Inside the Sit-Ins Against U.S. Military Expansion on Okinawa

News Abroad

Kikuno Yumiko is Editor of “U-Yu-Yu,” a community journal based in Miyakonojo, Miyazaki, and works for the city’s community revitalization project. Norimatsu Satoko leads various peace initiatives in Vancouver and beyond, including, Peace Philosophy Centre and Vancouver Save Article 9. This article was written in Japanese and translated for the Asia Pacific Journal by the author and Norimatsu Satoko. It originally appeared in the Asia Pacific Journal on February 22, 2010

Okinawa used to be the independent Ryukyu Kingdom, blessed with a bountiful environment and friendly trade relations with many other Asian countries.  In March 1609, Satsuma-han [which controlled Kyūshū] invaded the Ryukyu Kingdom.  In 1879, the Meiji government forced the Kingdom to surrender Shuri Castle by means of the “Ryukyu Disposition,” which brought down the curtain on the Ryukyu Kingdom. Ryukyuan culture was subsequently lost under the assimilation policy of the Japanese government.  Towards the end of the Asia-Pacific War, war was forced upon Ryukyu Islanders in the Battle of Okinawa, in which 200,000 lives were lost, including over 90,000 local civilians who were killed or forced to commit suicide.  Today, Okinawa is burdened with 75 [percent] of all U.S. military bases in Japan.  It seems so unfair that the Ryukyu Islands have had to endure such a tragic history.  I want[ed] to bring my heart closer to Okinawa and its people, especially in light of the “Futenma Base Transfer” controversy.

On December 25, 2009, I visited “Henoko Tent Village” in Okinawa, with Satoko Norimatsu, Director of the Peace Philosophy Centre, a peace education center in Canada.   The “village” has acted as a base for the thirteen-year-long nonviolent anti-base movement.  On the day we visited it was raining, which made Henoko beach look like it was crying.  We were welcomed by Toyama Sakae, the “mayor” of Henoko Tent Village, and by other activists, including Nakazato Tomoharu, “Yasu-san,” and “Na-chan.”  Mr. Toyama invited us to have a seat and proceeded to explain the history of the movement to save Henoko.

In 1995, the rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl by three U.S. Marines triggered a huge anti-base movement throughout…Okinawa.  Then, in 1996, Japan and the United States agreed to the plan put forward by the Special Action Committee on Okinawa (SACO), which stipulated that the Futenma Air Station would be relocated to Henoko, on the east coast of northern Okinawa, in an attempt to appease Okinawans angered not only by the rape but above all by the heavy U.S. base presence in the densely populated south.  The following year…residents of Henoko started an organization called…“the Association for Protecting Life.”  They began a campaign opposing the effort to establish a new U.S. base at Henoko.  The majority of Nago citizens also voted against the agreement, in a referendum held that same year.  However, the mayor of Nago at that time accepted the plan.  These events marked only the beginning of what has been a long and unfinished struggle in Henoko.

Success in stopping plan to build an offshore U.S. airbase

In 2002, the Japanese government decided to construct a 3,000 meter-long U.S. air station two kilometers off the coast of Henoko.  If this new U.S. base were to be built, the beautiful view from Henoko of the horizon over the ocean would disappear entirely.  On April 19, 2004, the Naha Defense Facilities Administration Bureau (DFAB) tried to proceed with construction, but approximately seventy people erected a sit-in human barricade to keep dump trucks from passing through.  At 5:00 AM on September 19, 2004, approximately 400 activists gathered and prepared for a confrontation with riot police.  The DFAB learned of the sit-in and decided to access the site by going through Camp Schwab, chartering fishing boats from Henoko fishermen (whom they paid exceedingly well), and setting out to sea rather than risk confronting the barricade.

The battle subsequently moved from land to sea.  The anti-base activists attempted to stop the DFAB from setting up scaffolding towers to conduct the drilling – their plan being to drill at a rate of sixty-three borings per year.  The activists set out to sea in canoes, surrounding the buoy markers, an hour before the construction workers started their workday.  Despite repeated attempts over a two month period to halt underwater surveying, four towers were completed.  After that, some activists took to wrapping their bodies with a chain and locking themselves to the motor set on the top of the tower in an attempt to interrupt the operation.  In the course of this resistance some of the protesters, including one woman in her fifties, were pushed off the top of the scaffolding tower and were injured.

DFAB commenced night shifts starting in April 2005 and since that time, protesters have had to spend twenty-four hours a day hanging on to the towers…. As a result of the protesters’ unwavering campaign, the government finally abandoned its plan to build an offshore air station on October 29, 2005.  The number of people who participated in the campaign totaled sixty thousand, including twenty thousand who protested at sea.

