The Normal and Exceptional Forms of Enclosure in Okinawa: Going Beyond the So-Called Base Problem


The real­i­ty of Oki­nawa as a hyper-mil­i­ta­rized site that com­pris­es 0.6 per­cent of Japan’s land mass but hous­es 75 per­cent of all U.S. mil­i­tary bases in the coun­try is well known. To take one of many recent con­fronta­tions over the pres­ence and actions of the U.S. armed forces on the island, the prefecture’s res­i­dents have voiced pow­er­ful crit­i­cisms after a CH-53 heli­copter, out­fit­ted with low-lev­el radioac­tive mate­ri­als, caught fire and crashed just a few hun­dred meters from res­i­dences in Takae, which lie in the mid­dle of the U.S. Military’s North­ern Train­ing Area.1 While nei­ther fed­er­al nor local courts or police have juris­dic­tion over base-lands, which com­prise over 10 per­cent of prime agri­cul­tur­al lands of the islands, this most recent inci­dent – imme­di­ate­ly roped off and made “off-lim­its” to Okinawa’s offi­cials and inves­ti­ga­tors – reminds us that the entire pre­fec­ture is essen­tial­ly a space over which the Unit­ed States has con­trol in the last instance. This sit­u­a­tion has led schol­ars like Gavan McCor­ma­ck and Chalmers John­son to char­ac­ter­ize post­war Oki­nawa as a site that reveals the very lim­its of sov­er­eign­ty, since law is sub­or­di­nat­ed to a log­ic of excep­tion when­ev­er it obstructs the abil­i­ty of U.S. mil­i­tary forces to maneu­ver freely in the region.2 Oki­nawa can thus be under­stood as one of many regions in the world whose val­ue is noth­ing more than a key­stone – a site from which America’s over­whelm­ing mil­i­tary strength can be viewed and deployed to poten­tial con­flict zones through­out the world.3 As Har­ry Magd­off, John Bel­lamy Fos­ter, Leo Pan­itch and Sam Gindin, and oth­ers have shown, the U.S. com­plex of mil­i­tary bases func­tioned as launch­ing pads for an end­less stream of mil­i­tary inter­ven­tions through­out the glob­al South after WWII and as the armed might back­ing up the finan­cial cap­i­tal deployed in the form of for­eign direct invest­ments, loans, etc., that the Bret­ton Woods sys­tem orga­nized in order to facil­i­tate the U.S. impe­ri­al­ist project.4

While this mode of analy­sis has been extreme­ly valu­able in sit­u­at­ing the con­di­tion of Oki­nawa with­in a glob­al con­text, one of its draw­backs is that it unwit­ting­ly reaf­firms capitalism’s self-image as oper­at­ing through the free flow of com­modi­ties, peo­ple, and cap­i­tal, backed by the specter of mil­i­tary force but large­ly free from its direct influ­ence except in moments of extreme cri­sis when deploy­ment is unavoid­able. In addi­tion to min­i­miz­ing the vio­lence that these bases inflict on pop­u­la­tions that live with their pres­ence through­out the world, this approach has the unfor­tu­nate con­se­quence of ren­der­ing every­day strug­gles against dis­pos­ses­sion, enclo­sure, gen­der oppres­sion, and exploita­tion as local flare-ups that are ulti­mate­ly extin­guished by the over­whelm­ing pow­er of the Unit­ed States or, in Okinawa’s case, its trusty proxy, Japan. In oth­er words, the antag­o­nisms that devel­op in the islands only reg­is­ter as moments of “blow­back,” to bor­row Johnson’s mem­o­rable phrase – a pure reac­tion to the unbear­able con­di­tions of hyper-mil­i­ta­riza­tion. The image of a self-reg­u­lat­ing cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety remains rel­a­tive­ly undis­turbed and the excep­tion­al­i­ty of base soci­eties remains unchal­lenged. This mode of analy­sis is not only a mis­di­ag­no­sis of the way that Oki­nawa and oth­er hyper-mil­i­ta­rized spaces have been thor­ough­ly incor­po­rat­ed into the post-WWII Amer­i­can impe­ri­al­ist project; by focus­ing on them only as key­stones, it lim­its the sol­i­dar­i­ties that can be direct­ly forged or imag­ined with oth­er pop­u­la­tions. Most impor­tant­ly, it may over­look the spe­cif­ic and often con­tra­dic­to­ry nature of the demands that dif­fer­ent groups of peo­ple with­in the islands artic­u­late with­in their cramped spaces of maneu­ver.

