JIN-420 -- The Other Okinawa

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The 'JIN' Japan Inc Newsletter
A weekly opinion piece on social, economic and political trends
in Japan.
Issue No. 420 Wednesday June 27, 2007 TOKYO

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The Other Okinawa

Okinawa tends to make the international headlines for only one
reason the presence of US forces there. From this, media reports
tend to fall into two categories: those telling of the latest
barbarity committed by US troops
(e.g. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/3746846.stm)
or those speculating on how Okinawan local politics might impact
on the US-Japan security treaty
(e.g. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/32faa370-8891-11da-a05d-0000779e

Certainly Okinawan politics do have an impact on regional
security architecture and both Washington and Tokyo know that
they have to keep an eye on local elections and protests there
in order to continue to host 70% of the US troops stationed in
Japan. Normally local politics are influenced by substantial
financial carrots for towing the LDP line. For example, Aiko
Shimajiri narrowly won the by-election in April for the LDP and
on 23rd May a law was passed to reward principalities that play
host to US military bases. But surely Okinawa, the former Ryukyu
Kingdom deserves some attention other than its imposed role as
a geopolitical bargaining chip in US-Japan relations.

Rather than seeing themselves as victims of repeated colonisation
and ongoing racial prejudice, the majority of Okinawans are proud
of their identity and happy to make the most of the status quo.
After all, living in Okinawa they get the best of Japan's
weather, can play on the coral reeves, and live in a rare pocket
of Japan that values singing and dancing over the work ethic.
This is not to stereotype them as lazy or 'nice', only to observe
that in some respects Okinawans share more with various Latin
cultures that they do with Japanese culture. Indeed many of them
are highly successful businessmen and make the most of the
industries around them from tourism to sugar cane. The government
have also recognised the business potential there and invested in
an ethanol production facility on Miyako island (where there are
no bases), that might in the future provide some room for
manoeuvre out of Japan's energy bind.

It is illuminating to take a closer look at those smaller islands
where there aren't any US troops at all. For example, on Ishigaki
island, only a six hour ferry ride away from Taiwan, there are
a number of growing businesses and entrepreneurial opportunities.
Every day plane loads of tourists come down from mainland Japan
and with its new ferry terminal they use Ishigaki island as a
base to get out to the exotic mangroves of Iriomote or the
mysterious deep waters of Yonaguni Japan's westernmost island
that boasts views of Taiwan on clear days. In the waters around
it scuba divers can see schools of manta rays or look at the eery
sub-oceanic plateaus that many claim as proof of an ancient

Within the next seven or eight years a newer and bigger airport
will be built on Ishigaki and many of the hotels, dive-shops and
restaurants are already gearing up for the increased numbers of
domestic and foreign tourists. There is already a Club Med there
and Yamaha has a resort on the tiny island of Kohama, a 30 minute
ferry ride away from Ishigaki.

Of course locals are of mixed feelings about the impending flood
of new tourists with their litter and their lack of sensitivity
to local beliefs and customs. Many tourists cause damage to the
coral and swim in the sea on days when locals believe the
ancestors are travelling back across them. Further, they often
set up their own businesses that drive locals to closure and
prompt people to sell a bastardized form of their own culture
in souvenir shops and shows.


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But the islands of Southern Okinawa are hardly unique in this
regard. Their's is surely a dilemma recreated all over the globe
as capitalism and industrial development reorganise the
relationship between the universal and the particular.
Personally however, I find it hard to believe that Okinawan
culture is under any greater threat than it has always been.
People I know in Ishigaki seem to continue to do what they have
always done in terms of their religious practices and cultural
rituals. Changes that occur are often organic and the society
there evolves as any other keeping authenticity does not equate
to stopping the clock.

Local school children learn traditional music and dance at schools
and many of the festivals are in fact celebrated in increasingly
large numbers as tourists or immigrant residents flock to see
famous musicians, such as Begin or Rimi Natsukawa, as well as the
local dances and spectacles put on by different village
associations. Some interesting new festivals have also come into
being such as the 'cow festival' on Kuroshima island or music
festival on Hatoma island. Such events are 100% creations of the
islands themselves and although they do bring in the tourist yen,
the profits are used to sustain the small rural populations and
both local and tourists alike seem to enjoy the occasions with
equal glee (and awamori!).

The small islands of Okinawa are never going to be cities and
unlikely to lose their beauty and character. Rather, there look to
be a growing number of opportunities whether it be for exporting
pineapples or setting up scuba shops. Yes, the islands will change
but hopefully the change will see them come out from under the
shadow of the US-Japan security treaty and share their sun with
more than the lucky few who dwell or visit there at present.

By Peter Harris
Chief Editor, J@pan Inc magazine

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