70 Years After The War, Okinawa Protests New US Military Base

| Resist!

Some 35,000 demonstrators raise placards reading “Do not yield to authority” during a rally to protest the Futenma U.S. air base on Okinawa, Japan, in May 2015. Jiji Press / AFP / Getty Images

Part I

HENOKO, Japan — Demonstrators, many old enough to have survived the bloody Battle of Okinawa as children, sing buoyant but defiant protest songs while holding placards reading “No new base” and “Give us back peace, give us back land.” One sign, directed at the U.S. Marines reads, “We respect you but not your job.”

Polls consistently show Okinawans and, increasingly, mainland Japanese are opposed to replacing Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, a sprawling military base in the south of the island, with a new facility in the rural Henoko district of Nago in northern Okinawa. Referred to as Henoko, the Futenma Replacement Facility (FRF) is planned to have multiple helipads, 5,900-foot dual runways, an ordnance depot, a fuel depot and an 892-foot pier capable of docking amphibious assault ships.

In May 35,000 Okinawans gathered to protest the Henoko base plan, days before Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga led a delegation to the United States to express opposition to Washington. Their demands, however, fell on deaf ears. U.S. and Japanese officials insist a new facility near Henoko Point in Oura Bay is “the only solution” to alleviating decades of tension stemming from the U.S. military presence.

Today, 43 years after the U.S. returned Okinawa to Japanese control, the U.S. maintains 32 U.S. military bases and installations plus 48 restricted air and ocean training sites on the island.

In early August the administration of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced a one-month pause in construction at Henoko, purportedly to pursue negotiations with local officials.

But as Abe pushes forward legislation that would redefine Japan’s role as a military power and Washington ramps up its Asia-Pacific pivot, part of an effort to counter Chinese influence in the region, Okinawa’s importance to the U.S. military has never been greater.

‘World’s most dangerous base’

The existing Futenma base swells in the middle of densely populated Ginowan and, like other U.S. bases in Okinawa, has been long criticized for noise, pollution and the danger posed by crashes and accidents. During a 2003 visit, then–Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld reportedly called Futenma “the world’s most dangerous base” because of its urban location, although Marine spokesman 1st Lt. Luke Kuper disputed the claim.Screen Shot 2015-08-26 at 10.12.54 AM

Instead, Kuper stressed Futenma’s role as the staging point for two squadrons of MV22 Ospreys, a hybrid aircrafts that take off and land like a helicopter but have tilt rotors that allow them to fly at airplane speeds and distances. “We have a unique lift and logistics capability … that you won’t find in many other militaries or any civilian sector,” he said.

During the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Ospreys were used to transport personnel during air assault campaigns, but he emphasized the aircraft’s role in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts in the region.

To those who criticize the controversial Osprey and question its safety record (an Osprey crashed at a military base in Hawaii in May), Kuper responded, “They’re not the ones on the ground receiving the aid after the earthquake, after the typhoon.”

“They may just hear it leave and think, ‘That was loud’ … but what they don’t understand is the lifesaving capacity that this aircraft bring[s] to the region,” he added.

In the 70 years since World War II ended, Okinawa has been central to the United States’ military presence in East Asia, serving as a testing and training site for military personnel and for the storage and transport of weapons used in wars from Korea and Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq.

That the U.S. formerly housed nuclear weapons in Okinawa has also been widely reported, although a U.S. military spokeswoman told Al Jazeera that all nuclear weapons on Okinawa were removed before returning control of the island to Japan in May 1972.

Today nearly 26,000 U.S. military personnel — almost half of U.S. forces in Japan — are stationed on the island. But serving as America’s “Keystone of the Pacific” is a role many Okinawans never wanted.

Protests around the clock

Ginowan City Council Member Isao Tobaru was one of several dozen protesters being dragged away by Okinawa police for blocking the gate at Marine Base Camp Schwab on a weekday morning in June. Tobaru, who drives an hour each week to join the peaceful protests, is frustrated by what he calls a lack of awareness among Americans of how their military affects his people.

“I feel Americans don’t think or care about other places … or realize what is happening to people in other countries,” he said, taking a break from the midday tropical sun in an open tent encampment across from Camp Schwab, where protesters keep vigil 24 hours a day.

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Two miles to the south, protesters have demonstrated for more than 4,100 consecutive days at an open tent encampment where newspaper clippings and posters document the protest movement and how a new base could threaten the environment.

Hiroshi Ashitomi visits the site six days a week and likens Henoko to a volcano that could erupt at any time, potentially threatening the future of all U.S. bases in Okinawa by completely eroding support across the islands. He sees a double standard in the U.S. pushing to build a base on reclaimed land against the wishes of the majority of Okinawans.