In order to arrive at a fuller under­stand­ing of Okinawa’s place with­in the Amer­i­can empire since the end of World War II and by exten­sion, a deep­er appre­ci­a­tion of the wide vari­ety of strug­gles that its res­i­dents have par­tic­i­pat­ed in to envi­sion and secure a life out­side of its grasp, it is nec­es­sary to engage in an analy­sis that focus­es not only on the excep­tion­al forms of vio­lence that con­tin­ue to be required for the sit­ing of bases, but also to shed light on sub­tler forms of com­pul­sion that are part and par­cel of cap­i­tal­ist social rela­tions every­where. I build upon the work of schol­ars like Mire Koikari and Nan­cy Kwak who argue that tech­ni­cal and sci­en­tif­ic edu­ca­tion and hous­ing aid were inte­gral, rather than ancil­lary, com­po­nents of sus­tain­ing post­war Amer­i­can impe­ri­al­ism in places like Oki­nawa, South Korea, and the Philip­pines, per­form­ing impor­tant mate­r­i­al and ide­o­log­i­cal work to secure a smooth space for U.S. finan­cial and indus­tri­al cap­i­tal glob­al­ly. To sup­ple­ment this obser­va­tion that cap­i­tal requires the state to pro­vide assis­tance of this kind to repro­duce cap­i­tal­ist social rela­tions, I draw upon the writ­ings of the­o­rists who have recent­ly rethought the con­cepts of prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion and social repro­duc­tion.5 While a thor­ough expli­ca­tion of the diverse range of works that link these two con­cepts togeth­er is beyond the scope of this arti­cle, I assume their com­mon start­ing point: that extra-eco­nom­ic com­pul­sion is cen­tral and not exte­ri­or to the “nor­mal” process­es of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion, which requires much more than a sin­gu­lar­ly vio­lent act that marks a tran­si­tion to a new stage or com­po­si­tion of cap­i­tal­ist rela­tions.

This point of depar­ture calls for a recon­sid­er­a­tion of the tem­po­ral rela­tion­ship between the dis­rup­tive onset of cap­i­tal­ist rela­tions and their ongo­ing, expand­ed repro­duc­tion. In Marx’s Tem­po­ral­i­ties, Mas­si­m­il­iano Tom­ba explains that the prob­lem with des­ig­nat­ing a sin­gle moment of rup­ture, cen­tered around a moment of enclo­sure as the cen­tral event that estab­lish­es the pre­req­ui­sites for cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment – the sep­a­ra­tion of pro­duc­ers from their means of pro­duc­tion – is that it grants cap­i­tal­ism a cer­tain­ty and sta­bil­i­ty that is unwar­rant­ed.6 While he and oth­ers do not dis­count the impor­tance of the seizure of com­mu­nal lands in one locale for pro­vid­ing in some cas­es the pre­req­ui­sites for the enact­ment of cap­i­tal­ist social rela­tions, they argue for an under­stand­ing of cap­i­tal­ism as a sys­tem that requires the con­stant renew­al of social rela­tions, whether it is used to com­pel work­ers to sell their labor pow­er, con­vince women to give birth to future work­ers and sol­diers of the nation, to make sure that cit­i­zens and sub­jects com­ply with con­scrip­tion orders in times of war, to encour­age migrant work­ers resid­ing abroad to send remit­tances back home to their fam­i­lies, to incul­cate a desire in the mass­es for own­ing a sin­gle-fam­i­ly home, or to pres­sure landown­ers to lease their prop­er­ty to for­eign mil­i­taries to house nuclear weapons. As social repro­duc­tion the­o­rists have shown, each of these acts, medi­at­ed in cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties through the nation-state and the het­ero­nor­ma­tive fam­i­ly form, do not end with so-called prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion under­stood as the moment of “capital’s aris­ing,” but require con­stant com­pul­sion, even in soci­eties osten­si­bly con­sti­tut­ed by free work­ers and cap­i­tal.7 This obser­va­tion leads us to think about extra-eco­nom­ic com­pul­sion as cen­tral to, rather than out­side of “nor­mal” process­es of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion and push­es us to ana­lyze Okinawa’s post­war his­to­ries and cur­rent con­junc­ture in a man­ner that extends far beyond the base prob­lem.

Final­ly, in a cri­tique of rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al strate­gies that ren­der so-called prim­i­tive and ordi­nary forms of accu­mu­la­tion dis­tinct, Mas­si­mo De Ange­lis argues that prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion implies the ex novo pro­duc­tion of the sep­a­ra­tion of pro­duc­ers and means of pro­duc­tion, while accu­mu­la­tion implies the repro­duc­tion on a greater scale, of the same sep­a­ra­tion.8 As he explains, cit­ing Chap­ter 28 of the first vol­ume of Marx’s Cap­i­tal, “Bloody Leg­is­la­tion Against the Expro­pri­at­ed,” the key dif­fer­ence between the ordi­nary run of things and prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion is a mat­ter of con­scious­ness: whether or not there exists a “work­ing class which by edu­ca­tion, tra­di­tion and habit looks upon the require­ments of that mode of pro­duc­tion as self-evi­dent nat­ur­al laws.”9 Anti-colo­nial, fem­i­nist, or for that mat­ter, anti-base strug­gles pro­duce rup­tures in this rei­fied field and are often met with swift and vio­lent respons­es that can take a vari­ety of forms, includ­ing but not lim­it­ed to phys­i­cal repres­sion or the rede­ploy­ment of dis­cours­es that dele­git­imize alter­na­tive forms of social and eco­nom­ic orga­ni­za­tion.

