Protest and democracy in Asia
Protests on the Japanese island of Okinawa are an example of growing civil society dynamism in Asia, an important element of democracy and active peace-seeking
When a US Marine admitted guilt over the rape and murder of a 20-year-old Japanese woman in April 2016, it reignited protests over the presence of American soldiers in the country.
As tensions built up on the island of Okinawa, home to a US Marine Corps base, a coalition of women’s, anti-war, youth and labour organisations, 65,000 people in total, gathered to protest the presence of US military bases there.
It was not the first time this had happened on the island; there was another incident in 1995 involving three American servicemen and a Japanese woman that sparked a similar set of protests.
The notion of protest may be very familiar to a Western audience, but it is an under-researched topic in an Asian context, says Professor Akihiro Ogawa from the University of Melbourne. His Asia Institute project, Civil Society in Asia is exploring the role of Civil Society Organisations (CSO’s) in contributing to Asian peace and democracy.
“There is obviously a huge difference between Western and Eastern civil society,” he says. “It is one of the most dynamic and expanding sectors in contemporary Asia.”
He defines civil society as “non-state institutions that are crucial to sustaining modern democratic participation.”
Professor Ogawa, who is trained as a social anthropologist, says ‘civil society’ is traditionally a very Western, ethnocentric concept.
“Observing each Asian nation trying to make its own version of a civil society is something we focus on,” he says.
Professor Ogawa, who has also authored papers on anti-nuclear protests, says it is important to view the Okinawa case in the context of other anti-US military protest movements in the region, even where they may not be obviously connected.
“Taking a trans-national view of civil society and peace movements in Asia is a new approach for scholars,” he says.
Watching Professor Ogawa map it out, things become clearer. The histories of Japan (“Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the Japan-US Relationship”), South Korea (“The North-South relationship”), the Philippines (“Colonised by Spain, then the US came, and then Japan came”) are summarised in a matter of seconds.
“Each area has a different story, but people are getting together from the grass-roots, extending beyond national borders. Before the Cold War, it wasn’t so easy,” he says, alluding to the presence of the United States within the region throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s.
“Scholars have tended not to look at the political relationships between the regions. But changing circumstances mean it has become easier to connect people.”
Professor Ogawa also argues movements like those seen in Okinawa, rather than being disruptive, are crucial to the maintenance of democracies in the Asian region.
“Social movements are very active, dynamic and grass roots-driven. They represent voices to the policy makers in a democratic society. Okinawa itself has had a peace movement since 1945.” says Professor Ogawa, noting that Okinawa only became a Japanese territory in 1972, essentially existing as a colony of the United States after World War Two.
Professor Ogawa, who has published a paper on the recent events there, says that Okinawa’s history shows the particularities unique to Asian civil society.
“It isn’t on the mainland, it’s two hours away by flight from Tokyo,” he says.
“They are a very marginalised ethnic group. They have their own distinctive culture and in some ways, a different language. As part of Japan’s modernisation process, over the last 100 years, Okinawa has been assimilated into Japanese society. I understand the people’s frustrations.
“But on the other hand, geo-politically, it makes sense for Japan to maintain US military bases in the South China Sea.”
Professor Ogawa argues these conflicting interests are amplified by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s approach to free speech and discourse.
“The Abe government is very problematic as it oppresses marginalised people. The administration has been moving to a more nationalistic policy-making apparatus, ignoring grass-roots voices,” he says.
“They don’t change anything. People in Okinawa are really angry. The Japanese government is ignoring this in favour of the US-Japan alliance.
“Crimes by US military go to a US court and it’s not an issue for the Japanese government. That’s also why the peace movement in Okinawa has never really ended.”
Professor Ogawa, who was a journalist at Kyodo News for five years before moving into academia, also says alternative media is needed to discuss this situation properly.
“Major media don’t cover it. The Japanese people need to have access to material from independent, conscientious journalists.”
By noting these interactions between government, foreign influences, media and citizen groups, Professor Ogawa admits it is ironic but fitting that Western models of protest are being mobilised against a long-standing US military presence.
“Civil society and social movements are very strong in Okinawa, perhaps because there have been military bases there on and off for 70 years,” he says.
“It’s about not passively accepting a current situation. We can instead come together and discuss it to make things better.”
Banner image: Protestors in Naha, Oginawa campaigning against the US military base in 2014 RyuFilms/Flickr