Can Indigenous Okinawans Protect Their Land and Water From the US Military?

Can Indigenous Okinawans Protect Their Land and Water From the US Military?

Can Indigenous Okinawans Protect Their Land and Water From the US Military?

As construction finishes on six new helipads, demonstrations to remove the military are reaching a fever pitch.


Three weeks ago, on a bus ride to Takae, a small district two hours north of Okinawa’s capital of Naha, a copy of a local newspaper article was passed around. “Another Takae in America,” the headline read, over a photograph of the Standing Rock Sioux marching against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota. At the top of the page, someone had scribbled “water is life” in red ink. As we drove through the foothills along the coast, the article made its way around the bus—behind me, a woman said to another, “It’s the same struggle everywhere.”

We were headed to the US military’s Northern Training Area, also known as Camp Gonsalves, which stretches over 30 square miles of Okinawa’s subtropical forest. Founded in 1958 and used for “terrain and climate-specific training,” the US military likes to call the training area a “largely undeveloped jungle land.” What they don’t like to acknowledge is that the forest is home to some 140 villagers, thousands of native species and dams that provide much of the island’s drinking water. Though Okinawans have long opposed US presence on the group of islands, their purpose on this day was to protest the construction of a new set of US military helipads in the forest of the Northern Training Area, which they consider to be sacred.

Since 2007, Okinawans have been gathering in Takae to disrupt the construction of six helipads for the US Marine Corps, which come as part of a 1996 bilateral deal between Japan and the United States. Under the agreement, the US military would “return” 15 square miles of its training ground in exchange for the new helipads—a plan Okinawans say will only bolster the US military presence on the islands and lead to further environmental destruction.

On December 22, there will be a formal ceremony to mark the return of the land from the Northern Training Area to Japan. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged to complete construction of the remaining four helipads to mark the occasion, and he seems to have kept his promise: Earlier this week, Okinawa’s Defense Bureau and the US military announced the construction had finished. But land and water protectors who entered the construction site last week expressed doubt, saying the construction is far from being complete, and they plan to continue their demonstrations regardless. For the people of Okinawa and their allies, their movement is about much more than stopping the construction of six helipads. It’s about removing the US military from their ancestral lands.

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From 1999 to 2006, before construction on the helipads began, Takae’s residents twice submitted requests to government agencies to review the project, citing the threat of the accident-prone Osprey aircrafts flying over their communities. Manufactured by Boeing, these aircrafts “combine the vertical performance of a helicopter with the speed and range of a fixed-wing aircraft,” and have a record of crashing. (Most recently, an Osprey crashed off the coast of Okinawa on December 13.) But the government ignored their requests, and, without ever addressing civilians’ concerns or allowing for a public hearing, construction began in 2007. Seeing no political avenues left to protect their land, residents turned to nonviolent direct action soon after, confronting workers on the ground and blocking dump trucks from entering construction sites. In 2014, after the first two helipads were completed, the government halted construction due to the demonstrations. But the government moved forward on the project in July of this year, and demonstrations have ramped up accordingly.

“Abe and the US military are here to cut down more of our trees and poison our water,” Eiko Chinen, a native woman told me outside the main gate when I visited the demonstrations. She says the helipads, two of which have already been used for Osprey, will put the reservoirs surrounding the Northern Training Area at risk.

The US military has a horrific record of polluting the islands; referred to as the “junk heap of the Pacific” by Americans after World War II, Okinawa’s land, water, and people have been poisoned by the military’s dumping of highly toxic chemicals like arsenic and depleted uranium. Earlier this year, The Japan Times found that the US military’s lax safety standards at another base in Okinawa were likely to blame for the contamination of the local water supply.

“No one will protect our future children and their water but us,” Eiko Chinen said as she watched a couple of police officers head to the construction site. “The forest is life for us, and they’ve turned it into a training ground for murder.”

At the end of World War II, Okinawa came under US control as a kind of war trophy. A 1954 TV series produced by the US Army described Okinawa as, “a vital bastion of the free world,” in spite of its “small size and unattractive features.” It continued, “Its people…developed a primitive, Oriental culture…the friendly Okinawans…took a liking to the Americans from the start.” In the 1950s, American soldiers seized ancestral lands from native farmers with “bulldozers and bayonets” to build military bases throughout the islands, sending landless Okinawans to refugee camps run by the US military. During the Vietnam War, the Northern Training Area became a mock village for soldiers training in anti-guerrilla operations. The 2013 documentary Targeted Village recounts how some of Takae’s villagers, including some children, were made to play the role of South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians during training exercises in exchange for $1 a day. In 2014, a former Marine admitted US troops sprayed the defoliant Agent Orange in Takae, which has also been found throughout the island.

It wasn’t until 1972, twenty years after the US Occupying forces withdrew from Japan, that the islands were “reverted” back to Japanese control. Yet Okinawa still hosts 74 percent of the US military bases in Japan, despite being only 0.6 percent of its territory. Since 2015, the Japanese government has pushed the construction of another US Marine Corps base in Henoko, a coral-rich bay in northern Okinawa, despite massive demonstrations against the relocation plan that continue today.