What these the­o­ries enable us to do – which state-cen­tered analy­ses often do not – is to take seri­ous­ly the wide vari­ety of antag­o­nisms that devel­oped in Oki­nawa as the Unit­ed States built its mil­i­tary com­plex­es there. It requires us to close­ly track the way that base-relat­ed enclo­sures were always accom­pa­nied by lan­guage and poli­cies that empha­sized the excep­tion­al and tem­po­rary nature of this arrange­ment. What this in turn reveals is that the U.S. mil­i­tary in post-WWII Oki­nawa was not only inter­est­ed in expro­pri­at­ing pub­lic and pri­vate lands in order to trans­form Oki­nawa into its key­stone of the Pacif­ic, but that it was also inter­est­ed in allow­ing base enclo­sures to per­form the con­stant ide­o­log­i­cal work of nor­mal­iz­ing cap­i­tal­ist social rela­tions in the islands. In oth­er words, there was an artic­u­la­tion that com­pli­cates our under­stand­ing of how impe­ri­al­ist pow­er oper­ates; an artic­u­la­tion between mil­i­tary force and the restruc­tur­ing of social life on a broad scale, name­ly through the redraw­ing of prop­er­ty rela­tions. While Okinawa’s case may not seem mean­ing­ful if tak­en in its sin­gu­lar­i­ty, if we con­sid­er the fact that the islands were just one locale with­in a glob­al mil­i­tary empire that was com­prised of hun­dreds of mil­i­tary com­plex­es con­tain­ing thou­sands of bases scat­tered through­out 64 coun­tries at the height of the Cold War, then the impor­tance of mil­i­tary enclo­sures as mate­r­i­al and ide­o­log­i­cal sites through which cap­i­tal­ist social rela­tions were nat­u­ral­ized, in addi­tion to their vis­i­ble func­tion as an enforcer of America’s finance cap­i­tal-led impe­ri­al­ist project, should not be under­es­ti­mat­ed.10

The Coexistence of the Normal and the Extra-Ordinary

From the start of Okinawa’s occu­pa­tion in the sum­mer of 1945, the U.S. mil­i­tary head­quar­ters bal­anced strate­gic needs with a desire to resume nor­mal oper­a­tions in Oki­nawa. Indeed, the first step to the resump­tion of the ordi­nary run of things took place soon after the U.S. mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment began for­mu­lat­ing plans for base con­struc­tion on the islands in Sep­tem­ber 1945. On the 19th of that month, Rear Admi­ral JD Price stat­ed in response to a ques­tion regard­ing land usage on Oki­nawa that Amer­i­can forces would return as much of the lands that they had ini­tial­ly occu­pied dur­ing the Bat­tle of Oki­nawa that it could to orig­i­nal inhab­i­tants so long as it did not inter­fere with their abil­i­ty to ful­fill their strate­gic com­mit­ments. In Decem­ber of that year, they took the first steps toward meet­ing this promise by order­ing dis­trict com­man­ders to assem­ble and pre­serve any prop­er­ty records that had not been destroyed dur­ing the war.11 This was the start­ing point of the mil­i­tary government’s project of “recov­ery and recon­struc­tion,” which pro­ceed­ed lock step with the cor­don­ing off of lands deemed essen­tial for car­ry­ing out America’s strate­gic inter­ests in the Asia Pacif­ic.

The preser­va­tion and com­pi­la­tion of land records was fol­lowed by direc­tive no. 121, issued in late Feb­ru­ary 1946 titled “Land Claims, Prepa­ra­tion of Data Con­cern­ing,” which moved one step for­ward to actu­al­ly cer­ti­fy­ing titles to rec­og­nized own­ers. It man­dat­ed the estab­lish­ment of land claims com­mit­tees in every vil­lage that would be charged with the task of receiv­ing claims from landown­ers regard­ing their pre­war hold­ings and han­dling con­flict­ing claims to own­er­ship. An arbi­tral com­mit­tee was also formed in order to set­tle these con­flicts in a fair and trans­par­ent man­ner. Vil­lage heads who over­saw the process in their areas of juris­dic­tion were placed in charge of sub­mit­ting dec­la­ra­tions of own­er­ship to the Oki­nawa Advi­so­ry Coun­cil, made up of Oki­nawans that the mil­i­tary head­quar­ters appoint­ed.12 The resump­tion of the cur­ren­cy sys­tem and the cre­ation of a new wage sys­tem in the three months fol­low­ing this direc­tive reveal the Occu­pa­tion author­i­ties’ desire to trans­form a war-torn Oki­nawa into a space with­in which cap­i­tal­ist social rela­tions could even­tu­al­ly oper­ate. In this sense, Oki­nawa was no dif­fer­ent from the Europe of the Mar­shall Plan, or Japan, which was also sub­ject to recov­ery and recon­struc­tion poli­cies imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing its sur­ren­der. Part of this gen­eros­i­ty was admit­ted­ly due to the fact that in 1946, the U.S. gov­ern­ment was more intent on con­struct­ing bases in Korea and the Japan­ese main­land and had yet to des­ig­nate Oki­nawa its key­stone of the Pacif­ic. But as I have argued, it was main­ly because the reestab­lish­ment of cap­i­tal­ist social rela­tions was a clear­ly artic­u­lat­ed pol­i­cy of the Occu­pa­tion forces.

