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.