Yara Tomohiro is a former Okinawa Times editorialist, freelance writer and journalist, expert on the US marines in Okinawa, and most importantly, owner of the lovely Southern Village hotel in Kitanakagusuku, Okinawa. From July 29 to August 12, I stayed at Southern Village in a reasonably priced, very comfortable tatami mat room. Mr. Yara (who speaks fluent English) and the staff there were all very kind. There is a cafeteria within the hotel complex serving lunch daily, with a variety of dishes, including daily specials, for only 650 yen each. Everything I had there was delicious, especially the vegetable curry. There is also a variety of ice cream available at any time of day or night for only 150 yen. What more could you ask for? I highly recommend Southern Village to visitors to Okinawa, especially if you are renting a car. Even if you don’t have a car, it is conveniently located close to the Kishaba highway bus stop, with express service to the airport, central Naha, Ryukyu University, and also north to Nago. This review of Southern Village represents my honest, unsolicited opinion. Now moving on to more serious matters…
Shortly after I arrived at Southern Village, Mr. Yara allowed me to interview him. Later, he treated me to a lecture, complete with slides, on the US base issues, the history and function of US marines in Okinawa, and the content of the so-called “rebalance” of US troops in the Asia-Pacific region, part of the Obama administration’s so-called “Pivot to Asia.”
Mr. Yara’s view is that the US base problem in Okinawa is not an issue of national security or international relations, but rather an issue of sociology; namely, structural discrimination by Japan toward Okinawa.
Mr. Yara explained to me, “I am not anti-America, I am not anti-China, I am not anti-military or anti-military base. If the US wants to have lots of military bases, that’s up to them. Just don’t put them all in Okinawa.” I asked if this was because of issues such as crime, and he responded, “There are just too many. There is the issue of crime, and the bases also cause great economic disadvantage. When you look at the pros and cons, the cons are overwhelming, economically and in other ways. The US marines employ altogether around 3,000 Japanese citizens to work on the bases. The [new resort mall in Kitanakagusuku] Aeon Mall employs around 3,000 people. Just think about it. When you compare military bases to a [solid] commercial, economic base, there’s no comparison.”
Author Hyakuta Naoki was harshly criticized for saying that the two Okinawan newspapers need to be “crushed,” but less attention was given to the fact that his remark was made in response to an LDP member’s comment that the Okinawa Times and Ryukyu Shimpo newspapers are “completely taken over by left-wing forces.” This recalls US military claims in the 1960s that activists calling for reversion of Okinawa to Japan were all communists. Okinawa is far from the hotbed of leftism it is made out to be. In fact, many people in Okinawa are quite conservative, including the current governor. When I asked Mr. Yara what he thinks of Governor Onaga, this was his reply.
“I have put a lot of hope in Governor Onaga. I think he’s [Okinawa’s] first chance…and last. Up until now, since the end of World War II, the US bases have always been at the center of Okinawan politics, and people were split into two camps, for and against. That has been the case for 70 years. But Onaga is right in the middle. He recognizes the importance of the security alliance. He is willing to accept some level of base presence. He just argues that the relocation of Futenma to Henoko is unacceptable. That opens up room for discussion. Until now, base opponents haven’t even bothered to debate with base proponents. And people who support the bases have always thought it was pointless to try to argue with people who are anti-base. So there has been no debate between the two sides. But now that Onaga, who is right in the middle, has become governor, it might be possible to start a discussion. That’s why I have hope. Once we can start discussing things, I really don’t think Okinawa’s base problem is that complicated. Let’s think about the function of the US marines. If you think about the role they serve, there’s no reason they have to be based in Okinawa. So let’s see if there’s another place. Well, [mainland] Japan doesn’t want them. So lets move them somewhere that people are willing to accept their presence. The US and Japan can share the cost. There, wasn’t that easy? It’s not hard at all. We should be able to talk about it rationally, reasonably. But until now its just been pro vs con, yes vs no, all or nothing. No negotiation. There has been no platform for debate.”
I commented that many in mainland Japan and in the United States view Onaga as an extremist, and asked how to explain that he really isn’t.
“So what if people think that? The people in the US who think that are just the Japan handlers [in the government]. And in Japan, it’s just the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, people like that. Just a very small number of people. How many people in the United States have even heard of Governor Onaga?”
“Very few,” I admitted.
“That’s right. Those people just like labeling. That’s all it is. I don’t think we need to worry about it. Onaga should just keep saying what he’s been saying. It’s just a small circle of people who look at him as an extremist. Really, he’s not talking to them, he’s talking to the people. For the people. By the people!”
“How democratic,” I commented.
“Yes, that’s democracy. It’s just people who hate democracy who want to label him [as an extremist.]”
However, Mr. Yara also emphasized the broader issue of structural discrimination of Japan toward Okinawa. When I asked why he thought the Futenma replacement facility had to be built at Henoko, this was his response.
“It didn’t really need to be in Okinawa. There was the rape case in 1995, and at that time, the US said a replacement could even be located in Hokkaido. They said it could be located anywere. It was the Japanese government who insisted that they put the replacement facility in Okinawa. There’s much less public opposition to putting a base in Okinawa. If it were on the mainland, there would be much, much more opposition, and it would put the US-Japan security treaty and alliance in danger. But Japanese people think of problems in Okinawa as though they were problems in a foreign country. It’s discrimination. Structuralized. The US sees that, they see the discrimination against Okinawa, and they decide that Okinawa is the best place to put their bases. Even if there’s a problem, it won’t become a problem on a national scale. Okinawa’s problems are just Okinawa’s problems. That makes it much easier for the US military to be here [than in other parts of Japan].”
I asked if he thought the base in Henoko would end up being built.
“It’s likely. It might be impossible to stop it. But even if it’s built, the ‘Okinawa issue’ won’t end. Japanese and American people are making a big mistake. Because the Okinawa issue will continue to be a problem, the US and Japan will always have to spend time in their relationship dealing with it. That’s very unhealthy. There’s a lack of democracy. Okinawan people will always feel antagonized. It’s just not wise.”
In a future post, I will elaborate on what I learned from Mr. Yara about the function of the US marines in Okinawa and the details about the US military “rebalance,” and its implications for Okinawa and Japan.
If you take the highway bus from Naha to Southern Village, you will walk down this path, surrounded on both sides by Camp Foster’s barbed wire fence, to get out to the main road.