Okinawa’s strate­gic impor­tance to America’s Cold War pol­i­cy increased dra­mat­i­cal­ly in Octo­ber 1948, when, across the water, a Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Par­ty (CCP) vic­to­ry became a seri­ous pos­si­bil­i­ty. At this time, the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil rec­om­mend­ed to Pres­i­dent Tru­man in NSC 13/1 that the Unit­ed States treat Okinawa’s mil­i­tary instal­la­tions as long-term assets and ought to move quick­ly to devel­op them in antic­i­pa­tion of greater need, should Tai­wan fall under the con­trol of the CCP.13 Far from mak­ing the U.S. mil­i­tary head­quar­ters reverse its stance on Okinawa’s recov­ery and recon­struc­tion, the islands’ height­ened strate­gic val­ue accel­er­at­ed the project to reestab­lish nor­mal oper­a­tions there.14

This is the con­text with­in which we should under­stand the U.S. mil­i­tary head­quar­ters’ renewed ded­i­ca­tion to uphold­ing the pri­vate prop­er­ty rights of Oki­nawans, reit­er­at­ed in its Spe­cial Procla­ma­tion 36, “Cer­ti­fi­ca­tion of Land Title.” Issued on April 14, 1950, it urged the peo­ple to “pro­ceed to com­ple­tion with the pro­gram of deter­mi­na­tion, cer­ti­fi­ca­tion and reg­is­tra­tion of title to all land on Oki­nawa” and set a firm dead­line for the com­ple­tion of this process.15 Local actors con­tin­ued to be impor­tant for the process of con­firm­ing and adju­di­cat­ing pri­vate own­er­ship rights: vil­lage heads were placed in charge of deter­min­ing and issu­ing titles, even on unclaimed lands, and were new­ly tasked with serv­ing as trustees of any pay­ments that the U.S. mil­i­tary made to landown­ers in exchange for the use of their lands, even in the event that the lat­ter refused to sign their lease con­tracts.16 Occu­pa­tion author­i­ties thus went out of their way to solid­i­fy the terms of the debate over the mil­i­tary lands issue by mak­ing the deter­mi­na­tion, if not the full oper­a­tion, of a sys­tem of pri­vate prop­er­ty one of its high­est pri­or­i­ties in the first five years of mil­i­tary rule and made local gov­ern­ment offi­cials prox­ies for landown­ers who held lands with­in their juris­dic­tions. This con­sis­tent and aggres­sive con­fir­ma­tion of pri­vate prop­er­ty rights on the part of the U.S. mil­i­tary head­quar­ters shaped the ter­rain of strug­gle that local activists, oppo­si­tion­al politi­cians, and landown­ers at times skill­ful­ly manip­u­lat­ed and at oth­ers became mired in from the 1950s on. The dom­i­nant mode of post­war strug­gles against land expro­pri­a­tion in Oki­nawa began from an implic­it or explic­it con­fir­ma­tion of the rights of own­er­ship.

Dueling Definitions of Private Property at the Price Commission Hearings, 1955

This fram­ing became an impor­tant tool that local activists, intel­lec­tu­als and politi­cians used to make demands of the U.S. mil­i­tary that, at times, pushed con­di­tions on the islands to their lim­its.17 One instance was in 1955, the height of strug­gles against a new round of enclo­sures that were announced in 1952. Local activists, mem­bers of the local gov­ern­ment, the Gov­ern­ment of the Ryukyu Islands (GRI), and dis­pos­sessed landown­ers artic­u­lat­ed their claims for equi­table com­pen­sa­tion for their lands using the terms that the U.S. author­i­ties had used to jus­ti­fy their expro­pria­tive tac­tics. They did so by deploy­ing a cri­tique that was strik­ing­ly sim­i­lar to the one that Marx made of E.G. Wake­field and oth­er polit­i­cal econ­o­mists in his chap­ter on “The Mod­ern The­o­ry of Col­o­niza­tion” in the first vol­ume of Cap­i­tal, for their con­fla­tion of pri­vate prop­er­ty with cap­i­tal­ist pri­vate prop­er­ty: “It for­gets that the lat­ter is not only the direct antithe­sis of the for­mer, but grows on the former’s tomb and nowhere else.”18 Accord­ing to Marx, the con­se­quence of this mis­recog­ni­tion was that “the polit­i­cal econ­o­mist chris­tens them [means of pro­duc­tion and sub­sis­tence of the imme­di­ate pro­duc­er] cap­i­tal under all cir­cum­stances, even where they are its exact oppo­site.”19  

