On July 30, a landmark was reached in Okinawa’s long history of anti-US base activism. Amid discord over the construction of the new Futenma military facility on Okinawa at Oura Bay in Henoko, a petition started by the Henoko Okinawan Resident Vote Assembly accumulated 100,799 signatures on the 30th, demanding an Okinawa-wide referendum on the subject.

That number of signatures far exceeds the legal minimum of 23,000 required for the governor to enact an ordinance for a prefectural referendum. The petition will be submitted to the election boards of each municipality for examination.

Some activists view this mounting disapproval of the US facilities as part of a part of a broader development that could kick-start a serious debate not only on the bases, but on the wider issues of winning the island independence from Japan.

The case for independence

Okinawa is the main island in the Ryukyu Arc in the East China and Philippine Sea, which are mostly part of Japan’s Okinawa Prefecture. The Ryukyus – also referred to as Lew Chews in English and Liuqiu in Chinese – were an independent kingdom with treaties with the United States, France and Holland prior to annexation by Japan in 1879.

A battleground during the Pacific War and a US military hub subsequently, local hopes that the GIs would depart were never met, and the refusal of Tokyo to address Okinawan concerns has been a long-running political sore. In 2010, it even resulted in the resignation of a Japanese prime minister.

According to such United Nations entities as the ICCPR, the ICERDUNESCO and UNDRIP, the Ryukyuans, as an indigenous people, may put forth demands for self-determination. This demand is locally promoted by the Association of Comprehensive Studies of the Lew Chewan peoples (ACSILs), an Okinawan academic group established on May 15, 2013.

The path to independence, according to Professor Yasukatsu Matsushima of Ryukoku University – away from what has been dubbed “dual colonization” by Tokyo and Washington – would begin with the Ryukyu people ceasing to be minorities in Japan.

Instead, along with the Ainu of Hokkaido, their status would change to that of an indigenous people that can register with the UN Special Committee on Decolonization. “We can use this process to become a decolonized independent state,” Matsushima said.

Tokyo turns down these calls, insisting Okinawans are Japanese nationals. However, agreement from Japan on independence for the Ryukyu islands is not necessary as Matsushima claims that the right to self-determination does not require the decision of the holding state, but of the people.

Tiny support for independence

Still, independence activists face an uphill struggle. According to the latest comprehensive poll on the subject by “The Ryukyu Shimpo” in 2016, the percentage of Okinawans who wish to remain part of Japan fell to 46.1% from the 61.8% in 2006, with the rest divided on the extent of Okinawan autonomy.

However, those seeking full independence stood at only 2.6%. Unsurprisingly, related political parties are short of support. Symposiums held by ACSILs are attended by representative Chosuke Yara of the Kariyushi Club, a Ryukyuan independence party. His party does not occupy a single seat.

Shinako Oyakawa, a co-founder of ACSILs, reckons this poor showing is because independence from Japan has not been presented through the prisms of academic research and international law, so locals are under-educated on the issue.

After sharing research on independence, fostering discussions and building public knowledge, ACSILs plan to hold a referendum – as did Scotland and Catalonia. When that might happen is unclear. It would be when enough popularity and signatures could be accumulated in a petition given to the governor to enact the ordinance for a prefectural referendum emphasizing the land rights accorded to the Ryukyuan people.

If that referendum saw a majority voting for independence, application for a UN membership would follow. But related dialog would take place in a situation where many locals worry about their future and fear the overall economic impact of such a drastic step.

“The Okinawan independence movement never really got much traction as although a vocal bunch oppose the US bases, they know that Okinawa gets a hell of a lot of money from Tokyo,” said Don Kirk, the author of Okinawa and Jeju: Bases of Discontent. “So it is a fringe movement – but may gain steam as the base issue becomes ever more controversial.”

US bases: Asset or liability for economy?

Economic uncertainties hang heavy over the island. Analysts attribute these concerns, in part, to the victory of Mayor Taketoyo Toguchi, a Liberal Democratic Party candidate in the February 2018 Nago City elections, who campaigned on improving the economy and declined to address base issues. The CIA manual for US officials on the islands emphasizes the economy and its relation to American military bases.

However, these concerns may be misplaced. The erstwhile kingdom had a prosperous independent past. Research by the Okinawan Prefectural Government’s Washington Office and Professor of Economics Dr Masaki Tomochi of Okinawa International University demonstrate that only 5% of the economy is dependent on the bases. Indeed, the bases may be a constraint. “On the economic front, the existence of the US military bases is now the biggest obstacle to the economic development of Okinawa,” the prefectural website states.

The economic effect of a return of base land could be significant. The Shintoshin area in Naha City, which was returned to Okinawans in 1987, was developed into a large commercial district, creating 15, 560 jobs and a direct economic impact of 163.4 billion yen, up 93 times and 32 times respectively.

The strategic question

Activist and academic researchers’ stance on military bases has led to the Japanese Security Intelligence Agency (JPSIA) denouncing the organization in its official 2014 and 2016 reviews of international and domestic terrorist organizations for its alleged affiliation with and manipulation by China through academic exchanges. The agency accuses the group of being part of a campaign “to divide the US-Japan alliance” and “shake Japan over China’s territorial claim to the Senkaku Islands” – whose ownership is disputed with China.

The JPSIA accusation followed the assertion by two Chinese scholars in the People’s Daily in May 2013 that the Ryukyu territorial issue should be reviewed on a legal basis; Admiral Luo Yuan’s comment in an interview that Ryukyu was a tributary state of China; and the Second Ryukyu Okinawa Frontier Issue International Academic Conference held at Beijing University in May 2016.

Academics have denied the agency’s accusations, issuing a letter in February 2017 accusing the JPSIA of slander. Academics from Okinawa and Japan who attended the conference in Beijing criticized any Chinese governmental interest in the territory and the JPSIA report for its lack of research. Beijing has not offered an official response.

The prospect of Okinawan independence reshaping geopolitics in the region has drawn interest among idealists.

A neutral, non-armed island state would be an ideal home for a future East Asian community (EAC or EAEC) headquarters and was the topic of the “East Asian Community and Self-Determination Rights of Okinawa” conference, held in Tokyo last October. Such a body would create regional cooperation in many fields and build on a collective security vision for the region.

The creation of the community has been discussed since the early 2000s.

Also speaking at the Tokyo conference was Yukio Hatoyama, the prime minister who resigned in 2010 for failing to keep his election promise of removing the Futenma facility. He stated that Okinawa could “play a central role” within the EAC, providing a permanent non-aligned location beholden neither to Beijing nor Tokyo.

An independent Okinawa could ease tensions between China and Japan over the Senkakus/Diaoyus by making seas and islands around Ryukyu communal, some suggest. “We should look at the situation on the principle of the commons; looking at the common land and sea for East Asia,” said Matsushima.

Meanwhile, activist scholars are reviewing different formats for Okinawan independence and mounting a local public knowledge and information campaign for Okinawan independence.

“This is a matter of our life and how to live, so it might take a while but we would like to talk to our people, talk about our future and remind them that this is something that we decide – not others,” said ACSILs’ Oyakawa.