The voice of journalism in Okinawa has long been stifled by the stridently anti-military Okinawa Times and Ryukyu Shimpo. The only two local newspapers distributed across the entire prefecture, they claim to speak for the jurisdiction with their rhetoric against the United States military bases and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF).
This spring, Yaeyama Nippo made a move to break this stranglehold by the two other papers. Based in Ishigaki, one of Okinawa Prefecture’s outlying islands, it is expanding distribution to the main island.
Yaeyama Nippo is a teeny-tiny operation compared to the two giant prefectural papers. It seemed a pathetic challenge, but our launch of the presses on the main island of Okinawa has received a much warmer welcome from readers than we had ever expected.
Almost daily, people have been phoning in and writing us emails to tell us how they looked forward to getting a fresh perspective on things. They urge us to hold our own as Okinawa’s third major paper and not to give in to the other two. We are far from off the ground yet, but the overwhelmingly positive response so far is encouraging at a time when the newspaper industry as a whole is in decline.
Okinawa’s 1.4 million people have many and diverse opinions about the US military bases in the prefecture. While large numbers would like to see the bases become less of a burden to the local people, not a few are concerned about China’s territorial ambitions over Okinawa.
The two major papers report as if the withdrawal of the US military and the SDF, and demilitarization across the board, are the fervent desire of all Okinawan people. eThe anti-military groups are emboldened by the two papers to claim they are leading an “All Okinawa” movement. They have a grip on the prefectural government and act as if they speak for all of the 1.4 million Okinawan people. Anyone who dares express support for the military bases is stigmatized for their effrontery and treated like a pariah.
The Okinawa Times and Ryukyu Nippo are able to monopolize the newspaper industry in Okinawa precisely because of the prefecture’s geographical isolation from the Japanese mainland, which makes it difficult for Japan’s national newspapers to make much headway there.
Currently, the major controversy involving the US military presence in Okinawa revolves around the relocation of the American Futenma air base. Landfill work is ongoing to expand Camp Schaub near Nago city in northern Okinawa into Henoko Bay. The two major newspapers are referring to this as the construction of a “new” military base and leading a heated campaign demanding that it be stopped.
I am convinced that the news coming out of Okinawa regarding the Futenma relocation controversy is distorted. This conviction has been reinforced by the reporting of the two leading papers on Hiroji Yamashiro, a prominent leader of the movement against the relocation.
In the protests at the Henoko construction site, Yamashiro assaulted government workers and was arrested and charged with inflicting bodily injury and obstructing the workers from performing their duties. The two papers decried the incident, asserting government oppression and a violation of free expression. When Yamashiro was released, they welcomed him like a hero.
The relocation issue was fought out in the courts by the Okinawan and national government authorities, concluding in December 2016, with a Supreme Court ruling confirming that the relocation was legal. Anyone has a right to express their objections to the relocation plan, but I do not think physically trying to disrupt legally-approved construction is a valid form of free expression.
I have witnessed Yamashiro lead protest rallies a number of times, and find his calls to action incendiary, to say the least. One example of his loud assertions is that women will be raped if the US military are allowed to come to Henoko. There are videos of his violent assaults posted on the Internet, and the Okinawan people are divided in their opinions of his words and actions. Yet the two papers never report anything critical about him.
We learned that, just last May, four special rapporteurs for the United Nations urged the Japanese government to reconsider their treatment of Yamashiro, citing his arrest and long detention as effectively repressing free speech and the right to peaceful assembly. Apparently, in June, Yamashiro will speak before the United Nations Human Rights Council, and will assert that the Japanese government is oppressing the people of Okinawa.
The UN special rapporteurs do not live in Japan. How did they get their information on Yamashiro? It is very much a cause for alarm if the basis for their accusation that the Okinawan people are being oppressed by the Japanese government are the one-sided reporting of the two major Okinawa newspapers.
The Japanese government has been quick to refute the charges. Japan is a democratic state, a nation of laws— this is an absolute fact. The overseas dissemination of “fake news” perpetuated by the anti-US military people could have unintended consequences. China, for example could use it to justify a territorial grab to “free” the Okinawan people from Japanese oppression. There is more harm than benefit to the people of Okinawa in having our situation judged solely on the basis of the reports carried in the two major newspapers. There is a need for more diverse reporting reflecting different viewpoints.
Already, we are seeing a glimmer of change in Okinawan journalism, thanks to Yaeyama Nippo’s expansion to the Okinawa main island. We have gone ourselves to investigate the protests going on before the gates of Camp Schwab at Henoko, and have reported on the absence of Henoko residents among the protesters. We have also reported on the complaints of local residents who are being inconvenienced by the traffic jams caused by the protesters.
The people of Henoko accept the relocation as the price that must be paid for the development of the region. Yaeyama Nippo has simply reported on what has long been a given among the local residents. The two major papers, however, report little of this aspect because it goes against their ideology. There is a clear difference of opinion between us.
One thing I would like to make clear, however, is that we have not brought Yaeyama Nippo to the main island of Okinawa to work against the two main newspapers. Our intent is simply to make sure there is fair and true reporting.
True freedom of speech is achieved when opinions reflecting diverse values can be freely expressed and vigorously discussed. Making sure Okinawa has this kind of true freedom of speech is the objective of our reporting.
Makoto Nakashinjo is the editor-in-chief of the Yaeyama Nippo, a local newspaper in Okinawa Prefecture