Indeed, Okinawa’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives refused to accept the assump­tions from which tech­ni­cal experts employed by the U.S. mil­i­tary began: that the val­ue of the lands that the mil­i­tary had to lease could be cal­cu­lat­ed as cap­i­tal­ist pri­vate prop­er­ty. They made their case for an alter­na­tive read­ing in a dra­mat­ic set of tes­ti­monies pre­sent­ed at a two-day hear­ing held before the Sub­com­mit­tee of the Com­mit­tee of Armed Ser­vices of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives in Naha on Octo­ber 24–25, 1955.20 They argued their point by first con­firm­ing that they, like the esteemed mem­bers of the sub­com­mit­tee sit­ting before them, respect­ed the rights of pri­vate prop­er­ty. Higa Shuhei, Chief Exec­u­tive of the GRI kicked off the pro­ceed­ings by issu­ing a warn­ing that the respect for pri­vate prop­er­ty must not be sub­or­di­nat­ed to any state’s right of emi­nent domain: “We believe that when pri­vate prop­er­ties are expro­pri­at­ed by virtue of the right of emi­nent domain, the loss result­ing from such action must be equi­tably com­pen­sat­ed with due respect to the rights of pri­vate prop­er­ty, accord­ing to the spir­it of democ­ra­cy.”21 He explained that the cur­rent rate of com­pen­sa­tion that the U.S. gov­ern­ment was offer­ing to landown­ers did not align with the prin­ci­ples of equi­table com­pen­sa­tion – because most of the landown­ers who forced to move from their lands now had to pay much high­er rents for their new res­i­dences than what the U.S. forces were pay­ing them as rents for their lands. Kuwae Choko, the Oki­nawa Landowner’s Federation’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive, then pro­vid­ed spe­cif­ic fig­ures: “Lands at Futen­ma, which the USCAR prop­er­ty cus­to­di­an office is admin­is­ter­ing, are rent­ed to Oki­nawans in the name of the US Gov­ern­ment. Annu­al rental is $612 per acre; how­ev­er, for mil­i­tary req­ui­si­tioned land which is just adja­cent to same land, rental paid by the US gov­ern­ment is only $82.” He con­clud­ed his tes­ti­mo­ny by reit­er­at­ing, “I believe that it is quite unjust for the Amer­i­can Gov­ern­ment to charge high rentals to the Oki­nawans and at the same time pay them low­er rentals.”22

Fur­ther­more – and this is where I see par­tic­u­lar­ly strong echoes of Marx’s cri­tique of Wake­field and clas­si­cal polit­i­cal econ­o­my – Higa points out that the cal­cu­la­tions that the dis­trict engi­neer of the U.S. forces made regard­ing land val­ues were fun­da­men­tal­ly mis­tak­en because their deter­mi­na­tions were “based on the assump­tion that farm­land is cap­i­tal and that com­pen­sa­tion for it is the rental obtain­able from leas­ing the land.”23 Higa explained that in real­i­ty, farm­land for Okinawa’s farm­ers was not cap­i­tal­ist pri­vate prop­er­ty, since it con­tin­ued to serve as valu­able means of pro­duc­tion and sub­sis­tence for the imme­di­ate pro­duc­er:

The real val­ue to the farmer of his farm­land is not the rent that can be obtained from it; rather, it is the income that can be derived from the land. Farm­ing is the only means that pro­vides both income and employ­ment for the mem­bers of the fam­i­ly. It absorbs the sur­plus­es and unem­ployed pop­u­la­tions, as well as unem­ploy­ables, such as the old peo­ple and the women, whose help is nec­es­sary for a farm fam­i­ly to make a liv­ing.24

Since Okinawa’s farm­lands had not been trans­formed into cap­i­tal­ist pri­vate prop­er­ty just yet, he explains, “com­pen­sa­tion … should be based on the net agri­cul­tur­al income obtain­able from the farm.”25 Here, Higa was not sim­ply con­test­ing the appraisal made by the mil­i­tary dis­trict engi­neer. Rather, he was insist­ing on sig­nif­i­cant­ly shift­ing the bur­dens of social repro­duc­tion – cur­rent­ly per­formed by agri­cul­tur­al house­holds that were required to sup­port the so-called sur­plus pop­u­la­tion cre­at­ed by the expro­pri­a­tion of lands with­out the atten­dant devel­op­ment of indus­tri­al work – to U.S. cap­i­tal, or at the very least, on pre­vent­ing local landown­ers from hav­ing to shoul­der even more of it. It is on this basis that the GRI and the Oki­nawa Landowner’s Fed­er­a­tion (Tochiren) reject­ed the U.S. army’s pro­pos­al for the estab­lish­ment of long-term ease­ments based on a one-time, lump-sum pay­ment in the amount deter­mined by the dis­trict engineer’s land val­ue appraisals.

These state­ments were part of a care­ful­ly craft­ed strat­e­gy that affirmed the holy trin­i­ty of U.S. cap­i­tal­ism: pri­vate property–democracy–free oper­a­tion of mar­ket forces.26 At the same time, they reject­ed the des­ig­na­tion of Okinawa’s agri­cul­tur­al lands as cap­i­tal­ist pri­vate prop­er­ty and insist­ed that land val­ues reflect the con­crete real­i­ties of the islands – that a real estate mar­ket did not tru­ly exist and that there was not enough indus­try to absorb those landown­ers who were dis­pos­sessed from their own lands into waged work despite all of the pains the mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment had made to clar­i­fy own­er­ship records. This argu­ment direct­ly rebuffed the U.S. government’s ini­tial offer of a lump sum pay­ment to res­i­dents who owned lands as com­pen­sa­tion for their dis­pos­ses­sion result­ing from the military’s long-term needs.

Higa’s point had actu­al­ly been made before. A group of women from Isa­hama, a vil­lage in Ginowan in cen­tral Oki­nawa had suc­cinct­ly and pow­er­ful­ly argued some­thing sim­i­lar ear­li­er that year fol­low­ing the accep­tance by their rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the terms of a lease that the mil­i­tary pro­posed for their relo­ca­tion. As his­to­ri­an Yak­abi Osamu explains, while local news­pa­pers cel­e­brat­ed the con­clu­sion of an “har­mo­nious res­o­lu­tion” to the Isa­hama land issue, 20 or so women sub­mit­ted a peti­tion to the GRI object­ing to their dis­pos­ses­sion. They assert­ed that they, not the men who had agreed to the set­tle­ment, were in charge of their kitchens, the health of their chil­dren, and their own well-being. They asked their rep­re­sen­ta­tives to remem­ber in their nego­ti­a­tions that “mon­ey lasts a year but land is for eter­ni­ty.”27



Images of the Isa­hama strug­gle. The sign reads “Mon­ey lasts a year, land is for eter­ni­ty.”


