Letter From Okinawa

Okinawan residents have built a broad movement to resist the power of the United States military in Japan.

Kadena Air Base, Okinawa Prefecture, Japan. Zade C. Vadnais

In “Letter From Okinawa” — published in the New Yorker on October 23, 1954 — Faubion Bowers situated the American military occupation, then in its ninth year, in the trajectory of that region’s long history of foreign domination:

The American installations on the island [of Okinawa] are so massive that Okinawa has been called the Gibraltar of the Pacific. This displeases the American officials here, who are touchy about any comparison between their position on Okinawa, over which they have merely provisional authority, under the Japanese Peace Treaty, and the British position in Gibraltar, which is a colony.

More than sixty years later, not much has changed.

Though the United States returned Okinawa to the Japanese government in 1972, the archipelago continues to house 75 percent of all US military bases in Japan. These take up over 10 percent of the prefecture’s prime agricultural land, not to mention important sea and air spaces. And despite the alleged end of the occupation, the United States still controls these areas: neither federal nor local courts or police have jurisdiction.


Before it adopted its current name, Okinawa was known as Ryukyu, a kingdom that maintained tributary relations with China and subordinate relations to the Satsuma Domain. In 1872, the newly formed Japanese imperial army took over Shuri Castle, Ryukyu’s headquarters. The archipelago was then renamed Okinawa and granted the status of prefecture of the modern state, which had just been established four years earlier.

From the start, Okinawans, who became Japanese subjects approximately a decade after everyone else, were considered less civilized than their mainland counterparts.

Early economic policies tried to transform the islands into a raw sugar producer for Japanese industry. Limited success on that front led many residents to move to Osaka, Tokyo, and Taipei after World War I, only to be met with discriminatory labor policies. Signs warned them that no employment would be offered to Okinawans (or Taiwanese or Koreans). When they found jobs, they earned lower wages for the same work.

Women from Okinawa were accused of hurting the reputation of all Japanese abroad with their supposedly barbaric customs — like having tattoos on the back of their hands — and often sent back from their workplaces in Taiwan and the Philippines.

These discriminatory attitudes and actions came to a head during World War II. Decades of economic, political, and cultural subordination made it easy for the Japanese government to designate Okinawa the fortress against Allied attack in the last months of the war.

The only role that military strategists expected the region to play in the anticipated invasion of Japan was to delay — and if possible, stop — the Allied advance. Defending Okinawa itself wasn’t a priority and, as a result, military headquarters did little to craft an overall combat strategy before the battle.

To make up for the lack of official troops (approximately 86,000 soldiers and 10,000 sailors), the military hastily recruited and trained Okinawan adults and middle-school children to constitute a local defense force. Unsurprisingly, they were no match for the almost 550,000 Americans who landed on the Kerama Islands on March 26, 1945.

Despite these lopsided numbers, the Battle of Okinawa was hard-fought; at least a quarter of the island’s entire population lost their lives in defense of mainland Japan. Because the military strategists saw Okinawa simply as a roadblock to Allied invasion, surrender was not an option: the task given to both combatants and noncombatants alike was to prolong the battle as long as possible, regardless of human cost. In some instances, local Japanese troop leaders ordered civilians to commit mass suicide so that troops’ combat activities would not be disturbed by noncombatants.

When the battle shifted from Okinawa’s outer islands to the main island in April, the Americans began launching air raids, remembered on the island as the “typhoon of steel.” Residents hid in large family tombs and emergency caves that they had dug in preparation for the battle.

By May, Japanese forces on the islands had dwindled to just 20 percent of their original size, and officers and soldiers gave up fighting, escaping into the tombs and caves that citizens had constructed. They then refused to let in any civilians; many were left to die at the hands of Allied forces.

The Battle of Okinawa ended when the generals leading the defense took their own lives in June 1945. Soon after, the prefecture came under Allied military control as the winning side drew up a plan to take over the eleven existing airbases. Civilians lived in camps while the occupying force surveyed the islands. By the time residents were released in late October, the Allies had already designated much of the land off-limits.

