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Protests on Okinawa aren't always what they appear to be

Kiyotaka Itaya, a 65-year-old retiree and member of the Council to Create a New Japan Constitution, wears the Chinese military fatigues and stands beside the car his group uses to stage fake anti-U.S. military and pro-China protests on Okinawa.

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — The two Okinawan protesters wore Chinese military fatigues, and their compact car was plastered with anti-U.S. military placards and portraits of North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, current leader Kim Jong Un and the father of Chinese communism, Mao Zedong.

Loudspeakers on the car roof railed against the United States and blasted slogans for China and North Korea to thousands of Okinawans who gathered last month to protest Tokyo’s support of the large number of U.S. bases on the island.

But things are not always what they appear on Okinawa, where a growing intensity in the two political pressures on the remote Japanese prefecture — frustration over U.S. military bases and renewed threats from abroad, mainly China’s growing influence in the region — can lead down a disorienting corridor of smoke and mirrors.

Kiyotaka Itaya, who was in the slogan-blasting car, calls that protest and other recent extremist pro-China and pro-North Korea demonstrations on Okinawa the “curveball” tactic.

The 65-year-old retiree actually belongs to a pro-U.S. military, nationalist Okinawan group called the Council to Create a New Japan Constitution.

He and 20 other group members stage the fake leftist protests amid real demonstrations, hoping to undermine the anti-U.S. military movement on the island and repel more moderate Okinawan activists by associating the opposition with China and North Korea, Itaya told Stars and Stripes.

The two countries are widely disliked here. Enraged Okinawans have thrown rocks at the group’s vehicle and tried to break the Chinese and North Korea flags off of the roof, he said.

“The people who are participating [in anti-U.S. rallies] are saying, ‘Wait, are we supporting North Korea or China by being here?’” said Itaya, who wears a mask and sunglasses during the mock protests to conceal his identity.

FRIEND OR FOE

The Marine Corps on Okinawa and U.S. Forces Japan have cautioned Stars and Stripes and other journalists about the protest movement, saying local anti-military sentiment among Okinawans is not as widespread as it appears.

Robert Eldridge, deputy assistant chief of staff for the G-5 Planning and Liaison Office for Marine Corps Bases Japan, said large protests are often organized and manned by outsiders and professional groups, such as teachers unions and workers groups who fly in from the Tokyo area.

He said he has also heard of groups similar to Itaya’s using fake protests to mock other activists, though he was unaware of the nationalist group masquerading as anti-military demonstrators at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and a Japan sovereignty day protest in April.

The Council to Create a New Japan Constitution could be making recent anti-U.S. protests appear larger and more threatening with its “curveball” strategy.

But the nationalist group says it actually hopes to further U.S. military interests on Okinawa. It wants Futenma relocated farther north on the island in line with a long-standing U.S.-Japan accord that has been stymied by years of public opposition and demonstrations, Itaya said.

The group’s tactics have annoyed and concerned organizers on Okinawa.

Hiroji Yamashiro, secretary general of the Okinawa Peace Activity Center, headed up a series of protest marches around American military bases scheduled to begin Thursday and run through the weekend to mark Okinawa’s return to Japanese control from U.S. occupation in 1972. Each year, thousands of Okinawans march around the bases during the anniversary.

Yamashiro called the mock pro-China protests a “dirty trick.” He said few on the island are fooled though he worries how the extremist message might appear to mainland Japanese, many of whom remain lukewarm to the opposition movement.

“Our concern is that the wrong message is conveyed to the mainland when such pictures or images are aired – an image showing protest rallies on Okinawa that are anti-U.S. and anti-Japan,” Yamashiro said.

HOPING FOR A SPLIT

Fractures in the long-running Okinawa protest movement appear to be caused by renewed threats from abroad.

Itaya’s group believes its “curveball” tactics — a low blow or not — and its unswerving support of the U.S. presence are justified by the territorial ambitions of China.

After years of tension and run-ins over the uninhabited Senkaku Islands, China scholars and a top Chinese military officer escalated the dispute this month by also questioning Japan’s ownership of Okinawa, which is home to about 1.4 million Japanese citizens.

For nationalists such as Itaya, the claims on Okinawa have underscored fears of a Chinese land grab or even an invasion if the U.S. military were reduced or eliminated from the island.

“It could happen if the power balance fell,” he said.

A recent Japanese poll showed nearly 90 percent of Okinawans are now concerned about Chinese territorial ambitions.

But China’s sensational public statements may also be a smoke-and-mirrors tactic.

“China is now sounding out Okinawa’s reaction,” said Tomohide Murai, professor of international relations at Japan’s National Defense Academy, where the country’s military officers are trained.

He said Beijing hopes the comments will cause a swell of public support and pro-Chinese sentiment from Okinawans, who have long been unhappy with Tokyo and their role as host to U.S. military bases.

Pro-Chinese activity on Okinawa could further split the prefecture from mainland Japan and strengthen China’s position in territorial disputes, such as control of the Senkakus, he said.

On Wednesday, a small group of activists announced they would study whether Okinawa could split from Japan and become an independent state, which was reported by island and national media.

Behind the scenes, it is unlikely the Chinese leadership truly believes it owns Okinawa or intends to take over the Japanese territory, Murai said. “They are watching to see if it works [to divide Japan], not because they believe in the claim.”

It remains unclear whether Itaya’s faked pro-China demonstrations could help or hinder such Chinese aims. Itaya said his group also took part this week in an overtly anti-China rally in Naha.

Murai said China is likely to abandon challenges to Japan sovereignty over Okinawa if there is no public reaction on the island that affects the relationship with mainland Japan.

“What Japan should do now is unite and avoid anything that could divide the nation,” he said.

tritten.travis@stripes.com

sumida.chiyomi@stripes.com

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