Nowhere can we see more clear­ly the dif­fi­cul­ties that this appeal, which became Higa’s strat­e­gy, posed to the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment than in the infa­mous Price Com­mis­sion Report of 1956, which reject­ed all of the demands that the Oki­nawan coali­tion made.28 On the one hand, the Report made crys­tal clear why the U.S. armed forces were there. It extolled the virtues of Oki­nawa as a land with­out sov­er­eign­ty: “In the Ryukyu Islands the cir­cum­stances of our polit­i­cal con­trol and the absence of bel­liger­ent nation­al­is­tic move­ment allow us to plan for long-term use of a for­ward mil­i­tary base in the off­shore island chain of the Far East-Pacif­ic area.… Here there are no restric­tions imposed by a for­eign gov­ern­ment on our rights to store or employ atom­ic weapons.”29 On the oth­er, it acknowl­edged the seri­ous polit­i­cal chal­lenge that the GRI’s pro­pos­al for com­pen­sa­tions, which totaled $8 mil­lion in rental fees annu­al­ly and a one-time com­pen­sa­tion fee of over $14 mil­lion, posed for the government’s abil­i­ty to main­tain the façade of fair use in Oki­nawa: “This pro­pos­al tran­scends any social­is­tic the­o­ry of com­pen­sa­tion with which the oth­er mem­bers of this sub­com­mit­tee are famil­iar.”30 The main jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for reject­ing the GRI’s terms came in the form of a warn­ing that relied upon colo­nial tropes of the lazy native who was both inca­pable of hard work and ungrate­ful for the benev­o­lence that had been extend­ed to them: “It would cre­ate a group of what might be called ‘land­ed gen­try’ in as much as the dis­pos­sessed landown­er would … receive with­out the expen­di­ture of any labor, the equiv­a­lent of his total land pro­duc­tiv­i­ty.”31

The pub­li­ca­tion of the Price Com­mis­sion Report prompt­ed island-wide protests that came out of sol­i­dar­i­ties forged through the ear­ly- to mid-1950s strug­gles over forced relo­ca­tions. These strug­gles posed seri­ous threats to the real­iza­tion of Truman’s ear­li­er vision of Oki­nawa as America’s mil­i­tary base in per­pe­tu­ity. Relo­ca­tion was con­sid­ered, but the Joint Chiefs of Staff ulti­mate­ly reject­ed its via­bil­i­ty explain­ing, “Relo­ca­tion of US bases else­where in the west­ern Pacif­ic … would result in the aban­don­ment of approx­i­mate­ly $1 bil­lion in assets, with neg­li­gi­ble sal­vage val­ue, and require in excess of $600 mil­lion for the con­struc­tion of alter­nate facil­i­ties.”32 Ulti­mate­ly, only the rever­sion agree­ment with the Japan­ese gov­ern­ment, which stip­u­lat­ed that bases would con­tin­ue to be housed on Oki­nawa and that the Japan­ese gov­ern­ment would pay for them, could paper over the con­tra­dic­tions of U.S. mil­i­tary rule in Oki­nawa, which had been kept at bay dur­ing the ear­ly years of Occu­pa­tion by tak­ing advan­tage of a war­fare con­di­tion. Once the peace treaty with Japan, signed in 1951, required that “just com­pen­sa­tion” be grant­ed to local res­i­dents in exchange for the con­tin­ued use of their lands, the real­i­ty of cap­i­tal­ism as a sys­tem that required var­i­ous forms and dif­fer­ing degrees of com­pul­sion in order to enact the capital–labor rela­tion even in hyper-mil­i­ta­rized parts of the world became dif­fi­cult to ignore.

The GRI-landown­er-anti-base activist coali­tion demon­strat­ed in their tes­ti­monies before the Price Com­mis­sion that they under­stood what Marx called the “great secret” of cap­i­tal­ism, revealed through an analy­sis of colo­nial­ism: that the very notion of a “suf­fi­cient price for the land” was a fic­tion. Cap­i­tal­ist pri­vate prop­er­ty was in “noth­ing but a euphemistic cir­cum­lo­cu­tion for the ran­som which the work­er must pay to the cap­i­tal­ist in return for per­mis­sion to retire from the wage-labor mar­ket to the land.”33 They used this insight to pres­sure the Unit­ed States to live up to its promise of reviv­ing the ordi­nary run of things in Oki­nawa, and to reject the cal­cu­la­tions made by the military’s apprais­er as begin­ning from a fun­da­men­tal­ly mis­tak­en premise of social rela­tions in agri­cul­ture – a com­pelling exam­ple of polit­i­cal coali­tion-mak­ing and resis­tance to the detri­men­tal effects of impe­ri­al­ist-cap­i­tal­ist projects on their liveli­hoods.

