Last week, with the world’s eyes focused on the latest terrorist threats to Europe and Africa, 45 activists from the Japanese island of Okinawa came to Washington to demand justice for a country where the US military has held sway since World War II.
The activists represent the All-Okinawa Council, a broad coalition of over 2,000 women’s-rights activists, businessmen, trade unionists, academics, and citizens’ groups formed to stop construction of a new Marine Corps base on an island that already hosts 32 American military installations.
Their message, which was delivered to two dozen lawmakers and the Pentagon, was simple. They want the Obama administration to cancel an agreement with the conservative government of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to build the new base on reclaimed land on a coral-rich bay on the northern coast of the Okinawa. Over 80 percent of Okinawans oppose the new base in Henoko, according to recent polls, and they now have the support of the island’s entire elected leadership.
“The military occupation of Okinawa has been the policy of the United States for over 70 years,” Nobutake Yasutomi, an elected member of the Kin town assembly, told me. “For us Okinawans, the ramifications are enormous.” He was disappointed, he added, to see the Obama administration support Abe and the Pentagon against the wishes of the Okinawan people. “This is not the democracy the United States boasts about,” he said.
The opposition movement presents a quandary to the US government, which has been intensifying its military relationship with Japan as part of its “Asia Pivot.” As I wrote at The Nation earlier this year,
The protests in Okinawa are aimed squarely at one of the keystones of American foreign policy in Asia: a forward US base on the Pacific Rim that’s been used since the Korean War to project American power from Vietnam to the Middle East. Okinawa is home to 19,000 US Marines and dozens of US military installations that include the Marines’ only jungle training center.
Last week, a reporter for McClatchy wrote about the stakes for the Marines:
The impasse is so entrenched that the US is preparing to spend $145 million to improve an air base on Okinawa that has been marked for closure since 1996. The money will buy essential repairs to keep safe a fleet of 24 V-22 Osprey planes that cost about $60 million each, said Col. Peter Lee, the base’s commander.
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For Okinawans, however, the bases on their land are a social, safety, and environmental hazard. The Marine Corps Air Station at Futenma, for example, is known to locals as “the most dangerous base in the world,” because it completely surrounds a city with 96,000 residents. Planes and jets roar overhead 24 hours a day, shaking windows and rattling nerves, particularly in nearby schools. Over the years, dozens of aircraft and automobile accidents have caused injury and death to local residents and US soldiers. In 2004, a US helicopter crashed and exploded into a building at Okinawa International University near Futenma, sparking the largest anti-base demonstrations in a decade. As documented by the Welsh journalist Jon Mitchell, toxic levels of dioxin and Agent Orange were stored for decades at Kadena Air Base and other installations, with zero notice given to residents. The new base planned for Henoko Bay, Okinawans fear, will severely damage coral reefs, devastate local marine life, and wreck the last feeding grounds of the dugong, an endangered species. And for decades, girls and women have been subjected to rapes and assault from US soldiers.
“We want Americans to understand the reality we face every day in Okinawa,” said Ai Tamaki, a university student and a member of the council. “These bases are not there for justice.” Tamaki told me she became active in the anti-base movement after learning that a 12-year-old girl raped in 1995 by three US soldiers came from her hometown.
That incident led to massive protests throughout Japan and forced the United States and its longtime ally to come to grips with American military domination of the island. One of the leaders of those protests, Suzuyo Takazato, was the co-chair of Okinawa delegation to Washington. She’s well known for organizing the island’s first crisis center to provide counseling to victims of sexual violence. “Our goal is to support the governor as much as possible” by demanding an end to base expansion, she said.
Under the 1995 agreement, the Pentagon agreed to close the Futenma Marine base, but only if Japan allowed it to construct a new base at Henoko Bay in the northern part of the island. If it’s built, Okinawans claim, the base will cause serious destruction to the fragile, coral-filled marine environment.
The situation began heating up in 2014, when anti-base candidates captured the governor’s office and all four seats held by Okinawa in the Japanese House of Representatives. In October 2015, Takeshi Onaga, the new governor, revoked the land reclamation approval for Henoko that was granted by his predecessor. That decision made the construction and related work on the base illegal. It also set up the current confrontation with the Abe administration that’s playing out in daily protests outside the US bases.
At first, the central government called a temporary halt to the reclamation process at Henoko, which involves testing the seabed to prepare for the construction of two large runways that will jut into Henoko Bay. But in late October, Abe’s administration suspended the governor’s revocation, and on November 12 resumed the drilling surveys. It has since sued Governor Onaga to overturn his decision to revoke the permits, and in recent days has sent riot police and coast-guard ships to contain and disrupt the protests.
