A policeman blocks people protesting against the presence of US bases in front of the gate of the US Marine Corps' Camp Schwab in Nago on the southern island of Okinawa prefecture on June 17, 2016. Photo: AFP / Toru Yamanaka

For decades there’s been plenty of reason to suspect that Okinawans on the whole are not as dead set against American bases as some excitable analysts might claim. About all an American reporter had to do to get a whiff of this contrarian view was to visit and feel the welcoming warmth.

Whiffs aside, now there’s a new East-West Center study that finds “mixed views and some fluidity” in the attitudes of younger Okinawan adults toward the presence of US bases.

Focused on 20- to 45-year-olds, the study by the Honolulu think tank uses the term ‘Millennial+’ to refer to Okinawans who were born and grew up after the reversion of Okinawa to Japan in 1972. M+ Okinawans are approximately one-third of the Okinawan population and 40 percent of the eligible voters, say study authors Charles E. Morrison and Daniel Chinen.

“Fully one-half the survey respondents and many of the interviewees could not say whether they were ‘for or ‘against’ the base presence as such. Some gave arguments for both positions, and many others professed to not having thought seriously about the issue. More of those who did have positions opposed or strongly opposed the U.S. presence; these opponents constituted about one-third of all the sample respondents. They and those older Okinawans with opposed views continue to drive public opinion and dominate prefecture-wide politics as it relates to the bases.”

Other findings

The authors reported encountering a “strong perception of an unfair burden,” explaining that “a majority of our interlocutors favored the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty with varying degrees of intensity, but there was a strong belief—regardless of gender, age, or educational level— that Okinawa hosts far more than its fair share of U.S. forces. This belief is combined with resentment against the central Japanese government for allowing this situation and not giving Okinawa an effective seat at the table on base issues. The construction of a replacement base at Cape Henoko is widely regarded as a betrayal of Okinawa to broader Japanese interests and prejudices, even though the purpose is to close the Futenma base in a more densely populated part of the island. Even some supporters of the U.S. base presence in Okinawa oppose the new construction at Cape Henoko.”

Among this age group, protesters are few. “The vast majority of those we interviewed and surveyed have never been involved in protests against the U.S. presence, and only a handful were regularly involved in protests. They typically said they were too busy or disagree with the position or behavior of the protesters. The rise of a protest culture in the older generation in Okinawa came as a result of expropriations of land in the 1950s. The younger generation has mixed feelings about protests; many feel they are ineffective, inconvenient, or even ‘un-Okinawan.’ Specific incidents, however, can trigger large demonstrations.”

As for how they view U.S. service personnel as individuals, “the most common descriptor of U.S. service personnel as individuals, cited by two-thirds of survey respondents, was that they are ‘friendly,’ followed by ‘helpful.’ Few of those interviewed or surveyed cited negative characteristics of service personnel. However, crime, accidents, noise, environmental issues, and traffic were regarded as base problems that should be ‘fixed.’ There is little concern about too many base-associated foreigners in Okinawa; many saw this foreign presence as an asset that could be better used.”

Finally, “there was very broad support among M+ respondents for enhanced contacts between the bases and Okinawan communities for mutual benefit. This desire was especially strong among the younger 20–30 age group. It decreased with age, but was still positive for the 31–45 year age group and among the small number of respondents aged 46 and above. The Okinawa Prefectural Government officials we spoke with also affirmed a desire for more cooperation with the base community.”

“The findings do not represent a scientific polling of Okinawan attitudes,” the authors caution, but comprise a “single snapshot.” Nevertheless, “we believe they are broadly reflective of contemporary thinking of post-reversion adults in the island of Okinawa.”

The study was conducted in the first half of 2018, a period when “no major crimes or accidents involving US service personnel or operations occurred.” In an effort to gauge dominant views among more educated M+ Okinawans, the authors conducted in-depth interviews with some 60 Okinawans in this age group, conducted an on-line survey with 199 respondents and held several group sessions.  The survey as well as most interviews were conducted in Japanese.

“These post- reversion adults have been Japanese citizens all their lives and were educated in accordance with the national educational curriculum. Throughout their lives, the US bases were an established, stable element in Okinawan life, although they were not involved in any active East Asian combat operations.”

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