The students who revealed Mr. Maher's unguarded comments weren't some spoilt uninformed sophomores, but a well-organized group of anti-military activists working closely with peace groups in Okinawa. Their politics aligns with that of many Okinawans who found their political voice in 2007 when Tokyo tried to revise textbooks on Okinawa’s war history. The success of the protests against the Japanese government provided an opportunity for Okinawans to declare their political independence from the Japanese center.
Okinawan activism also folds well into right-wing activism to push the US military out of Japan (anyone been to a Tamogami Gambare Nippon rally lately? ). Maher’s alleged derogatory comments helped confirm what many Japanese conservative nationalists believed: that the US is an unreliable ally and the Japanese are masochistic for accepting it.
Since last spring, the international peace, environmental, and libertarian communities have coalesced around the goal of removing the American military bases from Okinawa. For the first time, there is an organized, multi-national coalition of groups, centered in the Washington, arguing and demonstrating for the Okinawan people and the preservation of the island’s biodiversity. Under the "Network for Okinawa" (NO) umbrella they host the “Close the Base” website and coordinate global protests. The multiple groups’ activities are chronicled at the Canadian-based Peace Philosophy Blog in both Japanese and English.
While most of Washington ignored their full-page ad in the Washington Post last April, it signaled a significant shift in the political landscape. The effort to stop any further military development on Okinawa is now internationalized. And they could collect the $90,000 for an advocacy ad in an American newspaper.
This activism dovetails the emerging neo-isolationism of the Tea Party and various Libertarians voices like Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX). Their distrust of government and unrepentant calls for deep spending cuts no longer thrust them in the margins. Some Congressional figures are calling for a closure of the Okinawa bases and they are being taken seriously.
Up until last year, the American experience for the past 15-odd years has been pretty much as Maher described: Okinawa would accommodate Tokyo’s demands for the right price. Tokyo would continue to draw out negotiating with the Americans, hyping progress on small agreements, and Okinawa never delivered. The status quo worked for Japan and the Americans seemed none the wiser.
But now Japan is experiencing wrenching social change and economic austerity that is changing the old equation. Tokyo is reluctant to keep doling out massive aid to Okinawa and Okinawa is tired of the noise, pollution and crime the military bases bring. Yet, neither is sure what needs to be done to defend Japan in face of a confrontational China or challenging Russia.
The Americans are understandably bitter and frustrated. Maher’s alleged comments are actually common in Washington. More interesting, they were echoed and encouraged by Tokyo’s conservative policy elites who are happy to paint the Okinawans are duplicitous. Thus, it was disingenuous, at best, for American policymakers to unceremoniously abandon Mr. Maher.
The US is caught in the middle of a multi-layered Japanese domestic dispute unable to convince Okinawans that the US wants seriously to reduce its burden on the island or officials in Tokyo that it remains committed to the defense of Japan. Budget constraints on both sides of the Pacific are further straining the situation. Compromises by all are necessary to speed up the closing of the Futenma Air Base. A three-way dialogue (US-Tokyo-Okinawa) is needed about Okinawa's future.
Representative of these politics may be the fact that Kyodo appears to have sat on the story for months. The American University students talked with the official Japanese news agency back in December, along with anyone who would listen to them on Okinawa. Their experience with Mr. Maher was an open secret.
In mid-February, Kyodo sent a reporter from Tokyo to Washington to interview Maher to see if he would confirm the students’ account of the conversation. He said simply it was off the record, a fact that neither the students nor their professor confirms. A reporter from the Asahi Shimbun also called the students in February, but decided not to publish the story. And that brings us to Monday, March 7, Tokyo time, when Kyodo went public with the story.
Indeed, an interesting week to release this story. The Foreign Ministry resigned, a similar scandal brewing with the Prime Minister, critical US-Japan security talks in Tokyo, and an official delegation from Okinawa prepares to visit Washington the following week (now canceled). Washington’s old friends in the LDP are calling the US unreliable and arrogant and demanding an apology from the American president for Maher’s remarks. By implication, the LDP and Japan’s conservative nationalists are suggesting that the ruling DPJ (not the LDP) has royally mismanaged the US-Japan relationship.
Friday’s massive earthquake has halted, for now, this quarrel over the status of US-Japan relations. US military know-how and manpower will be needed to help Japan recover from this disaster. Ensuring that Japan’s nuclear reactors do not melt down is something on which the US and Japan can and must cooperate. Present is a rare opportunity to demonstrate shared values and goals.
Recently, the US State Department has been able to capitalize on Japan’s political and social changes by addressing previously untouchable topics, including child abduction, child porn, and justice for American POWs. A host of new experts with unique perspectives were involved these successful policies. The US-Japan security relationship does not operate in isolation from these discussions. It is now time to transfer some of these positive developments and new expertise in US diplomacy to security relations—and to new stakeholders.