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A Scottish Solution to the Okinawa Issue?

For Okinawa’s sake, here’s hoping Mr Onaga and Mr Abe can settle their differences amicably and soon.

By 7 min read 5

Friday May 8th wasn’t a good day to be a left-leaning UK citizen. On May 7th, the general election was held, and without going into hyperbole, it’s fair to say the Labour Party was routed. Not only this, but in England a great deal of their vote share was lost to the far-right UK Independence Party. The UK, it seemed, had taken a massive lurch to the right of politics, as the Conservative party of Prime Minister David Cameron was returned triumphantly to government, with its first overall majority in 23 years.

However, there was one country within the UK that bucked the national trend. That country was my native Scotland. In every election since 1955, Scotland has consistently rejected the Conservatives and their right wing politics. Despite rejecting formal independence in a referendum last September, albeit by a slender margin of 45% to 55%, in this latest election Scotland voted overwhelmingly in favour of the pro-independence Scottish National Party. The SNP took 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats. As a left of centre party, strongly opposed to both economic austerity and nuclear proliferation, the SNP is, in the political sense the polar opposite of the now-governing Conservative Party.

However, such is the UK, despite the fact Scotland never votes in favour of the Conservatives, England has always been far bigger than Scotland. As a result, come election time, what England wants, England gets, and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have little choice but to just go along with it.

I lamented on this point the day after the election as I shared a coffee with a Japanese friend of mine.

“Its so frustrating,” I said to her.

“Politically Scotland has a completely different outlook to England, but we are too small a nation to make our voices heard. Our opinion doesn’t seem to matter.”

What she said in response came as something of a revelation to me.

“Oh, that sounds just like Okinawa.” She said.

I asked her to elaborate. As she went into greater detail, the comparison made more and more sense.

Like Scotland, Okinawa is a small region within a far larger entity. Yet it has its own distinct culture, history and political outlook. And much like the case of Scotland’s Trident Nuclear Submarine Base, it has a large military installation on its doorstep that a significant number of the local population does not want.

However, in national politics, Okinawa has exactly the same problem as Scotland does. It is simply too small a region, with too few voters to actually have any significant impact at a national level.
Like Scotland, Okinawan local politics has in recent times evolved in a way diametrically opposite to that of Japan as a whole. Like his fellow Conservative David Cameron, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was re-elected successfully at the end of last year, and with a greatly increased majority in Japan’s lower house, which is similar in a number of ways to the UK’s House of Commons.

Yet, at the same time Okinawans elected a governor whose campaign platform centred entirely on opposition to the planned relocation of a US military installation within Okinawa Prefecture. For Governor Takeshi Onaga, the position is simple, Okinawa already hosts a disproportionate amount (more than 50%) of the 47,000 US military personnel in Japan, and it’s time for other regions of the country to take some responsibility.

Much in the same way the perceived cosy relationship with the Conservative government destroyed the Scottish Labour Party in the recent UK general election, former Okinawa governor Hirokazu Nakaima similarly committed political suicide in choosing to appease Abe’s Tokyo government rather than listening to the will of the local populace, in approving the base relocation plans. As it stands, Okinawa currently faces a stalemate. The governor has vowed to refuse all requests to authorize construction at the proposed site for the new base, and Tokyo has reaffirmed that the base must be built there, and soon.

This is not too dissimilar from the tit-for-tat battle that I expect to see played out in the UK House of Commons over the next few months. In one corner, you have David Cameron’s Conservative government, emboldened by a majority and determined to carry out their pledges of massive cuts to the welfare system, public services and healthcare, and in the other corner you have the SNP with their recently appointed leader Nicola Sturgeon determined to thwart Mr Cameron at every turn.

In hopes of heading off a confrontation, and perhaps going at least part of the way to appeasing a country that he controls despite having no democratic mandate to do so, Mr Cameron has pledged increased autonomy and more financial powers for the local Scottish Parliament. It remains to be seen if he will actually carry this out, given his previous form for reneging on various pre-election promises.

Likewise Tokyo have offered various sweeteners and financial incentives to Okinawa in return for Governor Onaga’s cooperation in getting base construction restarted. However, Okinawa’s case is not as simple as that of Scotland.

Having its own parliament, in which the SNP enjoy a sizeable majority, Scotland is well-positioned to shield itself from at least some of the Conservative’s more repugnant policies. For example, it has already been stated that Cameron’s plan to scrap the Human Rights Act won’t apply to Scotland, as such laws are a devolved power.