The experience of the Battle of Okinawa and its immediate aftermath framed the way that many Okinawans relate to the Japanese and American governments and continues to affect attitudes toward war.

After World War II, Japan became what scholar Gavan McCormack calls “America’s client state.” Okinawa shouldered the largest burden in this transformed relationship. The islands’ role was determined by both the Japanese government’s vision for the postwar period — which included the preservation of the emperor system — and by the Anglo-American powers’ visions for a new order in the Asia Pacific region more broadly. The convergence of the two outlooks shaped Cold War realities in Asia, fueled Japan’s economic miracle, and kept Okinawa an occupied and hyper-militarized territory.

The main political instrument that helped the United States realize its vision also liberated Japan from its occupation period: the San Francisco Peace Treaty, signed on September 8, 1951 and accompanied by the US-Japan Mutual Security Pact (ANPO), a mutual defense treaty.

ANPO gave the US military the right to maintain armed forces in Japan and its vicinity to contribute to “peace and security” in East Asia. Article 3 of the peace treaty granted the United States power over Okinawa until a proposal for a trusteeship system was created. In January 1954, Eisenhower reiterated at his State of the Union address that “we shall maintain indefinitely our bases in Okinawa.”

Okinawa stayed under American control until 1972, when sovereignty reverted to the Japanese state. Despite assurances by the Japanese government that reversion would mean demilitarization, many in Okinawa were disappointed to learn that the bases would remain.

Law and Power

While the Cold War has ended, eliminating the most pressing reason for a strong American presence in East Asia, the security pact and military bases remain important features of US-Japan relations.

As anyone residing near these installations can tell you, the vast infrastructure required for their maintenance places significant burdens on the local population. Because neither Japanese nor Okinawan authorities have jurisdiction over the bases, issues like land confiscation, sexual violence, traffic accidents, noise pollution, deforestation, and environmental health impacts do not have to be adjudicated under the normal rules and procedures.

In every decade since World War II, tens of thousands of residents have taken to the streets to protest these acts of violence. The largest have generally followed incidences of sexual violence — perhaps the most famous being the September 1995 rape of a twelve-year-old girl by three US servicemen.

In October of that year, over eighty-five thousand people gathered at the Okinawan People’s Rally for Peace, calling for the closing of American bases, a more just distribution of the burden of military presence, the reaffirmation of pacifism embodied in Article 9 of the postwar constitution, and the protection of democracy for the Okinawan people.

The mounting public pressure led then governor Ota Masahide to refuse to sign renewals for expired land leases for bases. His decision, which effectively rendered the military occupation of those lands illegal, energized many anti-base activists.

As Annmaria Shimabuku argues, what happened in 1995 also revealed that “Okinawa [is] the linchpin holding together the US-Japanese security relationship.” Facing pressure from Tokyo — in turn goaded by the United States — and the defeat of his appeal to the Supreme Court for the “prefectural rights of jurisdiction and the right to a peaceful existence,” Ota agreed to reverse his decision and sign the lease renewals after all. This was the first — but by no means the last — federal court action against a prefectural governor in Japan’s history.

The mass mobilization did appear to win one important concession: in April 1996, the Japanese government announced that the United States had agreed to return the Futenma marine airbase in the next five to seven years.

But this victory proved to be short-lived. President Bill Clinton, while visiting Tokyo to announce a new global security partnership, said that while the United States would honor the return of Futenma to Japan, it would build a replacement facility in a less disruptive location in the prefecture.

Henoko, in Nago, was selected as the replacement site because it was considered better equipped to house the MV-22 Osprey tilt-wing aircraft and already held Camp Schwab, a marine base. The battle over construction in Henoko, which began with a group of twenty or so protesters earlier, continues to rage today.


The All-Okinawa Coalition — a congeries of activists, intellectuals, and elected officials who oppose the US military presence in the prefecture — sprung up in early 2010. In April of that year, a mass rally of approximately ninety thousand people called for Futenma’s unconditional closure and energized the nascent coalition.

The prefecture’s governor, assembly, local governing bodies, and branches of all national political parties expressed their clear opposition to both the construction of a new base and the role of Okinawa in the US-Japan mutual security scheme more generally.

