Haruka Higa tapped a mounting sense of frustration among Okinawans that mainland Japanese are discriminating against them when she likened them to pigs in a play.
Higa, 29, says she realized Okinawans are not considered equal when she listened to politicians in Tokyo calling for the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within Okinawa Prefecture.
These politicians were asking Okinawans to accept the Futenma replacement facility on behalf of 100 million "people" on the mainland, even though Okinawa already shoulders 74 percent of U.S. military installations in Japan.
Higa leads a theatrical company called Higa-za. Her play, "Wa Wa," was staged in Okinawa Prefecture last year. "Wa" means pig in Okinawan dialect.
In the play, pigs are derided and neglected by humans. In a climactic scene, an old boar addresses the audience: "There is no way pigs can become humans. They are being discriminated against."
Higa's decision to use pigs may well draw on the fact that Okinawans are famed for eating pork dishes.
The play drew a mixed response. Some said it portrayed reality, while others said it was wrong to distinguish between Okinawa and the mainland.
Higa's parents live near the sprawling U.S. Kadena Air Base. Her mother attended Miyamori Elementary School, where 17 students perished in 1959 when a U.S. military aircraft crashed.
Higa had long pondered these senseless deaths. She thought she had found an answer when she heard the mainland politicians calling for Futenma’s relocation within the prefecture.
"Now, I've got it," she thought. "We are not even regarded as humans."
Higa moved to Osaka last year, but she still cannot get accustomed to living on the mainland.
Shinako Oyakawa, 31, a postgraduate student at the University of the Ryukyus, likens Okinawa to a colony of Japan, citing Hawaii and the continental United States.
She found parallels between the two when she studied in Hawaii nine years ago about its indigenous people.
The United States usurped their kingdom and their language and set up military bases. The situation in Okinawa mirrored Hawaii's experience.
Oyakawa teaches Okinawan dialect. She used to believe that Okinawans should not ask mainland Japanese to shoulder their painful burden. But she has since changed her view.
"We would like Japan to take over the U.S. bases," she says.
May 15 marks the 40th anniversary of Okinawa's reversion to Japan's sovereignty.
Okinawan anger toward the mainland over what they see as discrimination has grown since around 2010 after Yukio Hatoyama, prime minister at the time, retracted a pledge to relocate the Futenma air base outside the prefecture.
"Hatoyama developed what many (Okinawans) had in mind into the policy, but Japanese did not support him. It became clear who was forcing Okinawa to host the bases," says writer Ushi Chinin, 45.
"As long as there is discrimination, the line must be drawn between those who discriminate and those who are discriminated against."
Chinin has called for U.S. bases to be relocated to the mainland for the past 10 years.
Like many Okinawans, Chinin sets herself apart from mainland Japanese. She says it is Japanese who need the Japan-U.S. security alliance or the bases, not Okinawans.
"Japan should not depend on Okinawa anymore," she says.
Writer Kiyoshi Nakamura, 54, says Okinawans are now watching mainlanders "with ice-cold eyes."
He was born in Osaka to parents from Okinawa Prefecture. He grew up being told he was an Osaka native. His parents wanted to shield him from the discrimination that Okinawans faced.
Some stores, for example, did not allow Okinawans to shop.
Nakamura moved to Okinawa in 1996 and found fame writing books on Okinawa. They sold well, particularly as Okinawa grew into a popular tourist destination among mainland Japanese.
The number of sightseers to Okinawa topped 6 million in 2008.
But when a U.S. military helicopter crashed on the campus of Okinawa International University in 2004, there was little sense among Okinawans that mainland Japanese really cared.
"After all, mainlanders poured into Okinawa through a 'side gate' and left, avoiding the 'front gate,' or the bases issue," Nakamura said.
The "ice-cold eyes" that Okinawans have fixed on mainland Japan are felt on many fronts.
A lecturer at a university in Okinawa Prefecture was shocked earlier this year at essays submitted by 20 or so of his students after he asked them to write about the future of Okinawa.
Without exception, they cited "independence from Japan" as one of the scenarios although no mention of this had been made in class.
"It was unthinkable (to receive such responses) before," the lecturer said.
A high school teacher in Ibaraki Prefecture has stopped visiting Okinawa after her blog, which includes her accounts of trips to the prefecture, became a target of abuse.
"You rotten mainlander, never come to Okinawa," one comment read. "Mainlanders are ruining Okinawa," said another.
The 49-year-old teacher says she feels threatened by the comments, which date back five years ago.
The word "discrimination" appeared as early as 1969 in "Minikui Nihonjin" (Ugly Japanese), a book written by Masahide Ota, then a sociology professor at the University of the Ryukyus.
"In Okinawa, many people think they are facing discrimination, no matter what people on the mainland think," wrote Ota, 86, who served as Okinawa governor between 1990 and 1998. "Okinawans are fighting in part against Japanese."
Akira Nakane was 19 when Japan regained independence in 1952, abandoning Okinawa.
"I felt hurt, but I did not have the slightest idea that (Okinawa) had to fight against Japan," said Nakane, 80.
Nakane was hired as a bartender at the Kadena Air Base, but was dismissed immediately when he defied his employer. He later took part in demanding Okinawa's reversion to Japan's sovereignty, hoisting the Hinomaru flag and marching through the streets. For Nakane, it was a way of protesting the continued U.S. military presence in Okinawa.
Around that time, his father changed his family name from Nakasone, using a different character for "naka." Nakane recalls his father proudly saying the new character looked more Japanese.
"I imagine that he wanted to be recognized as Japanese exactly because he was once abandoned by Japan," Nakane says.
(This article was written by Go Katono and Kenta Nozaki.)
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