Photo/Illutration Supporters of Taketoyo Toguchi line a road in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, on Jan. 20, urging drivers to vote for the incumbent mayor. (Norio Yatsu)

Younger Okinawans have become more tolerant of U.S. military bases stationed in the prefecture, a trend reflected in the Nago mayoral election won by incumbent Taketoyo Toguchi, a researcher of Okinawa issues said.

Toguchi, 60, was re-elected on Jan. 23 although he did not openly address the central government’s plan to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to the Henoko district of Nago during the campaign.

Yukihiro Yoneda, an associate professor at Wako University, said while younger Okinawans may be mistaken about how much U.S. bases contribute to the local economy, their views on the situation should be respected, he said.

Excerpts from the Asahi Shimbun’s interview with Yoneda follow:

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Question: We assume various factors were behind Toguchi’s victory. A poll we conducted with Ryukyu Asahi Broadcasting Corp. on Jan. 16 and 17 found that fewer people oppose the plan to relocate the U.S. military base to Henoko compared with the previous survey in 2018.

We are also aware that many Okinawans in their 30s or younger supported Toguchi in this election.

Answer: A research team of which I am a member conducted a survey on people in Okinawa and the Japanese mainland in autumn 2017. The largest proportion, 39.1 percent, of Okinawa residents aged between 18 and 34, chose “neither agree nor disagree” as their answer to the statement: “The U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma should be moved to Henoko in Nago.”

By contrast, the biggest proportion, 62.2 percent, of Okinawa residents aged 65 or older, chose “don’t agree” as their answer to the same statement.

I think that the answer “neither agree nor disagree” given by young Okinawans has a slightly different implication to the same answer given by people on the mainland.

I assume that (the answer by young Okinawans) reflects their agony over the issue. I guess they feel that even if they oppose the plan, the central government will go ahead with it anyway. They can’t be sure of having a good future if they show opposition to the plan.

However, I guess any generation, not just younger ones, in Okinawa feel this way more or less.

Q: People in the mainland generally think that most Okinawans are strongly opposed to the plan.

A: More Okinawans, of course, still say in polls, “It’s unfair that U.S. bases in Japan are concentrated in Okinawa,” than those who don’t think so.

However, our survey found that as many as 41.8 percent of Okinawans aged between 18 and 34 were not in favor of civil organizations that have protested the Henoko plan. That percentage was the biggest among all age groups in Okinawa or mainland Japan.

Q: That is a surprise. The year 2017, when you conducted the survey, was when the Abe administration began seawall construction off the coastline of the Henoko district and repeatedly forced the removal of protesters staging sit-ins at the gate to the U.S. Marine Corps’ Camp Schwab in the district.

Also, a large gathering of Okinawa Prefecture citizens to protest the relocation plan was held in the prefecture in 2017, when Takeshi Onaga, who opposed the plan, was the governor.

A: Our survey found that younger Okinawans were more in favor of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and less supportive of Governor Onaga, compared with older residents of the prefecture. This finding mirrors the nationwide result.

Q: Five years have passed since your survey. Do you think the view of younger Okinawans has changed or will change as they get older?

A: I think it’s possible that their view will change as they age. However, I think that their view revealed by our survey was largely formed when they were even younger. Unlike older Okinawans, they didn’t experience the Battle of Okinawa or the control of the prefecture by the U.S. military.

Unless something that shakes their view happens, how they feel will not change drastically.

Q: Why are younger Okinawans more tolerant of U.S. bases in the prefecture?

A: We used statistical methods, taking into account respondents’ answers to other questions asked in the survey. We found multiple reasons for why young Okinawans are more accepting of the existence of U.S. bases in the prefecture, including a lack of confidence in Japan’s security and distrust of the mass media.

However, we found that the factor that contributed most to the difference between younger and older Okinawans’ views about U.S. bases was whether or not they felt “Okinawa’s economy is unsustainable without the U.S. bases.”

Up to 53.3 percent of Okinawans aged between 18 and 34 said “agree” or “somewhat agree” to the statement: “Okinawa’s economy is unsustainable without the U.S. bases.”

By contrast, 69.4 percent of Okinawans aged 65 or older said “disagree” or “somewhat disagree” to the same statement.

This means, younger Okinawans tend to passively accept the U.S. bases in the prefecture because they think that Okinawa earns a large income in exchange for hosting the bases.

Q: However, while 15.5 percent of the Okinawa’s economy depended on the U.S. bases in the prefecture in 1972, when the area was returned to Japan, the figure dropped to 5.1 percent by 2018.

A: I was surprised to find that there was such a huge generation gap in how Okinawans viewed the circumstances the prefecture was in, not in how they valued things.

Q: Why is there the huge generation gap?

A: I think the gap is the result of an accumulation of experiences they have had over the years, including how much they have followed media reports, but I can’t say any more than that.

This is just my view, but younger Okinawans may think that the budget to promote Okinawa Prefecture’s development is paid to the prefecture by the central government in return for accepting the U.S. bases, meaning the budget is only paid because of the bases.

Q: The budget to promote development of Okinawa Prefecture is paid to the prefecture because of the historical reason that the prefecture was under U.S. military control for 27 years after the war, as well as the geographical reason that Okinawa is a prefecture consisting of islands far from the mainland. (The budget) basically has nothing to do with the U.S. bases.

A: Older Okinawans might want to tell younger ones in the prefecture something like, “You don’t understand the history of Okinawa,” or, “Don’t be fooled by fake news.”

However, what’s important is to give a thought to what younger Okinawans agonize over and why they feel how they feel, not to just criticize them. I think Okinawans should try to understand each other better, rather than dividing themselves.”

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Methodology of the survey

The “2017 survey on internationalization and citizens’ participation in politics” was conducted from October to December 2017. The survey sheets were sent by mail to 10,500 Japanese nationals aged between 18 and 80 who were randomly chosen from electoral registers of 70 municipalities across Japan. Of the 70 municipalities, 10 were in Okinawa Prefecture, from which 1,500 respondents were chosen.

A total of 4,386 people, including 504 in Okinawa, answered the survey. The response rate was 43.1 percent nationwide and 34.5 percent in Okinawa Prefecture. The response rates were calculated excluding surveys that were posted but did not reach the chosen respondents.

(This article is based on an interview by Norio Yatsu, a senior staff writer.) 

The Asahi Shimbun