Okinawa, simply put, is neither big enough, nor important enough to warrant having its own parliament. So the democratic imbalance between what the islanders wish and what the rest of Japan demands will continue for the foreseeable future. Like Scotland, having sympathetic figures in local government will empower those opposed to the base, but the reality is they can’t fight this off forever. The reality is that in the end, pressure from the US will win out and I believe Tokyo will get its wish for a new base built within Okinawa.

Of course there are the more radical elements in Okinawa who may favour a more extreme solution. Last year’s Scottish referendum debate prompted similar discussions in Okinawa. For the first time in centuries some people actually began to talk of independence for the islands. Certainly, for supporters of Scottish independence like myself, the re-election of an almost universally despised Conservative government, coupled with a nationalist landslide in Scotland does seem to highlight our differences and move us further away from the rest of the UK politically than we have been for a very long time. The independence debate is increasingly becoming more about when, rather than if Scotland will leave the UK.

But again, in the Okinawan context, fiery rhetoric aside, independence is a non-starter. Despite occasional tensions with the mainland, most Okinawans do still see themselves as Japanese. A newly independent Okinawa would find itself almost immediately under threat from an emboldened China that already claims historic sovereignty over much of the surrounding seas. And whilst the US has pledged to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack, it is unlikely they would do so for another island that has so openly opposed the US military presence in recent times.

Again, I’m speculating here, and the future would be highly uncertain if such a declaration ever came to pass. But aside from the various political and constitutional hurdles Okinawa would face, there really doesn’t seem to be any appetite for separation. And unlike Scotland, a simple in-out referendum wouldn’t work.

It seems, Okinawa and Scotland both face the same impasse now, and perhaps the same solution. For the time being, they need to drop any pretenses of independence or increased autonomy and engage productively with their central governments to secure the best possible deal they can for their respective local populations.

If Okinawa must continue to house US military, then it should be able to do so on its own terms, with local concerns being heard and respected by Tokyo. Likewise, if nuclear weapons must remain in Scotland, then it’s only fair the Scots are given some incentive for their continued cooperation.

I long for a day when both the Trident Defence System on the river Clyde and the US military in Japan are no longer necessary, but until that time comes, we must make the best of a bad situation. Doing this requires cooperation, compassion and understanding from all sides. For Okinawa’s sake, here’s hoping Mr Onaga and Mr Abe can settle their differences amicably and soon.

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  • maulinator says:

    I don’t know enough about the debate for Scottish independence but I do know something about statistics. With 85% of voter turnout, a 45% to 55% decision is NOTa slender margin (numbers coming from Wikipedia article so take it with a grain of salt).

  • matt d says:

    Not sure GaijinPot is the right place for an article (however disguised) about British politics?

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      Thanks for your input Matt. The article is intended as a comparison between the political climate of the UK and Japan. I felt a little bit of context setting with regards the uk was necessary to aid understanding. But perhaps i went into too much detail. However the main thrust of the article is to highlight the fact that both Scotland and Okinawa do, to some extent, face similar problems. Sorry if you feel it doesnt come across that way.

  • Brian Gumble says:

    “In every election since 1955, Scotland has consistently rejected the Conservatives and their right wing politics.”

    Not entirely true is it?

    1959 The Tories got more votes that Labour.

    Every year up until the 1980s Tories get at least 25% of the vote. If you consider that Labour on most occasions only got 40% of the vote, this is not Scotland rejecting the right wing politics. This is Scotland showing it has diversity of peoples and politic views all of which are valid.

    Scotland is no different to the UK in political terms.

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      Thanks for contributing Brian, if i may offer a further explanation of my comments.
      1955 was the last time the Conservatives commanded a majority (more than 50% of the vote) in Scotland. Voting left does not translate necessarily into voting Labour, especially in the Scottish context, so while they did indeed take more votes than labour that time, the majority of Scotland still rejected them and their policies. I stand by my original statement.
      A party getting 25% of the vote is still in political terms a minor party, especially in the context of first past the post, which is admittedly a fundamentally flawed voting system.
      To say Scotland is no different than the UK in politics is, frankly, wrong.
      Take UKIP as an example. 3 million votes in England, taking second place in several constituencies, yet not even close to winning a seat in Scotland.
      Like it or not, Scotland is, for now, a left leaning country, with an admittedly sizeable conservative minority, England on the other hand is the opposite, predominantly conservative, to the right of the spectrum. People like Thatcher were almost universally despised in Scotland yet still revered in much of England.
      The refusal to acknowledge these differences by many in Westminster, the Labour Party especially, is why the SNP continue to surge and independence becomes more and more likely. Read and compare the coverage in the Scottish and English media both in the run up to and immediate aftermath of the election and you will see these fundamental differences are manifest. Again thanks for contributing but we will respectfully have to agree to disagree on this one.



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