The Battle for Okinawa

The Forgotten Island Has Its Say

People protest the planned relocation of the U.S. military base to Okinawa's Henoko coast, in Tokyo, April 2015. Issei Kato / Reuters

Once upon a time in the Kingdom of Ryukyu, there lived a beautiful lady called Kuyama of Asadoya. She caught the eye of a local government official, who desired her as his mistress. Although the official’s authority was absolute, Kuyama wittily rejected his advances. The story is the subject of one of Okinawa’s most beloved traditional songs, “Asadoya Yunta,” and is well known throughout Japan—yet the version of the song known on the main islands differs markedly from the old tale. In the popularized version, recorded in 1934, the Okinawan lyrics were rewritten in standard Japanese as a generic and non-subversive love song. There is no mention of the eponymous lady or of the spurned official.

This sort of cultural appropriation may serve as an allegory for Okinawa’s position in Japan: an island forced to endure a distant central government’s imposition of language, culture, and power, with little regard for the region’s unique history or future trajectory. For decades, Okinawa has been embroiled in a bitter dispute with Tokyo over the U.S. bases that have been located on the island since the end of World War II, but its entreaties that Tokyo relocate the bases have fallen on deaf ears.

Growing discontent in Okinawa has the potential to reverberate beyond Japan’s borders. With a wary eye to the increasing Chinese military activity in the South and East China Seas, the United States and its allies are not keen to reduce the forward operating capabilities of U.S. forces in the region. Due to Okinawa’s proximity to potential flashpoints, U.S. forces stationed there form the cornerstone of the U.S.-Japanese alliance and are considered essential to U.S. policy in the Western Pacific. A strong U.S. presence acts as both sword and shield, not just for Japan but also for the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, and all the other countries that rely on it for security. 

The United States, however, finds

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