That changed dramatically a year ago last week, when a 12-year-old Okinawan girl was kidnapped and raped by three US servicemen. The crime brought tens of thousands of people out in protest, demanding the reduction and withdrawal of the 29,000 US troops. Diplomats and politicians shuttled frantically between Tokyo and Washington in an effort to assuage the angry Okinawans, hundreds of whom have taken to the courts to eject the US bases.
Today the affair reaches a new climax in an event that will have far- reaching consequences, not just for the American military, and the US- Japan Security Treaty, but for the future of democracy in Japan.
The event is a referendum instigated by the governor of Okinawa, a long- time opponent of the American bases. The prefecture's million or so voters will be asked whether they wish to see a reduction in the military presence. The outcome is a foregone conclusion - advance polls suggest that as many as 80 per cent will vote against the bases. The referendum has no legal force, however, and although a strong turnout will be embarrassing to the government, even the most optimistic know that it is not in itself going to change the minds of the East Asia strategists in Tokyo and the Pentagon.
But the Okinawa referendum is the strongest manifestation so far of a growing tendency in Japan. After decades as the most inert of all the industrialised democracies, Japan has woken up in the past 18 months to the possibilities of people power.
"There are no virtues more highly prized in Japan," wrote the novelist Yukio Mishima, "than indifference to politics and devotion to the team." And until last year very little happened to contradict this view. With the exception of noisy student unrest in the 1960s, the economic revolution that transformed the country from a war-torn wreck to the second biggest economy in the world has taken place within a political culture so ritualised as to border on the catatonic.
For 38 years Japan elected only one political party, the Liberal Democrats, whose guiding principle was the maintenance of the status quo. Continuity was guaranteed by the all-powerful government ministries, whose mandarins guided and directed the great Japanese companies in the so-called iron triangle of politics, business and bureaucracy.
For nearly half a century, the arrangement appeared to be benefiting everyone. Then, in the early 1990s, important changes took place. After an unprecedented boom during the 1980s, fuelled by world property speculation, the notorious Japanese "bubble" economy burst, causing bankruptcies and a drastic slowdown. In 1993 the Liberal Democrats were rudely deprived of a majority after a rebellion by reform-minded defectors and last year a series of disasters and embarrassments began that have decisively undermined the once impregnable authority of the establishment.
Events that have touched off this change are varied, but the thread linking them is the overbearing power and arrogance of the bureaucracy. The devastating Kobe earthquake and a nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway by the religious cult, Aum Shinri Kyo, were hardly the fault of the government, but in the months that followed it became clear that it had been woefully lax in anticipating them and dealing with their consequences. By the middle of last year, there followed a series of scandals that were the work of some of the most respected and brilliant men in the country.
The Ministry of Finance (MOF), of all the bureaucracies the most proud and revered, had been credited for decades with engineering the miracle recovery. Now, as the economy faltered, it appeared utterly unequal to the task. A series of minor banking collapses were followed by the resignation of a senior official after hints of a bribery scandal. Then Daiwa Bank announced that a rogue trader in its New York branch had lost $1.1bn (pounds 730m) in illegal transactions. The Ministry, it turned out, had known about the debacle for weeks before informing the US federal authorities. And when the MOF unveiled a plan to bail out a group of bankrupt mortgage companies with billions of yen of taxpayers' money, hundreds of ordinary, middle-aged Japanese protested.
Even greater outrage was to strike the Health Ministry. For years a small group of campaigners had been fighting for recognition after hundreds of people were infected with the HIV virus from untreated blood products imported during the 1980s. The Ministry, it was widely believed, had fully known about the dangers, but had allowed the blood to be used, partly to protect domestic pharmaceutical companies.
Officials obfuscated but in February, after dozens of the victims camped outside its premises, the new Health Minister, Naoto Kan, admitted liability. "The Ministry and the government are responsible for everything," he said. "I apologise for inflicting serious damage on people who have no reason to suffer." Compensation was quickly agreed, incriminating documents were unearthed, and several senior officials and doctors now face criminal charges.
The significance of these scandals is so far mainly psychological. The ministries retain all their old power and a few sackings and prosecutions will not make very much difference. For permanent change to come about the country will need political leadership. As a writer in the influential journal Bungei Shunju recently put it, "If we are to do a good job cleaning out the grime that has accumulated over half a century, we will need leaders who are not afraid to wash dirty linen in public."
But a precedent has been established; an indifference to politics no longer looks like an ingrained national characteristic. Other referenda are planned, in small towns that have been earmarked for nuclear power stations. For the first time in many years, Japan's centralised government is being seen by many of its own people as something sinister.
"Whereas power used to be in the hands of the military it is now in the hands of the mandarins," wrote Bungei Shunju. "And whereas the arrogance of the military caused the state to collapse after the war, the arrogance of the mandarins has now confronted Japan with one fiasco after another ... The military's naked and violent grip on power has been replaced by the softer grasp of well-dressed civilians."Reuse content