Okinawa ambassador calls post one of the toughest of his career
November 25, 2004
NAHA, Okinawa — Being Tokyo’s ambassador in charge of Okinawa affairs, said Sadaaki Numata, is one of the most difficult tasks in his 38 years of being a diplomat.
“Except for my two years in Pakistan, this is one of the toughest jobs I’ve had,” Numata said during an interview at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ office in Naha. He is moving on to an as-yet undisclosed post in December.
Part of his two-year stint in Pakistan was during the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States, when Taliban-supported terrorists also operated in Pakistan.
“It was a rather turbulent period,” said Numata, 61. “I had to come face to face with terror.”
As Tokyo’s ambassador in Okinawa, he said, he often found himself “between a rock and a hard place,” acting as a third-party mediator between the U.S. military and Okinawans, elected officials and the general population.
The position was established in February 1997. In part it was in response to a renewed anti-base movement sparked by three U.S. servicemembers’ 1995 abduction and brutal rape of a local 12-year-old girl. Relations between the islanders and the U.S. military were at their lowest ebb since the riots that eventually led to Okinawa’s return to Japanese sovereignty in 1972.
To ease tensions, the United States and Japan agreed in 1996 to reduce by 21 percent the land used by U.S. bases, which cover a fifth of the island. The new ambassador’s job was to “act as a bridge between the U.S. forces on Okinawa and the local citizens,” Numata said.
“There is actually a tripartite relationship,” he said. “There are the local governments, the U.S. military and the national government. It is my job to bridge the gaps” between the Okinawa community “and the requirements of the U.S. military under the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty.”
Ninety-five percent of his time on Okinawa is spent in such a role, Numata said. Part of that is getting the message out to the military — servicemembers, civilian workers and their families — “not to cause accidents and incidents,” he said.
“In reality, I have found my job is somewhat like that of a fireman. ... We are like [ITALICS]hi no yojin[/ITALICS] to everybody,” he said, referring to people who act as neighborhood fire watchers. “But fires do happen. And when they do, we rush out and try to put them out as quickly as possible.”
Numata said the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty is important to the Western Pacific’s peace and security. Okinawa’s location plays a key role in maintaining that stability, he said, making it important that good American-Okinawan relations be sustained.
“And it is also true that there are inherent tensions and conflicts in that relationship,” he said. “That is why I have been trying hard to describe to my counterparts in the U.S. military the complexities of the sentiments of the Okinawan people on the base issue.”
U.S. bases have been a major part of Okinawa’s landscape for nearly 60 years, since the Battle of Okinawa began in April 1945. Numata said Okinawans believe Imperial Japan sacrificed them to try to delay the U.S. invasion of the Japanese main islands.
And they felt abandoned, he said, during the next 27 years of U.S. occupation and the continued presence of the U.S. bases after the island prefecture was returned to Japan.
Some 75 percent of the U.S. bases in Japan “and 60 percent of the personnel are based on Okinawa,” Numata said. “This makes the Okinawans feel that the rest of Japan has a NIMBY syndrome — not in my back yard — when it comes to the American bases.
“They feel they have been given the rough end of the stick.”
Some people new to Okinawa might see an accident or incident caused by a U.S. servicemember as an isolated event, he said, “but that is not how the Okinawans see it. It invokes the memory of all the past incidents and accidents and recalls a feeling of frustration.
“When something major happens, it’s like there’s a hole in the crust of the peace here and the old fears rise to the surface, like volcanic magma. That’s what happened in 1995 and, to some extent, in last August’s helicopter accident.”
On Aug. 13 a Marine helicopter crashed at the base of a university building adjacent to Futenma Marine Corps Air Station, a base to be closed as part of the deal to reduce the U.S. footprint on the island.
But the base will not be closed until a new base is built in the waters off northeastern Okinawa, a project that won’t be completed for 10 years or more. Some Okinawan officials argue that even though no civilians were injured Aug. 13, Futenma, in an urban area, is “an accident waiting to happen.”
They have demanded it be closed immediately.
“So, here I am,” Numata said. “I try to explain to my American counterparts that they need to be very sensitive to these local sensibilities. On the other side of the coin, I ask my Okinawa friends if they might perhaps try to see the U.S.-Japan alliance in a more positive light, that if you look beyond Okinawa at the world in general, it’s a pretty dangerous place. You cannot take security for granted.
“There’s a need for the people of Okinawa to at least try to understand the mind-set of the U.S. military personnel,” he said. “They are here on a mission to defend the peace and security of Japan, along with Japan’s own self-defense forces. They are ready to put themselves in harm’s way for Japan.”
He said his greatest challenge was handling repercussions from the August accident. “We felt we were accountable to the people of Okinawa to be able to explain the actions taken by the United States military.”
Numata said there “was a perception that the U.S. military had taken over the crash site and were preventing access. “We had to explain that the (Okinawan) police and Marines were indeed in touch with each other and coordinating what was going on at the scene.”
More difficult was explaining why other helicopters of the same model were allowed to fly from Futenma MCAS to a ship anchored off White Beach, deploying to Iraq.
“It was before we were given a report on how and why the accident occurred and before measures were taken to prevent further accidents,” he said. “That was most difficult.”
Numata said strained military-Okinawa relations would improve if each community tried harder to understand the other.
“It’s very important for U.S. military personnel and their families to venture beyond the gates and try to be better friends with the people in the community,” he said.
He acknowledged that many Americans do join in activities with Okinawans, such as sponsoring the Okinawa Special Olympics and volunteering to teach English in local elementary schools.
“But more could be done,” Numata said. “It is important to expand and elevate this to teaching English in Okinawa’s high schools. The people on Okinawa are very eager to develop Okinawa as a hub for Asian exchange and in order to do that they need the human resources — people with experience in cross-cultural communications, particularly proficiency in English.”