In Okinawa, the US Military Seeks a Base Built on the Bones of the War Dead

In Okinawa, the US Military Seeks a Base Built on the Bones of the War Dead

In Okinawa, the US Military Seeks a Base Built on the Bones of the War Dead

Japan is using earth from a battlefield filled with human remains to build the foundation of a US military installation.


One Sunday in October, Takamatsu Gushiken dug up a femur. It was one of several exciting finds that fall. By the month’s end, he had uncovered the phalange of a foot, two fibulas, and a lower jaw, too. He rushed to tell the rest of his volunteer group, Gamafuya, which means “cave diggers” in the Okinawan Indigenous language of Uchinaaguchi. The bones confirmed what Gushiken had known all along: There, in a tract of forest in the southern city of Itoman, Okinawa, lay the remains of the victims of World War II.

As November began, Gushiken returned to the site to find the forest had been clear-cut.

“We only work on Sundays,” he told me over Zoom. “When we went to the site on Sunday, November 1, we found that the area of the forest where we were working was gone.” One week after that, Gushiken encountered a “No Trespassing” sign. The site had a new owner, a local gravel and sand company, and a new name, Kumano Mine.

“The company had no contract at all,” Gushiken explained. But local mining outfits had been keeping track of the news. In April 2020, the Japanese Ministry of Defense submitted a revised plan for the construction of a US military base in the bay off the shore of the Henoko district of Nago city, complementing the existing Marine Corps base Camp Schwab. The construction, which was announced in 1996 and was supposed to be completed by 2014, would require dramatically more landfill than once thought. In the forest where Gamafuya saw a chance to return the dead to their families, the mining company saw an opportunity to sell massive amounts of earth to a pair of big spenders: the Japanese Defense Ministry and the US Department of Defense.

While the original land reclamation sites for the base were located in the northern part of Okinawa and on mainland Japan, the expansion seeks land from the south of Okinawa, known for hosting much of the fighting during the war. About 70 percent of the earth is to be sourced from Itoman, a city that once hosted some of the bloodiest episodes in the Battle of Okinawa, which stretched from April through June, 1945, and killed more than 100,000 Okinawan civilians—about a third of the island’s population. To this day, the ground in Itoman is packed with remains.

“It’s a sacred place, where the families of war victims visit to pray,” Gushiken said.

If the plan proceeds as written, the US military base will be built on a foundation filled with the bones of the war dead.

The base at Henoko Bay requires so much landfill because it is being built in the ocean. Okinawa, a prefecture comprised of an archipelago with an eponymous big island, already holds 32 US military installations on its combined 877 square miles. Most are on the main island, where the US military occupies 15 percent of all land. Officially, the new base is a replacement for the Futenma Air Station, which President Bill Clinton promised would close within five to seven years of a 1996 joint announcement. But critics have long been skeptical that the base at Henoko will take the place of the old air station, both because its completion remains uncertain, and because its intended capacities exceed what Futenma has now.

Local architect and activist Makishi Yoshikazu describes the Henoko base plan as a “hat trick” in which three new facilities—a military airport, pier, and combat aircraft loading zone—will be rolled into one. “Although it’s called the ‘Futenma relocation,’ it’s not a relocation,” he said. “It’s the construction of a new base.” The difference is semantic, but it’s one that local activists find important. As the Japanese government expands the island’s area, the United States expands its military presence.

With Futenma still open, the base construction is delayed, in part, because the Japanese government needs more landfill for ground reinforcement work. Drilling surveys completed since 2014 have revealed that the seafloor off the shore of Henoko is “soft as mayonnaise,” making it too weak to support the planned base. According to Hideki Yoshikawa, an anthropologist and the director of the Okinawa Environmental Justice Project, the Japanese government’s 2014 plan was to drive 2,700 sand pillars into the seafloor; that number has since increased to 71,000.

On top of the need for more dirt came restrictions on where to collect it. “In 2015 the Okinawa prefectural assembly passed a bylaw prohibiting the introduction of alien species in transported earth materials for landfill,” Yoshikawa explained. The ordinance is a crucial environmental protection: The Ryukyu Islands, the archipelago that makes up what is now Okinawa Prefecture, lies 400 miles south of mainland Japan, with a tropical climate and an array of diverse ecosystems. (Henoko Bay itself contains coral reefs and rare marine populations, including the Okinawa dugong, a critically endangered manatee relative.) The rule precluded the use of some mainland soil, which, under the previous plan, would likely have been teeming with invasive species.

But the new scheme is legally dubious, too. The site now called Kumano Mine is within Okinawa Senseki (battle site) Quasi-National Park, a property designated for protection by the Japanese central government and maintained, in part, by the Prefecture of Okinawa. Next to the Kumano Mine is Konpaku-no-To, or Konpaku Memorial Tower, a stone monument where 35,000 bodies were interred after the war’s end.

“By protecting the battle site of the south of Okinawa main island, which is well-known as a fierce battlefield between Japan and USA during WWII, we will be aware of the misery caused by war and of the treasure of peace,” notes the prefectural government’s Nature Conservation Division on its website. “It is the place to pray for more than 200,000 war dead.” The total includes not only the Okinawan civilians who died during the war, but also tens of thousands of Japanese and American soldiers and Korean and Taiwanese conscripts who Japan forced into military service.