Henoko suffering more from new Japan-U.S. agreement

On October 29, 2005, Japan and the U.S. agreed on a new plan to build a 1,800 meter-long runway inshore from Henoko, partially on the peninsula, instead of entirely offshore…. In April 2006, Nukaga Fukushiro, Japan’s Defense Agency chief at the time, told Nago mayor Shimabukuro Yoshikazu about yet another new plan, this time to build a V-shaped runway.  Nukaga explained that one side of the runway would be used only for landing and the other side only for taking off.  This plan would be safer, Nukaga insisted, because fighter planes would not fly over residential areas.  In the end, the Defense Agency chief prevailed and the mayor of Nago green-lit the V-shaped runway.  However, according to Toyama, military flight training mostly involves what is known as “touch-and-go” landing – landing then immediately taking off without coming to a full stop.  This is the way the Marines have been training at Futenma Air Station….

 In April 2007, it was decided that Naha DFAB would begin an environmental assessment of the area where the V-shaped runway would be constructed….

The Henoko activists know that they can’t completely thwart the government’s survey, but they continue their land-based and maritime actions, hoping to interrupt and delay the survey to buy time until the Nago mayoral election (January 2010) and the Okinawa gubernatorial race (November 2010).  Mr. Toyama said [that] “following the survey, the Naha Defense Bureau has to apply for a reclamation permit, and this requires approval by the prefectural governor.  If a candidate opposing the base construction wins the next gubernatorial election, we will be able to stop the base construction plan.  That’s the kind of vision we hold as we continue our protest.”

Mr. Toyama also told us about environmental concerns the likes of which we have never heard before.  Twenty-one million cubic meters (2,100,000 ten-ton truckloads) of sand will be needed to reclaim 160 hectares of land from the sea for the proposed construction.  The government agency would have to exploit most of the sand along the East Coast of Okinawa, as well as cutting down thirty hectares of trees around Henoko Dam in order to dig out two million cubic meters of soil and gravel.  The dugong [a marine mammal similar to a manatee] would die out because the sea grasses that they feed on would be destroyed, and the Henoko Dam would be unable to supply enough clean water to residents.  Naha DFAB explained the area was a convenient place to extract soil and gravel quickly and reliably.  Mr. Toyama said, “We have been told that the new U.S. base is necessary for our security, but this plan will threaten that very security because it will ruin even our drinking water.”

Future prospects

In terms of the political aspect, Mr. Toyama explained, “The three ruling parties [DPJ, SDP, People’s New Party] are reviewing the U.S. military realignment plan in order to lessen the burden of Okinawans, and I feel hopeful about their consideration of a place other than Henoko for relocating Futenma.  The current [Hatoyama] government expressed opposition to the Henoko relocation before the Lower House election last year.  If instead they apply for the reclamation permit as planned for April 2010, they would be contradicting themselves and be left without a leg to stand on. In the last election of the House of Representatives, candidates opposing the new base construction won all four election districts in Okinawa, so I expect the trend will continue into the upcoming Nago mayoral election and the Okinawa gubernatorial race in 2010.”  He added, “The construction industry occupies a large portion of secondary industry in Okinawa and most of the base supporters are subcontractors who are given public works contracts by the big general construction companies, such as Mitsubishi.  However, seventy-percent of Okinawans oppose construction of a new base in Okinawa and only fifteen percent approve it.”  In terms of the environment, the U.S. District Court in San Francisco ruled in 2008 that the U.S. base construction plan in Henoko violated the National Historic Preservation Act of the United States.  Although this judgment did not require withdrawal of the plan, it ordered the U.S. Department of Defense to provide environmental protection measures. Hopefully this decision will have an impact on the actions of the U.S. government.

While listening to Mr. Toyama’s explanation, I heard the creaking sound of the pipes that supported the tents. It sounded like the painful cries of Henoko.  I looked around inside the tent and found a large tapestry that read:

“At the end of the Battle of Okinawa,
Mountains were burnt. Villages were burnt. Pigs were burnt.
Cows were burnt. Chickens were burnt.
Everything on the land was burnt.
What was left for us to eat then?
It was the gift from the ocean.
How could we return our gratitude to the ocean
By destroying it?”

Four hundred years after the Japanese invasion of the Ryukyu Kingdom, have we ever listened to the voices of Okinawa?  Have we ever truly understood their suffering?  Have our hearts ever reached out to the 13-year long struggles in Henoko?  I said to myself, “I am sorry for Henoko… and Okinawa…We won’t let another military base be built in Henoko or anywhere else in Okinawa.”

Many thanks to Mr. Toyama and the other activists in the Tent Village for giving us such a thorough explanation of the situation.

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