How the News Media Sees Okinawa

Originally published in the FCCJ #1, Nov 2015
Islands in the streaming news
Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga meets the press.
As the face-off between the prefectural and central 
governments continues, the good news 
is that press interest has increased 
and coverage has improved.
by Michael Penn
The confrontation between the leaders of the U.S.-Japan alliance and the prefectural government of Okinawa over the relocation of the U.S. Marine airbase at Futenma and the plan to construct a new airbase at Henoko has many dimensions – political, military, legal, historical, ethnic and economic. These have affected the way that it is covered by the local and global news media.
Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga is clearly aware of the importance of reaching out to the foreign media – as demonstrated by his late-May visit to Washington DC, his September speech at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, and, indeed, by his two press conferences this year at the FCCJ. Onaga understands that shaming the Japanese government before the eyes of the international community is one of the key weapons at his disposal.
But keen awareness of the potential power of the media is also to be found on the other side of the political spectrum as well. Novelist and former NHK board member Naoki Hyakuta declared to admiring conservative lawmakers at a ruling party study meeting in June that the two major newspapers of Okinawa should be “crushed” in response to their support for the anti-base political views. In central Naha even now one can find a handful of activists outside these newspapers’ headquarters making similar calls.
Onaga understands that shaming the 
Japanese government before the eyes of 
the international community is one of the 
key weapons at his disposal.
Ryukyu Shimpo and Okinawa Times dominate the newspaper landscape in Okinawa. With two major newspapers grappling with one another within a relatively isolated prefecture, it might be expected that one of them would naturally trend more to the liberal side and one represent more conservative voices. In fact, however, both papers are deeply committed to their anti-base movement. While there is indeed some portion of the Okinawan population that is pro-base, or at least not very concerned about the U.S. military presence, it would appear that this constituency is not large enough to support a major newspaper.
It should also come as no surprise that among print newspapers in any language, it is only the Ryukyu Shimpo and Okinawa Times that treat Henoko base construction as an issue of deep concern and seriousness. Without a doubt they offer the most regular and detailed accounts of the confrontation, and they are an essential source for anyone closely following developments on the ground.
For every other print media outlet in whatever language, the Futenma relocation drama is a peripheral matter, usually updated only when a major political figure makes a key statement or when an event of special significance takes place.
CONSERVATIVE NATIONAL NEWSPAPERS LIKE the Yomiuri Shimbun and the Sankei Shimbun have never wavered in their commitment to seeing the U.S. Marine airbase be built. For them it is a simple issue of national security and a commitment made to the U.S. allies. In the case of the Yomiuri, one editorial could stand in for a hundred others, as the message is always that base construction is necessary and anyone opposing it is both irresponsible and obstructionist. As they put it on Oct. 14: “The relocation to the Henoko district is the sole, realistic option chosen following many years of discussions among the Japanese and U.S. governments and local governments of Okinawa. Onaga continues taking his noncompliant stance, providing no alternative plans whatsoever.”
The more liberal national dailies 
like the Asahi Shimbun and the Mainichi Shimbun
however, could probably be best 
defined by their wavering. 
For the far-right Japanese media, the answers are also very simple. They insist that the anti-base movement does not represent the views of the majority of the Okinawan people, but rather are led by a handful of mostly Communist political activists from the main islands. They also believe that hidden Chinese agents and their collaborators are secretly guiding the anti-base movement.
The more liberal national dailies like the Asahi Shimbun and the Mainichi Shimbun, however, could probably be best defined by their wavering. They are certainly willing to give some space to anti-base views in their pages, especially in recent months, but they tend to be much more lukewarm than the local Okinawa papers. For example, these national newspapers appear to take more seriously the view that U.S. military bases are needed in the southwestern prefecture as an element of deterrence policy vis-a-vis China.
In contrast, the dominant view within Okinawa itself seems to be that China should be seen more as a trading partner than as an inevitable military threat. Governor Onaga himself made this point at his most recent press conference at the FCCJ – and it is often forgotten that Onaga hails from the more conservative political camp within his prefecture and was formerly a leader of the local chapter of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
THE INTERNATIONAL NEWS MEDIA on the whole tends to show a reasonable degree of sympathy toward the Okinawans in their struggle to prevent the construction of the airbase at Henoko, though until recently there has also been a notable lack of interest in truly grasping the details of the situation.
