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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Comic Relief for Okinawa

Yoshiko Nakata

Jul. 7, 2015

People in Okinawa have been living alongside the US military for the past 70 years. The islands hold more US bases than anywhere else in Japan. Locals argue they’re shouldering too much of the burden, and many feel their voices aren’t being heard in the rest of Japan. On The Focus tonight, we’ll meet the young people who are trying to shine a light on the issues in a rather unusual way.

On stage is a group of comedians. The members were born and raised in Okinawa. They are putting a comedic spin on issues that, for many people, are anything but funny -- the presence of US military bases.

Masamitsu Kohatsu writes the scripts and produces the show. He says he wants to highlight the issues of most concern to local people.

He says that during class, his teacher would be explaining and writing something on the blackboard, and a US military jet would suddenly fly over the school. The teacher would stop and wait for the jet to pass, so the students would pause too. He says that’s life in Okinawa.

The big military footprint brings problems for the residents. A series of accidents and criminal offenses have left the locals angry and fearful.

In 2004, a US helicopter crashed in a university campus. The accident was headline news in Okinawa, but barely registered elsewhere in Japan.

Kohatsu was living in Tokyo at the time. He realized that people outside Okinawa don’t pay much attention to what’s happening on the islands, and have little idea what it’s like to live surrounded by bases. So he decided to do something about it. He called up some former comedian colleagues and started the show.

Kohatsu says it’s natural for people who don’t live near US military bases to not understand the reason those in Okinawa are angry. He says what he’s trying to do is to convert the anger into laughter, as he thinks people would understand the problem better that way.

His latest script deals with an aircraft the US is deploying in Okinawa. Locals say the tilt-rotor Osprey is too noisy, and poses a safety risk. In May, an Osprey crash-landed during routine exercises at an airbase in Hawaii. But the US forces didn’t stop flying the aircraft over Okinawa. Officials said there was no reason to consider the planes a risk.

Kohatsu points out the ospreys are flying. When there’s nothing on the ground, the base looks even bigger. He decided to look at the dangers and the debate surrounding the plane. The venue was packed for the performance.

A man from the audience says he loves the way they transform the issues into laughter. A woman says that the performances make her laugh at first, but then they get her thinking.

Kohatsu says US bases are still in Okinawa 70 years after the war, and there’s a plan to build a new one. So he says he may have to make it a life-long mission to keep telling funny tales about military bases in Okinawa.

Still, Kohatsu is dreaming of the day he’ll make jokes about everything but US military bases, and he says the first step is to get everyone in Japan treating the problems as their own.

Masakazu Sakashita, a specialist in post-war Okinawa politics and society at Hitotsubashi University, joins Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu to talk about the issue.

Shibuya: Mr. Sakashita, thank you for joining us. After seeing Mr. Kohatsu’s work, what did you think of his comical portrayal of Okinawa’s issues?

Sakashita: Actually, I went to see the show a couple of weeks ago. More than 1,000 people turned up to see it. I saw lots of them laughing and I thought this is an interesting new way to present the issues in an easy-to-understand way.

Beppu: People in Okinawa often say that the issues are not well-shared by the rest of Japan. How large do you think the perception gap is?

Sakashita: I think there’s certainly a gap between Okinawa and the rest of Japan, and it’s more than geographical. Okinawa has a unique culture and unique history and I think it’s not easy for both sides to feel more connected. The people of Okinawa feel like they’ve been expressing their anger for decades, but they feel their voices aren’t reaching the mainland.

Beppu: But when it comes to contentious issues, I thought it was wise to mix humor to the discussions. Is this way of communication something that is based in the tradition of Okinawa?

Sakashita: Well, Okinawa people are known as friendly and peace-loving. Usually, it is perceived that they’ve nurtured a culture of avoiding conflict and seeking dialogue. There was a time when they had their own kingdom. They did not possess weapons. There’s a tradition of using comedy to deal with difficult times in Okinawa. Humor was part of the post-war recovery.

Comedians back in the 1950s used jokes to encourage people. They tried to make them feel lucky to be alive after surviving such a terrible conflict. So it might be able to say that it’s part of people’s wisdom to turn to comedy when the mood is tense. In that sense, Mr. Kohatsu’s show may be new in terms of the topic, but it’s part of the traditional wisdom of the Okinawa people to deal with problems.