“We can’t imagine them building a military base in such a beautiful place,” he said. “Could the Americans do such a thing in their own country?”

Meanwhile a third protest takes place just north of Camp Schwab on the blue-green waters of Oura Bay, where small motorboats and kayaks challenge seafloor survey work that precedes land reclamation.

Okinawan photographer and diver Osamu Makishi captains a small boat that helps coordinate protests on the bay. He has been going to Oura regularly since 2004. Like many local divers and scientists, he fears building a base at Henoko will irreparably harm Oura Bay’s biodiverse marine life and fragile ecosystems, recognized by scientists as some of the healthiest and most intact in East Asia.

In addition to hundreds of species of fish, marine invertebrates, corals, seaweeds, sea snakes, crabs, turtles and other rare marine life, Oura Bay is home to seagrass beds that are feeding grounds for the dugong, a manateelike animal that is classified as vulnerable and declining in Okinawa by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

No plans to go

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At Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Kuper said Henoko protesters are a “vocal minority” fueled by an anti-military local media. But he noted that demonstrating is the hallmark of a free society, saying, “If they have issues with government of Japan projects, they can protest.”

However, Mayor Susumu Inamine dismisses U.S. claims that the Henoko plan is simply a domestic dispute between Okinawa and the Japanese government.

“The reason we have this problem is the new base is being built for U.S. Marines,” he said. “Once completed, it will all be used by America and so the U.S. needs to address this problem as a principal player here, not just as a third party.”

Inamine criticized the forceful way in which kayak protesters have been handled. “Is this something that should happen in a democratic nation?” he asked. “Would Americans permit this inside the United States?”

But as daily protests continue daily, Kuper said the U.S. military will maintain operations at Futenma until a suitable replacement facility is built.

“Wherever that would be, that’s where we’ll go,” he said, adding that he expects it to be Henoko. “It’s happening. It’s already been decided.”

Part II: Okinawans decry noise, chemical pollution at US bases across island

This is the second of a two-part series examining the impact of the U.S. military presence in Okinawa. Part onelooks at controversial plans to relocate the Futenma Marine air base.

TAKAE, Okinawa — Near the small rural community of Takae stands a weather-beaten protest tent site clinging to a roadside covered with ferns. Low clouds blow overhead, and only the shrill cry of cicadas or the hum of an occasional passing car breaks the quiet of the tropical Yanbaru Forest in northern Okinawa.

An hour’s drive north of a hotly contested yet-to-be-built military base at Cape Henoko on Oura Bay, protesters at this simple encampment keep a mostly low-profile vigil demonstrating their opposition to the large military presence in this otherwise wild place.

Seventy years after the end of World War II, there are 32 U.S. military facilities in Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture. Many of the U.S. bases there are concentrated in the crowded southern part of the island. The sparsely populated north is home to the U.S. Marine Corps Camp Gonsalves and the Jungle Warfare Training Center (JWTC). The northern and central training areas make up a 37,000-acre expanse of rugged subtropical jungle that includes the U.S.’s only site designated for practicing jungle warfare and have played a major role in training since before the Vietnam War.

Occupying almost 40 percent of the biodiverse Yanbaru Forest, the JWTC has 22 helipads used for training with the MV-22 Osprey hybrids and other military aircraft.

Rie Ishihara, a mother of four, arrived in southern Okinawa from Tokyo in 1993. Nearly a decade ago, she and her family moved north to Takae village just as the construction of helipads was being announced. Like other residents, she’s concerned about noise, pollution, forest fires and the threat of crashes and other accidents as military aircraft fly overhead.

Protesters like her are often criticized for being from the main islands of Japan, but Okinawa-born Yoshiyasu Iha — a retired chemistry teacher, a base opponent and an expert on Yanbaru’s wildlife — said he’s grateful people from outside Okinawa are also committed to protecting the islands from what they view as excessive militarism.

“This is a problem not only for Okinawa but for all Japan,” he said.

Iha — whose family survived the horrors of the Battle of Okinawa, in which a quarter to a third of the island’s population was killed, in the spring of 1945 by seeking refuge in northern Okinawa — has been exploring the Yanbaru Forest his whole life. Describing endemic plants and animals and the pure mountain streams that provide 60 percent of Okinawa’s freshwater and feed the equally biodiverse coastal and marine ecosystems below, he said its heavily militarized state precludes the Yanbaru Forest from applying for UNESCO World Heritage protective status.

“We have to win this battle,” he said. “If we don’t — if we lose — that’s the end of Okinawa.”