“Abe won’t meet with the Okinawan people, but he’ll go and meet Trump right away,” said Satsuko Kishimoto, a native woman who has been coming to the sit-ins for over three years. “That man isn’t even a politician yet!” That day, Kishimoto grabbed the microphone at the sit-ins, calling on the Japanese government to bring the bases back to the mainland if it really needs “deterrence.” “We’re not going to leave the fate of Okinawa to a bunch of politicians in Tokyo,” she said.

In the long struggle to defend the forest, the encampment has grown to include allies from outside Okinawa. It has become a place of community, where Okinawans and their allies stand together against an increasingly militarist regime. During one of the sit-ins, a group of activists from Incheon fighting the US military presence in Korea visited the encampment in a show of solidarity. On another day, survivors of the ongoing nuclear disaster in Fukushima sat with land and water protectors.

“I think more and more, we’re losing spaces of resistance in this country,” Masaaki Uyama, a demonstrator who moved from Chiba Prefecture last summer, told me. “The sense of community in Okinawa is like no other.” In between his part-time jobs, Uyama does what he calls “backstage work,” driving shuttles of land and water protectors from Naha to Takae and updating social media for those who cannot make it to the sit-ins. “We have a right to resistance, even if our hearts are breaking.”

A conservative who has expanded Japan’s military and its partnership with the US, Shinzo Abe and his administration desperately want to hide this resistance. Since resuming construction on the four remaining helipads in July, the Japanese government has sent over 500 riot police from across the country to break up the peaceful protests. In November, the police raided the Okinawa Peace Movement Center, an anti-base organization that has been active in demonstrations across Okinawa, obtaining information on those involved in the protests; they arrested its chairman Hiroji Yamashiro and three other activists for piling concrete blocks to keep trucks from entering Okinawa’s Camp Schwab back in January. The US military has also conducted surveillance of Okinawan land protectors as well as journalists reporting on them, according to documents obtained by journalist Jon Mitchell under the Freedom of Information Act.

At the sit-ins, I watched police officers, many of whom looked no more than in their twenties, throw Okinawan elders to the ground, twisting their arms and shouting in their ears. In October, two officers were caught on camera calling indigenous land protectors “do-jin,” a derogatory term equivalent to “savage” in English, and other racial slurs in Takae. Fusako Kuniyoshi, a native land protector, told me the incident encapsulates the way Japan and the United States have viewed Okinawa and its people throughout history. “They think they can come here and disrespect us because we’re indigenous,” she said. “The United States very well knows Japan won’t stand up for us.” Discrimination, Kuniyoshi says, has always been used as a tool for colonizing Okinawa. “You can really see the world right here from Takae.”

War looms large in the minds of the people in Okinawa. When Japan first annexed the Ryukyu Kingdom in 1879, the Meiji government imposed a brutal assimilation policy on Okinawans—similar to those in Korea, Taiwan, and China under Japan’s Imperial rule—that tried to eliminate indigenous culture, including the Ryukyuan languages. When Japan entered WWII, the islands quickly became a battleground—an estimated 150,000 indigenous inhabitants lost their lives in the Battle of Okinawa, considered one of the bloodiest battles between Japan and the United States.

“To this day, I still ask myself why I was left alive,” said Kishimoto. She told me she can’t shake off the images of war she witnessed as a child. “I’ll always carry the responsibility of surviving the war.” Part of that responsibility means opposing Okinawa’s continued use in US war-making. During the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, the military bases in Okinawa were used as training grounds and weapons storage. “I’m nearly eighty now, but I’m going to fight to protect this land so it’s never used for war again,” Kishimoto told me. “That’s my mission.”

Whether or not construction on the helipads has been completed, that mission will continue. On Tuesday, seven villagers from Takae, including the ward chief, visited the Okinawa Defense Bureau to demand the withdrawal of Osprey. Last weekend, some 900 demonstrators gathered in Henoko to demand the withdrawal of the US Marine Corps aircrafts and oppose the construction of helipads in Takae and the new base in Henoko. And the demonstrations outside of the main gate in Takae show no signs of stopping.

Sixty years ago, in June of 1956, more than 150,000 Okinawans took to the streets demanding the return of their ancestral lands, a movement that later became known as the “Island-wide Struggle,” or “Shimagurumi Tousou.” Okinawans and their allies have carried the movement with them to the frontlines of Takae and Henoko. On one of the days I spent at Camp Gonsalves, some 50 land and water protectors returned from the forest after they disrupted construction workers at one of the helipads. They had staged a sit-in in front of them, successfully suspending the day’s work. One of the land protectors, with a microphone in his hand, said to the crowd, “War runs in Abe’s DNA.” The crowd cheered. “Resistance runs in ours!”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this piece stated that Hiroji Yamashiro and three other activists were arrested for blocking entrance to Futenma Air Station. They were blocking Camp Schwab. The piece has been updated.

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