  1. For Eng­lish lan­guage report­ing on this crash and the prefecture’s response, see “Oki­nawa assem­bly protests crash-land­ing of US mil­i­tary heli­copter,” The Mainichi, Octo­ber 16, 2017. See also the protests over the past year against the con­struc­tion of a new base in Henoko. 

  2. Chalmers John­son, Blow­back: The Costs and Con­se­quences of US Empire, (New York: Met­ro­pol­i­tan Books, 2000); Gavan McCor­ma­ck, Client State: Japan in the Amer­i­can Embrace, (London/New York: Ver­so, 2007). Jim Glass­man also makes this point in his arti­cle, “The new impe­ri­al­ism? On con­ti­nu­ity and change in US for­eign pol­i­cy,” Envi­ron­ment and Plan­ning A 37, no. 9 (Sep­tem­ber 2005): 1527–44. He explains that U.S. mil­i­tarism is just “one face of a long-stand­ing and com­plex devel­op­ment of US cap­i­tal­ism” (1540). 

  3. The phrase came from a notice board at Kade­na Air Force Base, which said, “Wel­come to Oki­nawa – Key­stone of the Pacif­ic – Kade­na Air Base. Home of the 313th Air Divi­sion.” 

  4. Har­ry Magd­off, The Age of Impe­ri­al­ism, (New York: Month­ly Review Press, 1969); John Bel­lamy Fos­ter, Naked Impe­ri­al­ism, (New York: Month­ly Review Press, 2006); Leo Pan­itch and Sam Gindin, The Mak­ing of Glob­al Cap­i­tal­ism, (London/New York: Ver­so, 2013). 

  5. Mire Koikari, Cold War Encoun­ters in US-Occu­pied Oki­nawa (New York: Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2015); Nan­cy Kwak, A World of Home­own­ers (Chica­go: Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Press, 2015). On the rela­tion­ship between social repro­duc­tion and re-the­o­riza­tions of prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion, to start see Wern­er Bone­feld, “The Per­ma­nence of Prim­i­tive Accu­mu­la­tion: Com­mod­i­ty Fetishism and Social Con­sti­tu­tion,” The Com­mon­er, no. 2 (Sep­tem­ber 2001); Sil­via Fed­eri­ci, Rev­o­lu­tion at Point Zero (Oak­land, CA: PM Press, 2012); Maria Mies, Patri­archy and Accu­mu­la­tion on a World Scale (Lon­don: Zed Books, 1986); Susan Fer­gu­son, Genevieve LeBaron, Angela Dim­i­traka­ki, and Sara R. Far­ris, “Intro­duc­tion,” His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism 24, no. 2 (2016): 25–37; and Cinzia Arruz­za, “Func­tion­al­ist, Deter­min­ist, Reduc­tion­ist: Social Repro­duc­tion Fem­i­nism and its Crit­ics,” Sci­ence & Soci­ety 80, no. 1 (2016): 9–30. Cyn­thia Enloe’s Bananas, Beach­es and Bases (Berke­ley: Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 2014) is also an impor­tant fem­i­nist cri­tique of the geopo­lit­i­cal­ly focused nature of stud­ies of soci­eties that have a strong base pres­ence. 

  6. Mas­si­m­il­iano Tom­ba, Marx’s Tem­po­ral­i­ties (Lei­den: Brill, 2012). 

  7. The phrase “cap­i­tal aris­ing” comes from Kalyan Sanyal’s Rethink­ing Cap­i­tal­ist Devel­op­ment: Prim­i­tive Accu­mu­la­tion, Gov­ern­men­tal­i­ty and Post-Colo­nial Cap­i­tal­ism (Lon­don: Rout­ledge, 2007). 

  8. Mas­si­mo De Ange­lis, “Sep­a­rat­ing the Doing and the Deed: Cap­i­tal and the Con­tin­u­ous Char­ac­ter of Enclo­sures,” His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism 12, no. 2 (April 2004): 1–25. 

  9. Karl Marx, Cap­i­tal, trans. Ben Fowkes, vol. 1 (Lon­don: Pen­guin, 1976), 899. 

  10. The fig­ures are from Hen­ry Magd­off, The Age of Impe­ri­al­ism

  11. HQ USN Mil Gov­ern Oki­nawa, Direc­tive 60, “Land Records – Assem­bling and Preser­va­tion of,” Decem­ber 6, 1945. The Real Estate Branch of the Oki­nawa Engi­neer Dis­trict was entrust­ed with tak­ing care of the logis­tics. For details, refer to Arnold Fisch, Mil­i­tary Gov­ern­ment in the Ryukyu Islands, 1945–1950 (Wash­ing­ton, DC: Cen­ter of Mil­i­tary His­to­ry, 1988), 172. 

  12. For the doc­u­ment, Papers of James T. Watkins IV: His­tor­i­cal Records of Post­war Oki­nawa and the Begin­ning of U.S. Occu­pan­cy, Vol. 47, ed. Hiyane Ter­ou et al. (Ginowan, Oki­nawa: Ryokurindo Shoden), 133–34.  Of course, the col­lec­tion of this data and the issu­ing of cer­tifi­cates of land own­er­ship were accom­pa­nied by a detailed map­ping of lands, which indi­cate that a pri­ma­ry pur­pose of this process lay in facil­i­tat­ing the process of expro­pri­a­tion for base con­struc­tion. 

