One location is Shiokawa, on the East China Sea side of the island, where the government’s Okinawa Defense Bureau is tearing down a mountain and loading it into dump trucks. There, protesters delay the work by standing in front of the trucks. The second location is the nearby Awa Pier, where the mountain-become-dirt is loaded onto small cargo ships. There, by milling around on the sidewalk at the gate where there’s a traffic light, protesters reduce the number of trucks entering the area to one per green light. This reduces the number of ships that depart each day. In the water, the ships are further delayed by a brave fleet of sea-kayakers, who crowd around the bow of each ship until they are hauled away. Once free of the kayakers, the ships sail to the Pacific Ocean side of the island, to Cape Henoko, site of the US Marines’ Camp Schwab, and dump the dirt into the sea as landfill to support the airstrip that is planned to cut across the cape and stick out into the sea on both sides, wreaking ecocatastrophe on the coral garden there. Another team of kayakers meets them, delaying the process still more.
The third charter bus destination is the gate on the inland side of Camp Schwab, where a daily sit-in slows down the huge fleets of trucks—cement trucks, trucks carrying building materials, and dump trucks carrying more dirt from nearby locations—that enter the construction site in the form of three convoys of 200–300 vehicles a day, even during the pandemic.
Okinawa was a peaceful independent kingdom until Japan seized it in the same historical era that the United States seized Puerto Rico. Legally, Okinawans are Japanese; culturally, they are a colonized indigenous people. Occupying 0.6 percent of Japanese territory, they are stuck with more than 70 percent of the US military installations in Japan, a situation they call structural discrimination. Okinawan conservatives and progressives are united in opposing the construction of yet another base.
The protesters are mostly retired people. It makes sense. Direct action targeting construction needs to be carried out during working hours. Also, people living on retirement incomes don’t need to worry about getting fired. But more than that, most of these folks remember the Battle of Okinawa or the devastation that came after, and see this as their last chance to put their hatred of war into the form of a concrete achievement. Asked why they think they can win against the combined force of the US and Japanese governments, their fixed answer is “Because we won’t quit until we do.”
Last week, I took the Wednesday bus to Henoko. Fifteen people were on it, a bit down from the previous average of around 20, probably because of Covid, but the reduced number made it easier to keep our distance.
The mood was good, with lots of happy greetings. These people enjoy one another’s company and love having something meaningful to do each day. The 90-minute drive was spent listening to self-introductions from three who’d come down from mainland Japan (these buses have mics), discussing politics, exchanging information, and singing. H-san, who presides over the Wednesday bus, was her usual bubbly self, alternating between humor and anger as she talked about Japan’s new prime minister. Her punch line: “As for being Japanese, I resign. I’m Okinawan!” C-san, an eloquent raconteur who always sits in the left rear seat, talked (half in Japanese, half in the Okinawan language) about why he is confident the airbase will never get built: The sea bottom on the northern side of Cape Henoko is unstable slime—mayonnaise, they call it—and will never support a concrete airstrip. T-san, who specializes in irony and black humor, got lots of laughs. The Henoko action, including the bus ride, has been called Henoko University.
A few months ago, Covid appeared inside the construction site, and work was shut down briefly. When it resumed, the question at the gate became how both the protesters and the riot policemen could carry out their respective roles while observing social distancing rules.
This was the 2,313th day of the sit-in. Our job at the gate, together with several dozen others who’d come on different buses, was to delay the second and the third of that day’s truck convoys. In the past, the interaction between police and protesters was pretty rough, especially when most of the riot police were from mainland Japan. In those days there was a lot of anger on both sides. Nonviolence resembled that of a rugby match—no hitting but lots of pushing and shoving. Now most of the Japanese have been sent home. The remaining Okinawan riot police have probably heard more anti-Henoko-base speeches than any humans on earth. Most of those speeches are delivered by women, who must remind them of their mothers or grandmothers. That, plus the adamant nonviolence of the protesters, has had its effect. The action has come to look less and less like rugby.
It’s quite something to see. With a convoy of a couple hundred trucks halted on the highway, the officer in charge of this police unit—who has become pretty friendly toward the protesters—repeats through his bullhorn that the sit-inners are violating traffic law and must move aside. From time to time, he looks at his watch. The sit-inners continue speech-making and singing. The riot police stand silently, waiting for the order. After 15 or 20 minutes, he gives it—not to carry protesters away, but to ask them politely. This the riot police do, one by one. The protesters refuse, and refuse, and refuse again, but when the policemen make as if to pick them up, they stand up and amble to the side.
This slow-motion, spatially distant enactment of conflict may not be exciting, and it slows down the delivery by only about 20 minutes. But repeated three times, that’s one lost hour a day. More important, the sit-in deprives the builders of free access to the gate and the efficiency of just-in-time deliveries; it forces them to organize convoys and protect them with hundreds of police. Through the repetition of these protest tactics, combined with refusal of the Prefectural Government to issue permits, refusal of the City of Nago to allow construction work on land it controls, and many lawsuits and protests from environmentalists, the cost estimate has tripled, the target date has been postponed by more than a decade, and many people—including some in the US Congress—believe (or worry, in the case of the Congresspeople) that the thing will never get done.
Scenes From a Pandemic is a collaboration between The Nation and Kopkind, a living memorial to radical journalist Andrew Kopkind, who from 1982–94 was the magazine’s chief political writer and analyst. This series of dispatches from Kopkind’s far-flung network of participants, advisers, guests, and friends is edited by Nation contributor and Kopkind program director JoAnn Wypijewski, and appears weekly on thenation.com and kopkind.org.