With growing talk of a possible conflict over Taiwan, the US and Japanese governments have put Okinawa at the heart of their war strategies. But the island’s people have suffered enough from great-power militarism and are organizing their own peace movement.

Anti–US military base protesters are surrounded by police in Okinawa, Japan. (Jinhee Lee / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

There has been growing speculation in recent years about the possibility of war over Taiwan, pitting China against the United States and its regional allies. If that catastrophe does come to pass, the US and Japanese governments seem determined to put Okinawa in the firing line.

The people of Okinawa suffered terribly during the final stages of World War II. Since 1945, the island has hosted some of the world’s biggest US military bases, despite a long-running campaign by Okinawans against the US presence. Now they are organizing again to challenge the idea that they should bear the brunt of another war shaped by decisions made far from Okinawa.

War Zone

On December 24, 2021, Okinawa’s two newspapers featured the same headline news. Washington and Tokyo had jointly announced that in the event of a “Taiwan contingency,” the “southwestern islands” would become a war zone. No other region of Japan received a similar warning.

There has been growing speculation about the possibility of war over Taiwan, pitting China against the United States and its regional allies.

Several of the terms in this announcement need decoding. “Taiwan contingency” means war with China. The “southwestern islands” means the Ryukyu Archipelago (aka Okinawa), plus a few other islands that are part of Kyushu. Calling them “southwestern” means that their existence is to be understood in relation to Tokyo, from the standpoint of which they are indeed located to the southwest.

“War zone,” as a common-sense term, can simply mean a region where war is going on. But it is also a term in international law. The announcement that Okinawa will be a war zone in the US-Japan plan for a war with China tells us that in the event of such a war, the United States and Japan would attack China from their Okinawa bases.

If they did not, China would have no motive for attacking Okinawa, since Okinawa has no relation to the Taiwan issue and attacking it would serve no rational military purpose. However, if China is attacked from the air bases and missile-launching sites in Okinawa, we can expect China to do its best to destroy those bases and sites.

But the term “war zone” doesn’t just refer to a place where war is going on. As a term of law, it also means a region where killing is not murder, so long as it is carried out in accordance with the laws of war. Chinese military personnel who killed US and Japanese troops in Okinawa would not be arrested. Nor would they be arrested if they killed family members of soldiers, or even Okinawans with no connections to the military, so long as they can say they did their best to avoid doing so.

All this is well-known and hardly worth mentioning. But the term “war zone” has a further meaning which is less well-known. In international law, it indicates an area where the rights of neutrality are not recognized. In particular, such terminology was used during World War I to give what the International Encyclopedia Dictionary of International Law dubbed “a semi-technical character and spurious legality” to attacks by belligerents on neutral shipping on the high seas.

More broadly, “war zone” has come to mean an area, on land or sea, where a belligerent can treat a neutral as an enemy. In effect, it means a state of exception — martial law. If Okinawa becomes a war zone, Okinawans will legally become a people who can be treated as enemies if they do not fully support the US-Japan war aims.

On the one hand, we can say that’s just how it is with war. On the other hand, it’s remarkable to be declared killable by one’s own government.

Denying Neutrality

To understand fully what “war zone” means in this case, it’s also necessary to look at US military law. Article 104 (“Aiding the Enemy”) of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) begins as follows:

Any person who –

(1) aids, or attempts to aid, the enemy with arms, ammunition, supplies, money, or other things, or

(2) without proper authority, knowingly harbors or protects or gives intelligence to or communicates or corresponds with or holds any intercourse with the enemy, either directly or indirectly, shall suffer death or such other punishment as a court-martial or military commission may direct.

The reader may be startled by the expression “any person” and think that surely this must refer to “any member of the US military.” The UCMJ carefully clarifies this point:

Scope of Article 104. This article denounces offenses by all persons whether or not otherwise subject to military law.

One might now be tempted to say that this encompasses US civilians but surely not foreigners. Again, the UCMJ is careful to prevent any such misunderstanding:

Citizens of neutral powers. Citizens of neutral powers resident in or visiting invaded or occupied territory can claim no immunity from the customary laws of war relating to communication with the enemy.

“Invaded or occupied territory” — in short, a “war zone.” Readers who still have difficulty believing that the United States has claimed the right to arrest and imprison foreigners in foreign lands should remember that after 9/11, the United States arrested many foreign nationals in Afghanistan and elsewhere and even built a special prison camp for them inside the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay.

Sacrificial Pawns

There is a bitter irony about the idea of war being brought back to Okinawa in this manner. After World War II, the victorious allies granted independence to each of Japan’s colonial acquisitions except Okinawa, which the United States kept for itself as a place to build military bases.

