Okinawa: The Cold War Creation of a Model Jungle



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Map of Okinawa. / The Funambulist (2016)

On the morning of October 18, 2016, as 70 protesters (some of whom have been engaged in sit-ins in front of the N1 gate in Takae for over eight years) blocked the entry of construction trucks filled with materials to construct a new helipad, three riot police officers from the Osaka police headquarters yelled at them to back off from the fence. The dispatch of as many as 500 riot police from across the country to exercise control over protesters and local residents at Takae in addition to the deployment of local police forces reveals the excessive force that the state is prepared to utilize in order to resume construction. It also reflects its recognition that the current political climate in the prefecture makes it unreasonable to expect local forces to dole out punishments against offenders effectively. Frustrated by the refusal of the protestors to budge, one officer shouted, “move off of the gate, you dojin.” Dojin can be translated as “aboriginal,” “savage,” or “native,” but in any case, it is a word used and recognized as a racial slur.

This incident, captured on film by the protestors, was under-reported by national media outlets despite the fact that the direct target of this insult was Medoruma Shun, a writer who in 1997 was awarded the highest Japanese literary prize, the Akutagawa Prize for his short story, “Droplets.” In an interview that he gave to one of the local papers, the Okinawa Times, Medoruma, a committed activist, noted that it was significant that a member of the police force, had uttered this phrase. What a far cry today’s conditions are, he dryly commented, from the “Okinawa boom” that had made singers, dancers, actresses and comedians from the prefecture into fetishized stars in the Japanese pop culture industry. Far from being a radical shift in Japanese perceptions of Okinawan culture, however, this incident reveals that their increased visibility within the Japanese entertainment industry since the early 1990s was predicated upon their racialization as national representatives of what James Roberson has called the “ethnic boom interests of younger Japanese in the Third World.”

Still, the utterance, “move off of the gate, you dojin” shocked many commentators who had been monitoring the situation in Takae because it was such a blatant instance of discrimination hurled at one of Okinawa’s most prized authors of the postwar period. One of the pioneers of Okinawan literary studies in North America, Steve Rabson echoed the sentiments of many when he noted in an Okinawa Times interview that the incident revealed that Okinawa’s colonial conditions has still not been overcome. It led many local commentators to recall the infamous Human Pavilion Incident (Jinruikan Jiken) at the Osaka Expo of 1903, where Okinawan women were displayed, alongside Taiwanese ‘aborigines,’ Ainus and Koreans in the Human Pavilion, which was erected solely for the purpose of conveying to the world that Japan had arrived onto the scene as a colonial power. This incident, which was revived as a play, Jinruikan, in 1976 by playwright Chinen Seishin in the literary journal Shin Okinawa Bungaku has been retold by generations of residents as a reminder of their ongoing colonial treatment at the hands of the Japanese.

The recent clash between protestors and riot police can certainly be situated within this long genealogy of discrimination against the Okinawan people that began with the region’s forcible incorporation into the Japanese nation-state in 1872, was expressed through their display at the Human Pavilion at the Osaka Expo in 1903, resulted in the region’s transformation into a sugar-producing monoculture after World War I, enabled its designation as a fortress against Allied attack of mainland Japan during World War II and finally, allowed the state to sacrifice it in exchange for keeping the imperial institution intact following the signing of the postwar surrender documents. Not withstanding this long history of subjugation, the current incident should also be situated within a shorter, no less violent history: that of American imperialism in the Asia Pacific, the Japanese state’s role as its most reliable proxy in the region, and the transformation of the physical landscape of Okinawa as a result. This particular incident pitted mainland Japanese riot police who were entrusted by the Okinawa Defense Bureau, the local branch of the Japanese Defense Ministry, to enable contractors to carry in materials to construct helipads for the Osprey aircraft in the Northern Training Area (NTA) of the US marines, against anti-base activists who were engaged in sit-ins at the N1 gate. The NTA, a vast tract of over 21,000 acres of land, contains the Jungle Warfare Training Facility (JWTF), which is prized today by the Marine Corps as a training ground for its recruits to become “hard marines” through “hard training” in the Okinawan jungle.

The material and discursive operations that transformed the vast tracts of mountains and forests in the northern part of Okinawa island referred to locally as Yanbaru, into jungle territory simultaneously transformed its residents in the eyes of the US military into stubborn ‘natives’ who would not leave. These processes were grafted onto older histories of expropriation, domination and racialization that began during the heyday of the Japanese empire but were inextricably linked to the role that Okinawa came to play in the counterinsurgency tactics that the US and British militaries implemented beginning in the 1950s throughout South America, Southeast Asia, South Asia and Africa in order to fight against the various groups that were lumped together as the “Communist threat.” Yanbaru’s transformation into a jungle and its people into dojin can be traced to the war in Vietnam in a horrifyingly literal manner during the 1960s.