Much of the international coverage of the Okinawa issue seems to be driven not by the unique history of the Ryukyu Islands (which is clearly central to Governor Onaga’s view), but rather to each specific media outlet’s general attitude towards the global military posture of the United States. Those international media that are most alienated from U.S. military actions in Iraq or Syria or Yemen, for example, also tend to paint the most negative pictures of the current situation in Okinawa.
An example of this latter approach can be found at RT, the English-language global news service of Russia. In an early-June report on the Okinawa issue, all of the analysis and commentary came from perspectives strongly critical of the United States. The quotation from Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine described the U.S. approach as “typical of colonial policies.” The one international expert introduced in the piece, the New Zealand-based Tim Beal, stated that U.S. bases in Okinawa really have little or nothing to do with any concern in Washington about the defense of Japan.
There are also those . . . whose views are 
nearly identical to what is expressed 
in the Yomiuri Shimbun, or occasionally 
even further to the political right.
Since the Henoko base issue has been in the headlines off and on for some years now, the quality of the international reporting has clearly been improving. An increasing number of foreign journalists are actually visiting the sites of the confrontation and listening directly to the voices of the Okinawans. Interviews with Okinawa-based officials and analysts are now common in news features, and understanding of the local perspective has deepened considerably compared to five or ten years ago.
Direct experience in Okinawa, however, does not always lead in the direction of increased sympathy for the protesters. There are also those – usually associated with U.S. government policymaking circles or the military – whose views are nearly identical to what is expressed in the Yomiuri Shimbun, or occasionally even further to the political right.
One of the more active media commentators of this kind is Robert D. Eldridge, an author of several books related to Okinawa and for some years an official spokesman for the U.S. Marines.
When Governor Onaga made his visit to Washington DC in late May, Eldridge wrote a piece in the Washington Times to introduce him to American policymakers. Eldridge explained that Onaga had been elected “on an anti-base platform dominated by the organizational might of the Communist Party” and that the Okinawa governor “has been groomed for a long time by Chinese leaders” – echoing the claims of the Japanese far right.
Eldridge is also an outspoken critic of the Ryukyu Shimpo and Okinawa Times, describing them as “biased” in their coverage of the U.S. military and accusing them of consistently “focusing on the negative and sensational.”
Eldridge extends his critique to “the national and international media stationed in Tokyo.” Commenting on Naoki Hyakuta’s declaration that the Okinawan newspapers should be “crushed,” Eldridge observed:
“What was most surprising, however, about the ‘Hyakuta Incident’ was not his comments. Nor was it the strongly negative reaction of the two Okinawan newspapers – issuing a protest statement, partnering with their business allies such as the Asahi Shimbun to condemn Hyakuta in their editorials, and speaking before gatherings of their recent allies in the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan. Rather, it was the slowness of people to realize that the media itself was crudely violating a private citizen’s freedom of speech, all in the name of protecting free speech and a free press.”
LIKE EVERY OTHER CONFLICT in the world, control of the narrative is a crucial element of the struggle for all interested parties.
The Okinawan opponents of the construction of an airbase at Henoko want to tell the story of their people’s unique history: their non-Japanese past, their horrific sacrifice in the Pacific War, their decades spent as a military colony of the United States, and the disproportionate burden of hosting U.S. forces that they carry even today. They insist that their experience teaches them the value of peace, and they don’t believe that the Chinese government has any intention to invade.
Mainstream conservatives sometimes acknowledge 
that Okinawa is disproportionately burdened, 
but for them these grievances must take 
a back seat to the larger alliance priorities.
For mainstream conservatives on both sides of the Pacific, the salient narrative is about the U.S.-Japan alliance – how it protects Japan’s national security, deters potential aggressors, and serves as a necessary hedge against the growing power and aggressiveness of China. Mainstream conservatives sometimes acknowledge that Okinawa is disproportionately burdened, but for them these grievances must take a back seat to the larger alliance priorities. It’s regrettable, but that’s the real world, they assert.
The far right, mostly but not exclusively main-island Japanese, is nearly obsessed with the China threat. They depart from mainstream conservatives by denying that the majority of Okinawans oppose the construction of the Henoko airbase or are suffering significant burdens. They believe that leftist radicals are perpetrating a fraud by sending a handful of professional agitators out to the beach to stage protests, that are then are covered by treasonous journalists. They see the shadowy hand of China everywhere.
Most of the international media picks from among one or more of these three broad narratives in their reporting on the Okinawa issue, although general attitudes toward U.S. power on the global stage also creep in from time to time. 
Michael Penn is president of the Shingetsu News Agency

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