colonial rule over Okinawa by Japan,” believes Tomochi Masaki, a founder of the independence movement’s latest incarnation, the Association of Comprehensive Studies for Independence of the Lew Chewans (ACSIL) – the Lew Chewans being Okinawa’s indigenous people – and an associate professor at Okinawa International University. The long process of assimilation has amounted to “brainwashing,” he says, the steady dismantling of the Okinawan people’s distinct sense of identity, but ACSIL’s founders hope to start reversing that process by opening up a forum “where we can discuss the independence of Ryukyu intensively.”
Tomochi believes that Okinawa could be a viable state, and others have argued that Singapore is potentially a useful model for the Okinawan economy. The pros and cons of Okinawa’s economic position within the Japanese state remain the subject of intense debate, however. Tomochi believes that Tokyo’s economic control over Okinawa is an extension of colonial rule, and that while the central government has by some counts pumped $100bn into the local economy, “a lot of the money used in Ryukyu is sucked up by Japanese enterprises.”
But viewed from the other side of the argument, Okinawa has benefited greatly from Tokyo’s largesse. “Okinawans are very proud of their local customs and traditions,” says Matsumura Masuhiro, a professor at Momoyama Gakuin University in Osaka. “So when Okinawans talk about their heart, they are telling the truth. But that’s not all they think.” The financial advantages of remaining within the Japanese state also influence Okinawans very strongly, Matsumura believes, and raising the independence issue is not so much a plea for political freedom so much as a “negotiating tactic,” to which Tokyo responds by “continuously appeasing the local government with more and more subsidies, because there’s no alternative.” Tensions are only running high now, Matsumura says, as a result of former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s disastrous mishandling of Okinawan affairs – promising, and then failing to deliver, the removal of U.S. bases.