New Enclosures, or the Creation of the Jungle ///

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While the military offers and staff engaged in cultural activities like the Naha “Giant-Tug-of-War,” the gifting of new backpacks, volunteering as an English teacher at local elementary schools, and open houses to emphasize their status as a friendly occupation force and bring them into close contact with the local population, as Mire Koikari points out in her book Cold War Encounters in US-Occupied Okinawa (Cambridge UP, 2015), these activities were part and parcel of the United States’Cold War strategy of integrationist politics that were based precisely on the cultivation of mutual affinity and affiliation. This type of affiliation had its limits, however, as intense island-wide struggles against the US military base presence continues today.

In the course of a decade after the Japanese military’s surrender to Allied forces in September 1945, the US military transformed the vast, fertile mountains and forests of Yanbaru, still populated by rare wildlife, mangroves, streams and local families who relied on these resources for their livelihood, into a jungle with all of its attendant codes (the ‘law of the jungle’ that Maureen Sioh analyzes) that the 3rd Marine Division could use for its training against counterinsurgents in Southeast Asia. A justification for this enclosure was barely necessary, as most of the territory was not held by families as private property, nor had it been significantly cleared, developed, or mapped in ways that were immediately legible to modern cartographic regimes.

On 22 July 1955, a plan announcing the military’s takeover of an additional 12,000 acres of land in the northern region was announced in the local paper, the Ryukyu Shimpo. This took place in the midst of intensifying protests by farmers in the Isahama and Iejima regions of Okinawa over the expropriation of their lands for military base construction. In response, the affected municipalities convened town hall meetings and teach-ins to discuss the impact that these new enclosures would have upon their livelihood. The furor that these land expropriations provoked led to the appointment of Melvin Price as Chairman of the Armed Services Committee House of Representatives, Special Subcommittee, who led a delegation of high-ranking politicians, lawyers and military officers to observe the “land situation” in Okinawa. They arrived in October 1955 and formally announced their findings a year later. The results of his report stoked the fire of unrest in Isahama and Iejima and led to its spread throughout the island in what scholars of Okinawan history refer to as an “all-island struggle,” a moment of mass-mobilization of coalitions of farmers, students, base workers, communist party members, and others that went beyond the narrower anti-base struggles that been organized as early as the start of US Occupation in 1945.

The Report began by articulating the special value that Okinawa had to the US military’s global ambitions:

“We are in Okinawa because it constitutes an essential part of our worldwide defenses. In Japan and the Philippines, as in other parts of the world, our base tenure is dependent upon the continued existence of friendly governments. In the Ryukyu Islands the circumstances of our political control and the absence of a belligerent nationalistic movement allow us to plan for long-term use of a forward military base in the offshore island chain of the Far East-Pacific area, subject, of course, to our own national policy. Here, there are no restrictions imposed by a foreign government on our rights to store or to employ atomic weapons.” (7657)

With regards to the Yanbaru region specifically, the Report played an important role in painting it as unclaimed, undeveloped, and therefore, prime lands for the taking:

…the Marines would utilize a large acreage in the northern part of Okinawa for maneuver purposes. This latter land is in great part former Japanese public domain and no payment would be required for its use, nor would there be any actual displacement of persons by reason of its use.” (7654)

Despite this insistence that people would not be displaced as a result, the Price Commission’s allocation of $3 million to relocate 1,200 families that would be displaced as a result of the new enclosures reveal their recognition that these were far from the empty lands that could be taken without consequences. A developmentalist logic assuaged any concerns over the human repercussions of displacement, even in these short passages where they were acknowledged:

The taking of lands by the United States from the present agrarian economy, in conjunction with the ever-increasing pressures of overpopulation, has merely accentuated the traditional deficiencies of the Ryukyuan agrarian economy and has hastened the transition of Ryukyuan peoples into other types of occupations.” (7655)