The coalition has also won major electoral victories since its formation. In January 2014, the Abe administration deployed a massive amount of money to get their pro-base candidate elected over current Nago mayor Inamine Susumu, who had refused to authorize any reclamation activities for the new base. Despite the administration’s intensive involvement — which included bribing powerful local construction companies and general contractors — Inamine won his reelection bid handily.

Other anti-base candidates followed him, prevailing in races for local, prefectural, and national offices. Polls showed that 84 percent of Nago residents opposed the Henoko facility’s construction.

After the defeat of his favored mayoral candidate, Abe declared that the reclamation project would continue, irrespective of the election results. He even contemplated passing special legislation that would strip Inamine of his powers of consent. With this move, Abe exposed an important dimension in the battle over base relocation — whether the central government will honor Nago’s right to exercise local self-government.

Much of the momentum that catalyzed the formation of the All-Okinawa Coalition continues, fueled by another tragic incident of sexual violence against a young woman by an American man with ties to the US military. This May, Rina Shimabukuro, a twenty-year-old Okinawan woman, was murdered by a former marine and civilian worker employed at Kadena base.

In the aftermath, former Ginowan mayor Yoichi Iha defeated Aiko Shimajiri, the Liberal Democratic Party’s pro-base candidate, for a seat in the upper house of the National Diet, Japan’s central legislative body.

While such electoral victories have been important, the everyday practices of organizing and the collective visions formulated through these struggles have been equally crucial. Working outside the electoral process, they’ve triumphed in key political fights, shifted public opinion, and pushed elected officials like Onaga to seriously consider a base-free — rather than simply a Henoko-free — Okinawa.

Still, the central government’s pushback has been strong. In July of this year, the Abe administration filed a lawsuit against the Okinawa prefectural government due to Governor Onaga’s continued refusal to cooperate with the Henoko construction.

In addition to dogged external foes, the coalition has created some of its own obstacles: namely, the framing “All-Okinawa.”

The All-Okinawa discourse emerged from the coalition-building process as an easy persuasion tool. As Masamichi Inoue points out, middle-class Nago residents mobilized this language to convince a predominantly pro-base population to oppose new construction.

But, as Shinjo and others have noted, the use of All-Okinawa verbiage — which quickly migrated well beyond Nago — has slid into out-and-out nationalism. On top of that, its success in converting people to the cause risks effacing the most important lesson of these struggles: that victories are won through praxis.

Activism requires overcoming dissenting views, organizational hierarchies, contradictory theoretical positions, and class and gender differences through vigilant and invisible labor. This work — not nationalist discourse — builds the foundation of more spectacular actions like highway blockages, confrontations with the police, and rallies that swell into the tens of thousands.

The tent village at Henoko — which, according to the Okinawa Peace Citizen’s Network, draws 30 percent of its population from outside of Okinawa — exemplifies the coalition’s activist work. The camp expresses its longevity in days rather than months or years, simultaneously speaking to its strength and its fragility. Mundane tasks like shuttling visitors to and from different sites, keeping guard over the space, repairing tents, creating posters, and issuing demands are done with care; organizers know that shared interests can never be assumed but must be patiently constructed.

But when it succeeds, it succeeds.

One example came on May 20, 2016, the day after Rina Shimabukuro’s body was discovered. Thirty-seven civilian groups, each with their own agendas, issued a joint “Letter of Demand,” calling on President Obama, US ambassador Caroline Kennedy, American area commander Lawrence Nicholson, Prime Minister Abe, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, and Governor Onaga to withdraw all bases and troops from Okinawa.

The signatories also implored everyone connected to the US military in the prefecture: “Please do not act as if you have nothing to do with this.”

So, how can those of us outside Okinawa respond to this call?

The Long Land Grab

We might begin by critically reading Okinawa’s current situation. This requires placing the so-called Okinawa problem in a global frame, moving it away from the US-Japan relationship and perhaps even away from the Asia Pacific region.