Every day is July 4

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Meanwhile, in the urbanized south, far from the JWTC, the Kadena Air Base occupies over 80 percent of Kadena town and includes a 6,000-acre ammunition storage area.

The enormous base, built on land seized after World War II, contains the Air Force’s largest combat air wing, with two squadrons of F-15 fighters and an array of military aircraft that includes fighter jets, transport planes, refueling aircraft, helicopters, Ospreys, reconnaissance aircraft and anti-submarine patrol planes. According to the U.S. military, it is the “hub of airpower in the Pacific,” home to more than 9,000 U.S. service members and their families and contributes an estimated $700 million annually to the local economy.

The military lauds Kadena for promoting “regional peace and stability,” but many Okinawans see the base as a source of constant noise, pollution and tension.

In 1959 an F-100 jet based at Kadena crashed and bounced into an elementary school, killing 17 local residents, including 11 children. Since then, there have been more than 40 accidents and crashes related to Okinawa bases.

“All aircraft at Kadena are thoroughly inspected before and after every flight to ensure mission effectiveness and the safety of the local community,” said U.S. Air Force 2nd Lt. Erik Anthony, in response to concerns over safety.

Kensaku Nakamoto was born in Kadena and owns a small automobile dealership along Route 74 just outside a high wall that runs along the runways of the air base. He remembered seeing only F-15s as a boy, but one day, without warning, he said, he began to notice many different aircraft flying in and out of Kadena.

Now 42, he can identify aircraft from a distance by their sound. “F-18s and F-22s are louder than F-15s,” he said, pointing toward the runways he sees from his rooftop. The noise from the base, he said, is excessive and nearly constant, causing stress for his household and for the rest of the community. He said he sees and hears flight operations, maneuvers and aircraft from 7 a.m. until sometimes as late as 10 p.m. The only truly quiet time, he said, is when a typhoon approaches.

Responding to complaints about noise from neighboring Futenma air station, U.S. Marine spokesman 1st Lt. Luke Kuper said that the military works hard to take “cultural considerations” into account but that its forces must remain operational at all times.

Nakamoto is party to one of seven lawsuits in Japan that challenge the noise of military aircraft. He is a quiet man but speaks with conviction. “We don’t need these bases,” he said. “Take your bases home.”

Several miles from his house, mainland Japanese tourists gather at a rest area that offers a clear view of military aircraft takeoffs and landings. As Sunao, an Okinawa resident, watched fighter jet enthusiasts take photos, he likened Kadena to a “driving school for pilots.”

“We see the Blue Angels every day,” he said wryly. “Here, every day is the Fourth of July.”

Toxic tanks

Across Kadena Air Base, directly opposite Nakamoto’s home, is the Okinawa City soccer field. The recreational area, which was part of Kadena until 1986 and lies several hundred feet from elementary and intermediate schools, was closed in March 2013 for improvements. When workers discovered more than 100 mostly rusty, deformed barrels beneath the playground, Okinawa officials launched a series of investigations.Screen Shot 2015-08-26 at 10.14.56 AM

With some of the barrels labeled “Dow Chemical,”officials feared contamination to the surrounding environment. Stagnant water taken from sites close to the unearthed barrels was analyzed and described in a report by the Okinawa Defense Bureau as containing dioxins, arsenic, PCBs and other toxins. Three independent experts suggested it was “highly likely” the barrels once held herbicides and defoliants. In 2013 Dow Chemical said the barrels would not have held Agent Orange.

Masami Kawamura, the director of the Citizens’ Network for Biodiversity in Okinawa, said the Okinawa Defense Bureau has downplayed the extent of contamination and called for more rigorous testing and greater transparency.

In February of this year, the Air Force addressed the community near the site of the excavated barrels in a memothat concurred with local authorities, stating, “There is no health risk to the local population from the excavation site; our children are safe.”

Kawamura, however, called declarations of safety while investigations continue “both impossible and irresponsible.”

The excavated soccer field remains visible like an open wound in the middle of Okinawa City, partially patched with crumpled blue tarps and dotted with orange safety cones. Two shipping containers that house the contaminated steel drums are veiled behind a green mesh screen that hides the site, just barely, from the busy city that surrounds it.

Kawamura said the issue of the contaminated soccer field, like complaints about aircraft noise, are grim reminders of the relationship between Okinawa and U.S. bases.

“The people of Okinawa are overwhelmed and tired of this continuous struggle to deal with so-called base problems one after another,” she said. “The time, energy, money and human resources that go into dealing with these problems are immense, hindering the healthy development of Okinawa.”