  13. See act­ing Sec­re­tary of State Robert A. Lovett’s mis­sive to the Exec­u­tive Sec­re­tary of the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil, Octo­ber 26, 1948. 

  14. See the full text of NSC 13/3 of May 6, 1949. 

  15. It was fol­low­ing this that a renewed round of land expro­pri­a­tions for mil­i­tary base con­struc­tion began. The rea­son for the refine­ment of this bureau­crat­ic process to con­firm land own­er­ship rights was revealed in a Decem­ber 5, 1950 direc­tive (shirei), which stat­ed that regard­less of nation­al­i­ty, those prop­er­ties or facil­i­ties that the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment deems nec­es­sary will be pur­chased or expro­pri­at­ed and its own­ers will receive the ben­e­fits of own­er­ship in the form of rents or oth­er forms of com­pen­sa­tion. To for­mal­ize the process fur­ther, in place of arbi­tral com­mit­tees, a Cir­cuit Court was estab­lished to hear dis­putes, deter­mine own­er­ship, han­dle cer­tifi­cate trans­fers, and so on. For more on ear­ly Occu­pa­tion poli­cies, see Kabi­ra Nario, Oki­nawa Kuhaku no Ichi­nen (Tokyo: Yoshikawakobunkan, 2011); Kuri­ma Yasuo, Oki­nawa no Bei­gun Kichi to Gun­y­ochiryo (Ginowan: Yojushorin, 2012) and Wak­abayashi Chiyo, Jipu to Sajin (Tokyo: Yushisha: 2015). 

  16. This sys­tem turned out to be real­ly impor­tant in allow­ing the mil­i­tary to have their prox­ies autho­rize lease agree­ments and con­tin­ues today. 

  17. For more on this tumul­tuous peri­od in Okinawa’s post­war his­to­ry, see an excerpt of an Eng­lish trans­la­tion by Dou­glas Lum­mis of Ahagon Shoko’s 1973 clas­sic, Bei­gun to Nomin. Also see Mori Yoshio, Tsuchi no Naka no Kakumei (Tokyo: Gendai Kikakushit­su, 2010) and Sym­bol Lai, Decol­o­niz­ing Oki­nawa (Ph.D. diss., Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton, 2017)

  18. Marx, Cap­i­tal, vol. 1, 931. 

  19. Ibid., 933. 

  20. Oki­nawa Lands: Hear­ings before the Unit­ed States Com­mit­tee on Armed Ser­vices, Eighty-Fourth Con­gress, first ses­sion, on Oct. 24, 25, 1955,” (US GPO, 1957). 

  21. Ibid., 2. 

  22. Ibid., 20. 

  23. Ibid., 2–3. 

  24. Ibid., 3. 

  25. Ibid. 

  26. As Sym­bol Lai notes, by the time the GRI and Tochiren rep­re­sen­ta­tives came to the table in Naha, they had already been through mul­ti­ple rounds of hear­ings, inter­views, and dis­cus­sions with mil­i­tary author­i­ties, as well as their con­stituen­cies through­out the islands that were being threat­ened with force­ful evic­tion. The “strat­e­gy” that I’ve out­lined here, though mean­ing­ful in its chal­lenge of the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of Okinawa’s lands as cap­i­tal­ist pri­vate prop­er­ty and by exten­sion, expos­ing the fal­la­cy of the idea of a ‘free land mar­ket’ under cap­i­tal­ism every­where, was the prod­uct of com­plex nego­ti­a­tions whose con­se­quences, includ­ing the way the cen­ter­ing of the dis­course of pri­vate prop­er­ty exac­er­bat­ed gen­der inequal­i­ties in Oki­nawa, still requires seri­ous research. For a fem­i­nist cri­tique of how the redis­tri­b­u­tions of com­pen­sa­tion on mil­i­tary lands have large­ly exclud­ed women from the right to own­er­ship and have in fact exac­er­bat­ed gen­der inequal­i­ties, see Kiriya­ma Set­suko, “Sen­go Oki­nawa no Gun­y­ochiryo no Hai­bun to Josei Jyu­min Undo,” Shakai Kagaku 44, no. 3 (2014): 31–61. 

  27. Yak­abi Osamu, Oki­nawa sen, Bei­gun Sen­ryoshi o Man­abi Nao­su: Kioku o ika ni Keisho Suru­ka” (Yoko­hama: Seori Shobo, 2009), 307–08. 

  28. Report of a Spe­cial Sub­com­mit­tee of the Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, fol­low­ing an inspec­tion tour, Octo­ber 14 to Novem­ber 23, 1955,” (GPO, 1956). This is the infa­mous Price Com­mis­sion Report. 

  29. Ibid., 7657. 

  30. Ibid., 7659. 

  31. Ibid. 

  32. Mem­o­ran­dum from the JCS to Sec­re­tary of Defense McNa­ma­ra,” July 20, 1967. 

  33. Marx, Cap­i­tal, vol. 1, 939. 

Author of the article

is Assistant Professor of History at UC San Diego. She recently published "Rethinking Japanese Fascism from the Politics of the Household" in Marxism 21, a South Korean journal. She is currently working on a project that analyzes transformations of the Japanese empire through social reproduction theory.