The struggle against foreign military bases on Okinawa has shaped one of the most passionate and persistent anti-war cultures anywhere in the world.

Rule under this self-styled liberator was bad enough to persuade the Okinawans that returning to their old colonizer, which at that time seemed to have become a peaceful country, would be preferable. The United States “returned” Okinawa to Japan in 1972, but against the expectations of Okinawans, the US bases did not disappear but rather increased in size and number. They were also supplemented by bases for the new Japan Self Defense Forces (JSDF).

The long struggle against foreign military bases, extending from the early postwar years to the present day, has produced few major Okinawan victories. However, it has shaped one of the most passionate and persistent antiwar cultures anywhere in the world. This is the place that the United States and Japan have chosen as their principal platform for making war on China.

When this decision was made public in 2021, the response of most Okinawans I know was: “Again?” They consider the 1945 Battle of Okinawa to have been the result of a Japanese government strategy to sacrifice Okinawa as a means of protecting the Japanese main islands from a land invasion. Okinawans see the present strategy as a repeat of the earlier one. Rather unbelievably, it seems that the Japanese government really does believe that it can go to war with China yet confine the war damage to its former colony.

There is a long background to this belief. Since the 1950s, a large number of US bases in mainland Japan have been closed down, partly in response to opposition from Japanese antibase activists. But those activists tended not to notice that the US military units in question were mostly relocated to Okinawa.

As a result, while Okinawa comprises only 0.6 percent of Japanese territory, it contains 70 percent of all US bases in Japan. Shipping the troubles that accompany US bases off to Okinawa has become a habit. In Japan today, people generally understand the base problem as “the Okinawa problem.” In Okinawa it is known as “structural discrimination” — Japan’s problem.

The Japanese government is now constructing a string of JSDF missile-launching facilities up and down the archipelago’s smaller outer islands, some of which are provocatively close to mainland China. While the authorities in Tokyo claim that these facilities serve as deterrents. Okinawans see them as missile magnets, drawing away Chinese missiles that would otherwise be directed at the Japanese mainland.

“Life is a Treasure”

Within days of the announcement that Okinawa was being prepared as a war zone, Okinawans began organizing a movement to prevent that from happening. By January 2022, they had already founded a new antiwar organization to focus on this issue, with the name No More Battle of Okinawa: Nuchi Du Takara — the latter expression in Okinawan means “life is a treasure” (Full disclosure: I am a member).

Within days of the announcement that Okinawa was being prepared as a war zone, Okinawans began organizing a movement to prevent that from happening.

The analogy this name draws with the horrific Typhoon of Steel that leveled Okinawa in 1945 is not meant to imply that a war with China would take the form of a similar massive assault landing. Such an attack would make no military sense in a war over Taiwan. The analogy is captured in the expression “sacrificial pawn” (or in Japanese, “sacrificial stone,” as more people here play the game of go than chess). In both cases, Okinawans see an attempt by the Japanese authorities to protect the main islands of Japan from the worst impact of war by shifting it as much as possible to Okinawa.

Okinawans have been living next door to the Taiwan issue for decades and tend to trust that China will not attempt to solve it by military action. The No More Battle of Okinawa organization saw its first task as educational, reminding people that China has changed and is now a military great power, but more importantly that the United States has transformed the Taiwan issue through its concern to keep China out of the Pacific. Since the end of World War II, the Pacific Ocean has effectively been an American lake, and the United States wants to keep it that way.

The United States has organized three countries — South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines —to serve as a barrier against China, and in particular against its navy. The Filipino scholar-activist Walden Bello has described these countries as “semi-sovereign states,” since their militaries are all under US control. One should probably add Australia to this list of “semi-sovereign blockade states.”

One should also mention the “chicken games” that US naval ships and aircraft have been playing in the seas and skies around Taiwan, which do not seem to have been effective in persuading the Chinese to back off. If this activity does lead to real war, researchers will debate for years whether this came about by policy or by accident (assuming there are any researchers left alive to engage in such discussions).

The educational efforts by No More, as the organization has come to be called, have been successful. The lectures, rallies, and demonstrations are increasing in number and drawing in increasing numbers of people, resulting in the formation of a second organization called Okinawans Organized to Prevent Okinawa Again Becoming a War Zone, an alliance of more than seventy of the Prefecture’s antiwar, antibase groups.

The next big goal is an all-Okinawa rally scheduled for November 23 in Naha City, which will feature speakers from many of those groups, Okinawan folk music, dancing, and the mixture of anger and laughter that is typical of Okinawan antiwar protests. The growth of such initiatives poses a direct challenge to the glib notion that war is inevitable, coming from those who are most likely to pay the price in the event of conflict.

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