The rhetoric and policy recommendations of the Price Commission Report was the most decisive step in the transformation of Yanbaru into a jungle, suited primarily for counter-insurgency training to date. Two years later, in 1958, these newly enclosed lands were given a name: Camp Gosalves, in honor of PFC Harold Gonsalves who had been given a Medal of Honor for his valiant fighting during the Battle of Okinawa. After President Kennedy’s acceptance of the plan articulated by Brig. Gen. Edward Landsdale for the deployment of unconventional (guerilla) warfare tactics and resources in Southeast Asia in July 1961, Camp Gonsalves became an important counter-guerilla school for marines preparing for their deployment to the war in Vietnam. The culmination of these efforts was the construction of “Vietnam Village” in 1964, where approximately 20 local residents who had remained in the surrounding villages, were mobilized to serve as stand-ins for “Viet Cong” guerillas. As Mikami Chie shows in her documentary film, The Targeted Village (2012) and as an article dated 9 September 1964 in Jinmin, the organ paper of the Okinawa People’s Party revealed, even toddlers and young children were mobilized for these war games under the watchful eye of Mag. Gen. William Collins, commander of the 3rd Marine Division and Lieutenant General Albert Watson, the High Commissioner of the Ryukyu Islands. Threatened by the prospect of losing complete access to the surrounding mountains and forests upon which they depended for their livelihood, these families had no choice but to cooperate in these training activities, which pitted them against between 300-400 heavily armed soldiers who treated them as nothing more than stand-ins for the brutal enemy they would face in the jungles of Vietnam and beyond.

To facilitate their training activities, the marines transformed what was once an invaluable source of life-sustaining resources for local communities into truly dangerous lands that were full of snares, traps and other mechanisms designed to prepare marines for guerilla warfare. Shacks and other infrastructure that local residents had built in order to shield themselves from the rain and wind became objects of target practice. Violence against men and women was naturalized as the raid mentality permeated this counterinsurgency training.

Who Needs the Jungle Now?  ///

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Signs opposing the US army base relocation in Henoko / Photograph by Vitalie Ciubotaru (2013)

In 1998, Camp Gosalves was renamed the Jungle Warfare Training Facility. While the Special Action Committee on Okinawa Report (1996) was ostensibly designed to alleviate the burden that the US military base presence had on Okinawa’s residents, the reduction of the acreage devoted to the NTA — the promise was a reduction of half the total area — was contingent upon an intensification and further militarization of those areas that remained in use. As Maureen Sioh reminds us, the intensification that often accompanies a reduction of area produces a fiction of alleviation, but does not eliminate those treacherous things that accompany militarization: stray bullets, noise pollution, ecological damage, and trauma are never contained by an off-limits sign or fence. In Yanbaru, the “Vietnam Village,” which served as an important model for counterinsurgency training has been replaced by a master plan for multiple landing zones for helipads for Osprey aircraft, which of course, require roads and access to the ocean that will newly transform parts of the “jungle” into a more conventional military base landscape.

During his two terms, President Obama has continued the strategy of reduction of area predicated upon the intensification of use that the SACO report articulated in his vision of a “Pivot to Asia,” which maintains Okinawa’s centrality in US defense strategy. It has also led to a discursive re-emphasis on the lost art of counter-insurgency following a reliance on drones and other new military technologies that featured so prominently in the wars fought in the Middle East.  The jungle discourse is thus revived, with the Marine Corp taking a leading role in its global propagation: stories of Marines dispatched to Bangladesh, Africa, etc. to learn from the more skilled ‘natives’ in overcoming the jungle are featured prominently in military media. These layers of articulations of the ‘jungle’ and the repeated depictions of Yanbaru as such thus informs the utterance, “move off of the gate, you dojin” and the invisibility of this as a violent act among the mainstream national media.

Conclusion ///

It seems that Okinawa is now in the third stage of the cycle of plantation literature that Édouard Glissant articulates in Poetics of Relation (1997), wherein the illusion of the fantasy has been broken and it is revealed that this was in fact, nothing but an “image the product of a disguised apology rather than that of austere realism.” While locals, like Medoruma knew that the fantasy that allowed the production of the “Okinawa boom” of the 1990s — maintained in part by the spatial segregation of resort areas from base towns — was an illusion all along, its arrival in the form of the phrase “move off of the gate, you dojin,” has nonetheless been jarring for writers, activists, and ordinary people who had retained at least some belief in the good faith of their mainland Japanese audiences to recognize that the hyper-militarization of their lands were unjust and should be alleviated. In fact, what has been clearly revealed by the incident and by its dismissal by the mainstream press or worse, by the reverse accusation of ‘hate speech’ hurled at writers and protesters by anonymous commentators for destroying the fantasy of the homogeneous national community, is that there is little hope in this kind of appeal after all.