Why do people protest in Okinawa

Myth, Protest and Struggle in Okinawa

Tanji, Miyume (2006): Myth, Protest and Struggle in Okinawa. London: Routledge. 234 pages. Approx. 40 euros. ISBN: 9780415365000.





This book deals with the development of the protest movements in Okinawa. In the first chapter, Miyume Tanji introduces the topic and explains the aim of the book. She puts her research focus on the internal dynamics of commnunity of protest, their diversity, and the historical myth of the "all-island struggle" (shimagurumi tôsô). Through a critical analysis, she deconstructs the representation of the prefecture-wide protests as a homogeneous unit and clarifies the commnunity of protest - which consists of many different groups and organizations - the possibilities and limits of resistance movements in Okinawa's post-war history. In her portrayal of the prefecture-wide protests, she refers to the division into three major waves, which is common in literature and which goes back to the works of Arasaki Moriteru, an important historian of Okinawa history: the 1950s, 1960s and 1990s. In particular, Tanji's definition of social movements sengo Okinawa tôsô (Okinawa's post-war social movements) (7), is influenced by the writings of Arasaki. Tanji mentions that she used this concept as a methodological tool in her book (6).

In the second chapter Tanji goes into the term "myth". Here she points to the mythical side of the movements and describes them as follows:

Myth in this book means a story or a narrative that resonates in the community of protest. It connects present action to the collective remembrance of the past of a group of people, in this case, the "Okinawans". Historical experiences of marginalization and discrimination, in particular of the Battle of Okinawa, and of the experiences and legacy of protests such as the all-island struggles against the US military regime, shared by different generations, locations, and sectors within Okinawa, again, are important strands in this myth. (7)

In particular, Tanji describes the victim narratives as important for the staging of historical events and the construction of collective identities of the protest movements. Regarding the role of myth in the political goals of the movements, she writes:

'Myth' is to be taken seriously for its powerful political effect in summarizing the long and complicated string of historical events into a collective memory. It makes the past manageable and useful for it orients and motivates individuals in ways which both permit and legitimize collective action. (7–8)

The collective identity of Okinawa is formed through myths, but at the same time, according to Tanji, it should not be viewed as a homogeneous unit, but as a heterogeneous and constantly changing collectivity. It is therefore important in this chapter to analyze the definition of the New Social Movements.

The following two chapters 3 and 4 deal with the history and experiences of the people of Okinawa up to the end of World War II: The annexation of the Ryûkyû kingdom by Japan, missed reforms and the resulting economic crisis, the battle for Okinawa at the end of the Pacific War and the nightmare this meant for the people of Okinawa.

In Chapters 5 and 6, Tanji covers the post-war history of Okinawa. After the Second World War, Okinawa was placed under occupation by the US military. At that time, many Okinawans were taken to prison camps and imprisoned in poor conditions in order to carry out US post-war strategy more efficiently. When the Korean War began in January 1950, the US had to determine the post-war position of the main Japanese islands immediately. And so, in 1951, the San Francisco Peace Treaty was signed and Japan's sovereignty was restored. On the other hand, this meant that the peace treaty placed Okinawa under US occupation for an unlimited period of time.

During this period of American occupation, two of the three waves of protest mentioned above occurred. Tanji represents the transition from the "all-island struggle" in the 1950s to the return movements in the 1960s. Since the first wave of the protest movement began with the first wave of the construction of the US bases, the main point of contention was the "land" the farmers who were needed to build a base. The first wave of the movement therefore saw itself as a land protection movement against the construction of the US military base. Despite the strong US censorship, politicians, teachers' associations, trade unions and landowners gathered to stop the construction plans. These amalgamations became the basis for the return movements to Japan in the years that followed.

In the 1960s, the Cold War situation in East Asia became increasingly tense. As the Vietnam War escalated, the number of US soldiers temporarily stationed on Okinawa to fly to the front in Vietnam increased. Business in the vicinity of the bases was booming because of these soldiers. At the same time, many Okinawans also experienced the indirect effects of this war through traumatized soldiers who committed acts of violence such as rape or brawling. Therefore, many Okinawans hoped that reintegration into Japan would result in the withdrawal of the US military. In November 1969, Prime Minister Sato and President Nixon reached an agreement that Okinawa should be returned to Japan, but without the withdrawal of the military.

The 7th chapter deals with the so-called “low” cycle movement, which was outside of the three waves. During this period, after returning to the Japanese nation-state, the myth of the prefecture-wide protests had to be redefined. In particular, the protest movements of pacifist landowners (Hitotsubo Hansen Jinushi) and their supporters are remarkable. Hitotsubo Hansen Jinushi means, "the 'anti-war landowners' [...] of private properties occupied by the US and Japanese military in Okinawa, who 'refuse to sign the lease contract, from the perspective of opposing war and aspiring for peace'" (108) .

In the period after Okinawa was reintegrated into Japan (1972), the so-called “new social movements” emerged. Chapter 8 deals with the formation of the citizens' initiative against the construction of the oil transshipment station at Kin Bay and the new Ishigaki airport on the Shiraho coral reef. Finally, in Chapter 9, the “third wave” is analyzed. The rape of an elementary school girl by US soldiers is often cited as the trigger for the third wave, whereupon 85,000 people gathered for demonstrations across Okinawa. It is primarily about the "uprising" of the Okinawan women, which opened up new perspectives for the resistance movements. Issues such as the discrimination of women within Okinawan society are criticized, it is about the destruction of the hierarchies in the protest organizations, changes in the repertoire of protest actions that have always been the same up to now are sought and the military bases and women's rights are discussed as transnational problems. Tanji stresses that the emergence of gender awareness and an organization like OWAAMV (Okinawan Women Act Against Military Violence) calls into question conventional masculinity and that this can be seen as an attempt to make the voices of those who have been oppressed throughout history heard Broaden horizons of movement for the future.

With Tanji one can positively emphasize the method of looking at the “community” from different perspectives and focusing on the different generations, gender and myths. It is to be criticized, as Mattew Allen (2008) explains, that Tanji in her book does not deal with the different attitudes of the population towards the presence of the US military in Okinawa, which exist simultaneously and side by side. In the post-Prefectural Governor Ota Masahide era, the influence of conservative politics and economic support from Tokyo increased. Further criticism is directed against the fact that Tanji did not address the infrastructure conversion on Okinawa through massive political subsidies from the Japanese government from the 2000s (Obermiller 2007). Despite all the criticism that Tanji's book arouses, it is well worth reading and especially interesting for students who study the experiences of Okinawans and the history of the protest movements.


Allen, Matthew (2008), “Review: Myth, Protest and Struggle in Okinawa”. In: Social Science Japan Journal, 11: 1. pp. 172-4.

Eldridge, Robert D (2009): "Myth, Protest and Struggle in Okinawa (Review)". In: The Journal of Japanese Studies, 35: 1, pp. 193-196.

Obermiller, David Tobaru (2007): “Review: Myth, Protest and Struggle in Okinawa”. by Miyumi Tanji. In: The Journal of Asian Studies, 66: 3. pp. 852-4.

KM - Keisuke Mori

Posted on Author adminCategories 2006, Book ReviewsTags American Occupation Policy, community, military, myth, post-war era, Okinawa, protest, reintegration movement, social movement, World War II