NAGO, Japan (Reuters) - Japan’s Okinawa, a chain of tropical islands more than three hours southwest of Tokyo by plane, looks and feels almost like a different country. A growing number of islanders say it should be just that.
Perennial anger over Okinawa’s hosting of tens of thousands of U.S. troops has flared to a new level after the election of an anti-base governor and lawmakers late last year - victories that have been all but ignored by those in power in Tokyo.
Hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing ahead with the construction of a new base near the island’s northern city of Nago, meaning that Okinawans’ homes will stay on the frontline of the country’s defenses.
And in another blow for what is one of Japan’s poorest areas, the central government has cut the prefecture’s budget.
“By ignoring our wishes, the Japanese government is broadening the gulf between Okinawans and Japanese,” said Masahide Ota, an 89-year-old historian and former governor. “If the government forces this issue, the idea of breaking away will really catch fire.”
Abe’s push to amend the pacifist constitution, giving Japan a more active military role in the region, has pushed security onto the political agenda in the run up to nationwide local elections in April.
While most agree that the idea of returning to the days when Okinawa was a proud kingdom is a dream, the anger that feeds the desire to break away could prove a major headache for Abe at the polls.
“We’re sick of being deceived by the ruling party,” said Yorie Arakaki, a 44-year-old housewife among protesters who clashed with police a few weeks ago as dump trucks came in the dead of night to start working at Henoko, site of a new base to replace Futenma air base in central Okinawa.
“We now see that the will of the people won’t be honored.”
Emotions are especially high this year, the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa, which left 30 percent of the island’s population dead. Residents lived under U.S. rule for the next 27 years.
Even now, Okinawa hosts nearly 75 percent of the U.S. military presence in Japan, taking up 18 percent of its land area.
Abe’s push to beef up Japan’s military, driven by China’s growing assertiveness, has some worried in Okinawa, which sits some 1,600 km (1,000 miles) south of Tokyo. Last month, buoyed by December’s re-election, his government passed a record $42 billion defense budget.
“In the hypothetical case of a military ‘situation,’ Tokyo is so far away it won’t feel the pain, just like 70 years ago,” Nago mayor Susumu Inamine told Reuters.
“Then, Okinawa helped buy time for the home islands, and this thinking basically hasn’t changed. People on the mainland want Okinawans to put up with everything so they can feel safe.”
Everyone agrees that Futenma, crammed in the middle of a densely-populated residential area, must be moved. But a rising number of Okinawans now say it should be shifted from the islands altogether. Reasons include the planned deployment of the controversial Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, loathed for its noise, among other reasons.
“The vibrations make your insides go numb,” said Kanako Kawakami, a 56-year-old resident of Ginowan, the site of Futenma.
Huddled among a group of 100 protesters, Kawakami was part of a round-the-clock vigil on a hillside in front of Camp Schwab, a U.S. base that abuts the Henoko site.
Dump trucks arrived in the dead of night. In January, an 80-year-old woman was hurt in clashes between protesters and riot police.
The bases have always been a devil’s bargain for Japan’s second-poorest prefecture, where unemployment is about 75 percent higher than the national average.
In the rundown city of Nago, Abe’s vaunted economic growth policies appear to have had little impact on its 61,500 residents. Some are resigned. “Bases bring in money,” said taxi driver Masatsune Naka, 65. “People have to support families.”
To help the prefecture, Tokyo has provided a generous development budget, insisting it is not linked to bases.
But after the election of anti-base governor Takeshi Onaga in November, and the trouncing of ruling party candidates in a December parliamentary election, the government said it was cutting the budget by 16 billion yen to 334 billion yen in the 2015/16 fiscal year.
And as the percentage of the island’s GDP coming from the bases falls - from 15 percent in 1972 to 4.9 percent in 2011 - Okinawans are aware they need to be more self-reliant.
Tourism now accounts for nearly 10 percent of GDP, including a hefty number of foreigners.
Freeing up base land for local use would also allow expansion of growing industries such as information technology and call centers.
Economically, though, things would be tough. Okinawa’s GDP ranks alongside that of the tiny Pacific island of Tuvalu.
“There’s no way we’d ever declare independence, we couldn’t feed ourselves,” said Satoru Kinjo, head of the local branch of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
But islander anger, and the government’s response, could pose a national danger for Abe. On Jan. 25, nearly 7,000 people gathered to protest the Henoko base in Tokyo.
“The Japanese people will be watching what happens here,” Inamine, the Nago mayor, said. “People who have supported the government and LDP up to now won’t be able to excuse their excesses anymore.”
Reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Jeremy Laurence