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.
If Okinawa’s economic viability remains debatable, the political barriers to secession appear, if anything, even more daunting – although events elsewhere suggest a possible pathway for the independence movement. Scotland in particular shows how frustration with a central government can build over time into a credible drive for self-determination. Until the 1980s, only around 15 percent of Scots backed independence from the United Kingdom; today it’s nearer 50 percent, and Scotland is one year away from holding an independence referendum that could end a formal political union twice as old as Japan and Okinawa’s.
The reason for this turnaround is that the politics fundamentally changed: the London government appeared increasingly remote and out of tune with Scottish interests; and this opened up political space for the nationalist idea to grow in the public consciousness until, eventually, independence became a realistic option. “Scotland can be our potential model and we are paying attention to it,” explains Tomochi, adding that ACSIL is studying a range of other potential future states from Guam to Corsica. On the one hand, it would seem that if the Scots can do it, the Okinawans can do it too – notwithstanding Scotland’s ancient dislike of the English, the Okinawans, burdened for nearly 70 years by a massive U.S. military presence, have the more obvious incentive to go their own way.
However, Matsumura thinks that comparisons with Scotland are misleading. “There’s no cultural parallel,” he argues, adding that “Puerto Rico might be a better analogy than Scotland” in that Puerto Rico is a dependency rather than a country-within-a-country.
The biggest flaw in the Scottish paradigm is surely the qualitative difference between Scotland’s relationship with London and Okinawa’s relationship with Tokyo. Scotland has its independence referendum because the UK government granted one. But the Japanese government is not about to hand the same privilege to Okinawa. “The local elite have spoken about this cause for the last six decades,” says Matsumura, “but they blatantly have no chance [of securing independence].”
China’s rise, and renewed speculation about Okinawa’s status in the Chinese media, has made Okinawa’s breakaway even less likely than before, Matsumura feels. “Okinawa is now indispensible for defense vis-à-vis China,” he says. “All Japanese are sorry that they have to co-exist with American bases, but we can’t do anything about it because the need for those bases will only increase more and more because of China. It may also be that the Okinawans themselves feel that they need the solid presence of the JSDF and the U.S. military.”
However, Tomochi rejects the idea that China has any designs on claiming Okinawa. “Right-wing people in Japan who hate China are trying to spread a rumor that China will invade Ryukyu,” he says. “But to us, this hypothetical story that China’s taking a risk to invade Okinawa is too unrealistic.” In fact, Tomochi believes, the removal of U.S. and Japanese forces from Okinawa would make the islands safer by establishing them as a “center of peace for East Asia and the world.”
Scotland may not in the end be especially useful to the Okinawan cause – especially if, as the polls currently suggest, the Scots reject independence in next year’s vote. Tomochi accepts that ACSIL faces an uphill struggle, but pledges to “do whatever we can for taking back our dignity and achieving our independence.” The vast majority of his fellow Okinawans still need convincing that their islands could stand apart. And even if they start to believe, Okinawa’s situation at the central crossroads of East Asian geopolitics suggests that Tokyo is not about to let them go.