“Abe is actually acting very forcefully” in Henoko, said Morimasa Goya, the official leader of the delegation and chairman of the Kanehide Group, one of Okinawa’s largest business groups. “He is using state power to take away Onaga’s authority as governor.”
The Pentagon and the Obama administration have tried to place themselves above the fray. They call the Henoko plan a “done deal” and a domestic decision between the central government and the governor. But Okinawans complain that, despite the legal dispute, the Department of Defense continues to issue “entrance permits” to Japanese officials and constructions firms to enter the drilling site at Henoko. The DoD has jurisdiction because the site is located on the grounds of Camp Schwab, another US Marine base.
“The US government is not a bystander in this situation,” Hideki Yoshikawa, a professor of anthropology, said at a press conference for Japanese media on Friday. “Instead, it acts like it has nothing to do with these decisions.”
During its meetings on Capitol Hill, the Council urged the Pentagon to stop issuing these permits while the Japanese courts consider the lawsuit filed by the Abe administration against Governor Onaga. While the trial is on, “the US should not support the construction project,” said Mr. Yoshikawa. A statement distributed by the Council added:
First, we call upon the US government to acknowledge and respect the fact that the democratic voice of the people of Okinawa, manifested in the form of repeated elections, resolutions by the Prefectural Assembly, mass rallies, public forums, sit-ins, and now civil disobedience, unequivocally opposed the construction plan.
Second, we call upon the US government to acknowledge that the US DoD is actively complicit in the ongoing moves towards base construction by its issue of entrance permits to the Okinawa Defense Bureau for construction purposes.
To resolve the situation, the council stated:
An alternative plan has to be sought by both the US and Japanese governments while steps are urgently called for to close the US Marine Air Station Futenma.
The visit by the delegation coincided with the first US showing of The Afterburn, a new film about Okinawa and its relationship with the United States. John Junkerman, an American writer and translator who has lived in Tokyo for many years, directed it.
Drawing on archival footage from the National Archives and interviews with peace activists and US military veterans in Okinawa, Junkerman’s film explores a story that has largely been hidden from the US and Japanese public but is deadly serious to the people of Okinawa.
The United States captured Okinawa in 1945 after one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. More than 240,000 people perished, including over 150,000 Okinawans—a quarter of the island’s population. Among them were hundreds of so-called “comfort women,” who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Army and stationed everywhere its troops fought. Immediately after the battle, US forces began clearing villages for US Air Force and Marine bases that would later be used extensively during the Korean War and in Vietnam.
“We were treated as spoils of war,” one Okinawan says of the occupation.
Some of the scenes depicted in the film are devastating. Thousands of Japanese soldiers, for example, were forced out of hiding and killed by napalm sprayed from cannons by US soldiers. “We prayed: Spare us from death from those flamethrowers,” one Japanese soldier recalls. The memories of the horror are still fresh to a US veteran interviewed in the film. “It’s a sickening sight, and it never leaves you, John, it never leaves you,” he says sadly to the filmmaker.
The Afterburn focuses extensively on the predatory behavior of US troops in Okinawa that has caused such intense anger on the island. In 1955, for example, a 6-year-old girl was raped and murdered by a US soldier, yet he was never tried for his crime. Junkerman documents how US soldiers first mistreated Okinawan women in 1853, when they were stationed on the island after Commodore Matthew Perry forced Japan to allow the US Navy to open a logistics base there.
“The behavior of some American troops hasn’t changed over 162 years,” Junkerman notes sardonically in the film. Asked later why this might be true, he replied, “It’s the attitude of being an occupier, and feeling of privilege.” Ms. Tamaki, the university student, agreed. Despite the many incidents of rape and violence, “we still see US soldiers hanging out and talking to local women,” she told me.
Before traveling to Washington, the All-Okinawa Council stopped in Berkeley, California, where the City Council recently passed a resolution protesting the “lack of democratic process over the siting of the base in Okinawa” and asking Congress to address the environmental and political issues surrounding the Henoko base. While in Washington, the delegation met with congressional offices, environmental groups, and a representative of the AFL-CIO.
The labor visit was made possible by the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, which passed its own resolution “in solidarity with the people of Okinawa in opposing the expansion of the US military bases.” Goya, the businessman, said he was pleased by his reception at the labor federation. “As a businessman I’m usually on the opposite side of workers,” he laughed. “But on this issue, we must come together and fight for democracy and peace.”