The work of theorists like Massimiliano Tomba, Massimo De Angelis, and Silvia Federici can guide us. They argue that the capitalist system constantly — and often violently — has to renew social relations in order to compel workers to sell their labor power, to convince women to give birth to future workers and soldiers, to make sure that citizens and subjects comply with conscription orders, and to encourage some workers to move and send remittances back home while persuading others to work in hometowns that have been converted into military installations.

These acts are necessary for the realization of surplus value and the resolution of capitalist crises. As such, they do not represent exceptions to the day-to-day operations of capital — they are part and parcel of capitalism’s global reproduction. They also play important roles in naturalizing these so-called normal operations.

Base construction in Okinawa, which began immediately after Japan’s surrender in World War II, required force. But it took place alongside the effort to reestablish the standard capitalist routine, which naturalized and reinforced social relations in the region.

At the same time fenced-off military lands were being fiercely contested, a civil bureaucracy staffed by Okinawans set about certifying land titles. This normalization — otherwise known as Okinawa’s recovery and reconstruction — built a real-estate market, created a wage-labor system, and facilitated the resumption of elections.

Military directive No. 121, “Land Claims, Preparation of Data Concerning,” revealed that exceptional and ordinary forms of enclosure would occur side by side. The directive, issued by the US naval military government headquarters on February 28, 1946, called for the assembly of data to determine land rights on Okinawa and ordered the establishment of land-claims committees in every village. These groups would receive claims from landowners regarding their prewar holdings and handle conflicting claims. Meanwhile, the creation of detailed maps indicated that one of this process’s primary purposes lay in facilitating land expropriation for base construction.

Within three months of the directive, ownership was clarified, titles were issued, the currency system was resumed, and a new wage system was created. These actions reveal that the occupation authorities wanted to construct a space where capitalist social relations could operate smoothly. They insisted that local authorities issue titles even for unclaimed lands and become the trustees of payments made to owners who refused to sign contracts selling their land to the US military — proof of the authorities’ desire to establish robust private-property relations on the islands.

Thus, after just a couple years, the terms of the debate over the military-lands issue had been set. While intense disputes over compensation and repeated refusals to sign contracts occurred — seriously threatening the viability of the occupation — it also ensured that most struggles against expropriation would have to begin within the regime of private property.

Today, some proposals for a base-free Okinawa replace military installations with luxury resorts, duty-free shopping malls, and urban development projects. But far from representing a just alternative, this would merely trade one form of enclosure for another and fail to challenge the relations of private property that were established to control the region.

Okinawa in the World

By examining Okinawa in a global context, we can also see that the systemic violence against women in militarized zones is part and parcel of the process of capital accumulation. It’s not simply that capitalism tolerates sexual violence and other outcomes of patriarchy — capitalism needs it to maintain social reproduction.

Viewed in this way, we can see that Okinawa represents just one node in the American empire, which extends across the globe and operates through various forms of enclosure. Military installations and special economic zones are one tactic; the opportunistic recovery efforts that Naomi Klein calls disaster capitalism are another.

Institutions that enact historical and structural racism — like the prison-industrial complex — are another enclosure strategy. And more subtly but no less crucially, the valorization of the heteronormative family form, which provides powerful justifications for homophobia as well as violence against women and sex workers, also functions to divide the lower classes from each other.

Granted, viewing these structures as interwoven into the fabric of capitalist society — rather than as singular formations in need of individual extrication — makes the problem infinitely more difficult to resolve. But it also expands the potential for new forms of solidarity and struggle.

For example, it becomes possible to understand the anti-base mobilization in Okinawa both as a critical intervention against the region’s subordination to the US-Japan security relationship and as a struggle against capital’s hold over our lands, bodies, and knowledge systems. This allows us to connect Okinawa to all fights against the processes of expropriation and exploitation that destroy certain communities in favor of others.

For Okinawa, these are urgent insights. As the anti-base movement gains traction, foreign capital is seeking to acquire the land to build resorts, million-dollar properties, and duty-free malls. The Left can respond to the call issued by Project Disagree by offering solidarity: not only a base-free Okinawa, but one that serves its residents instead of capital.