Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2015.03.19

The Silent Minority on Okinawa

JBpress on March 17, 2015

Local taxi drivers often represent the public's opinion and those on Okinawa are no exception. Although local media polls show three out of four Okinawans are opposed to the "Futenma relocation" plan, the island's taxi drivers have far more complicated views. Moreover, for local Okinawans who support this unpopular plan at heart, silence is golden.

For those who are not familiar with the Futenma issue, the following is a backgrounder:

The U.S. Marine Corps now uses Air Station Futenma as a base for the 3rd Marine Division's aircraft, located within an urban area in central Okinawa Island. Due to its potential danger to the local civilian population, the U.S. and Japanese governments agreed in 2002 to move the air station to the Henoko area, a much less populated area in the north-east of the island.

The relocation plan has been long discussed (since December 1996) yet slowly implemented. In December 2013, then Governor Nakaima finally approved the Japanese government's landfill proposal for new Marine facilities at Henoko in Nago City. Nago held a mayoral election one month later where the incumbent base-opponent mayor won the election.

The future of any relocation is uncertain at this moment after a new Governor was elected last December. Governor Onaga, ironically the former local secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) for Okinawa Prefecture, is now publicly opposed to the Henoko plan and claims that the base should be relocated to outside the prefecture.

Last week I spent two nights on Okinawa and took four taxis altogether. I asked each taxi driver the following quick questions: Do you support or oppose the Futenma relocation to Henoko? If opposed, do you think that construction would continue regardless of the Governor's opposition? How many Okinawans do you think are supportive or opposed to the Henoko plan?

The first driver said that every Okinawan is opposed and strongly in favor of relocation to outside the prefecture. The second confessed that he is in favor of the Henoko plan and approximately 3 out of ten Okinawans actually support the in-prefecture relocation plan. The third driver said that the majority of Okinawans are opposed but consider that the construction will go on regardless.

The last driver had more mixed feelings. He said the issue is not that simple. While the majority of Okinawans voice opposition to the Henoko plan, many of them try to benefit from it as well. Real estate, including that now used by the U.S. Forces, can be bought and sold on an open market and land owners in the Henoko area are anticipating the outcome of the relocation plan.

Many of the demonstrators and protesters at the Henoko construction site, he said, are non-Okinawans who came from mainland Japan. Hundreds, if not thousands, of non-Nago residents had moved into the city before the December 2014 Nago mayoral election, consequently helping the base-opponent candidate to win the race.

I attended an informal meeting held in Naha City last week. Dozens of Japanese businesspeople, including several CEOs of major corporations, from both Okinawa and mainland Japan participated. The topics discussed included the national security policy of Japan and the future of the U.S. base issues on Okinawa.

Although the topics were nothing new, I was a little naive in expecting serious no-nonsense discussions. The outcome was quite the opposite. Although the meeting was supposed to be a venue for a candid and off-the-record exchange of views among both Okinawan and mainlander businesspeople, the Okinawan participants were virtually silent.

The reason was unclear to me at the beginning. Throughout the meeting, I found that the only Okinawan who spoke out and harshly criticized the U.S. and Japanese governments was an indigenous journalist-scholar who opposed the relocation. Nobody else on the Okinawan side dared to express views on the base issues including the outstanding Futenma plan.

I am not criticizing the scholar who monopolized the voices of the Okinawans. He was not the cause of but rather the result of the Okinawan local media's virtual self-censorship. The Okinawan businesspeople were reluctant to speak out because their conservative views, if voiced in such a public domain, could have easily sparked a firestorm of controversy on the relatively small island.

Surprisingly, neither of Okinawa's two major local newspapers are conservative; instead, they are both so liberal that conservative voices are seldom heard in public on this liberal media-dominated island. No wonder that the local media polls are different from the views of the local taxi drivers. Which one of the two do you trust as the true representative of Okinawa's public opinion? I say neither.