After Gushiken approached local media with his findings in November, the Environment Department of Okinawa Prefecture ordered a pause to the development, but the reprieve appears to be short-lived. After a delay of about a month, the mining company submitted a new plan for development to the city of Itoman, and the city notified the prefecture of its approval on January 20. The prefectural government is reportedly ready to accept the plan as well.

The excavation site is located below a wooded area called the Peace Creation Forest, all within the Okinawa Senseki park. “If the collection of earth and sand is realized here, the road leading to the Peace Creation Forest Park would be filled with dump trucks,” wrote local activist group Okinawa Peace Forum in a January 26 letter to Governor Denny Tamaki. “The slope of the hill of the Peace Creation Forest Park will be scraped off, [and] the scenery surrounding the area will be tremendously destroyed.”

On January 25, the Japan Times published a scoop that enraged peace activists. “The [Japanese] Ground Self-Defense Force and the U.S. Marine Corps reached a secret agreement in 2015 to station a GSDF amphibious unit at the Marines’ Camp Schwab in the Henoko district of Okinawa Prefecture,” the story read. “The plan has been suspended due to the impasse between Okinawa and the Japanese government over the planned relocation of the Marines’ Air Station Futenma from a densely populated area in Ginowan to the Henoko coastal area of Nago. The GSDF, however, has yet to give up the plan.”

The amphibious unit, in the works since 2006 and activated in 2018, had long been a cause for concern to opponents of Japan’s remilitarization. Japan’s US-imposed constitution forbids the country from maintaining an active military, but increasingly hawkish national governments, including those of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and now Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, have chipped away at this prohibition. The United States has largely supported them. (US Forces Japan and the Japan Ground Self Defense Force did not respond to The Nation’s requests for comment.)

The Japan Times story confirmed locals’ fears. “We were already imagining the new Henoko base is not only for US forces,” said Yuichi Kamoshita, a Buddhist monk who works with Gushiken and who organized a petition to protect the remains in Itoman.

For many, the increased presence of the Japanese military awakens traumatic memories and passed-down stories of the Battle of Okinawa. During the three-month conflict, the Japanese army expelled civilians from their homes and drafted Okinawan teenagers into guerrilla warfare efforts—a story explained in Hanayo Oya and Chie Mikami’s 2018 documentary Boy Soldiers: The Secret War in Okinawa. To hide from both the Japanese and American militaries, many Okinawan civilians retreated underground for weeks, often starving to death, committing mass suicide, or being executed by soldiers from the mainland.

Once the independent Ryukyu Kingdom, Okinawa was colonized by Japan after a centuries-long struggle. It was annexed officially in 1879, and starting in 1898, the Japanese government privatized communally owned land and impoverished indigenous families, driving many to emigrate (including my great-grandparents). When World War II came, Japan intentionally concentrated its military in Okinawa, offering the most remote and newest prefecture as a diversion to stave off a US invasion of the mainland. It worked, but the Allied Forces still won, and the United States governed Okinawa from 1951 to 1972.

Despite the revelation of the Japanese Self-Defense Force’s intent to use Camp Schwab—and, almost certainly, the new base as well—the project is still regarded as an offering to the United States. In exchange for the presumed protection of the US military, Japan is footing the bill for the base construction, allowing the US to expand its network of military installations at minimal cost. Local and international opponents believe that the influence of the US government could stop the construction.

“With the Biden administration seemingly more inclined to focus on Indigenous issues in its own country, connecting these issues in the framework of Indigenous rights may be a good idea to direct the attention of the US government to the Henoko project,” Yoshikawa suggested, pointing to Biden’s nomination of Debra Haaland as secretary of the interior.

Gushiken said that he expects to see solidarity from Americans when they learn about the use of human remains for the landfill: “If they hear this story, they will realize this is a humanitarian issue, and they will raise their voices together against the plan.” While we chatted on Zoom, he scribbled on a piece of paper and held it up to the camera. In all caps, it said: “MAY HELLEN.”

He found the name, or names, written on a GI’s mess kit recovered years ago during an excavation at Hacksaw Ridge. Gushiken brings artifacts to classrooms for peace education. “I show that mess kit to kids and tell them that not only Okinawans died during the war. In addition to Okinawan and Japanese, American people’s blood and Korean people’s blood were mixed into the Okinawan soil.”

But to Gushiken, education is a secondary goal. “If we can find a family member of this May person, who is still alive and would like to have the mess kit, I would love to return it,” he said. For the nearly 40 years that Gushiken has pursued his work, his objective has been to identify artifacts and remains and return them to the families of the deceased.

The bones that Gushiken discovered in the fall are still in the ground at what is now Kumano Mine. “As the digging work had not been finished, the bones have been not collected yet,” Kamoshita said. Gushiken has appealed to the Okinawa Defense Bureau, asking its representatives to visit the site and see the remains for themselves. Still lacking a definitive answer, he plans to go on hunger strike in front of the Okinawa Prefecture Government Office Building starting March 1.

“When the Defense Bureau decided to collect earth and sand from the southern part of Okinawa main island, did they know that remains were still there?” Gushiken asked. When the bureaucrats demurred, he added: “As you are not able to answer, that means that you were aware of the fact that remains are there, but still you are trying to go ahead. That means you have lost your human hearts.”

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