Okinawa’s Struggle

Last November, I joined a three-day study tour to Okinawa. Since Mr. Takeshi Onaga won the gubernatorial race there in Dec. 2014, he has been fighting, in line with the popular will of the Okinawans, against the pressure from the Abe administration concerning the construction of a new US military base in Henoko in central Okinawa. In comparison with P.M. Abe who has pushed for the restart of nuclear reactors and new security-related laws in 2015, both against the will of the majority of the citizens in the country, according to opinion polls, Mr. Onaga appears as an ideal political leader in a democratic nation. Therefore, the number of people who support him keeps increasing throughout Japan. Under this circumstance, I decided to participate in the study tour to better understand the island and its people.

Before our departure from Tokyo and during our stay there, we received six hours of lecture in total on Okinawa from three different university professors. The were thought-provoking and meaningful. The archipelago of Okinawa was once a small, but an independent kingdom called Ryukyu with its unique language and culture. In 1609 it was invaded by the Satsuma feudal clan, which used to occupy the present-day Kagoshima prefecture area in southern Kyushu and became a vassal state of the clan. Then in 1872, after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, it was annexed by Japan. From March to June, 1945 at the final stage of World War II, fierce ground battles were fought in Okinawa in which a large majority of the residents were caught under fire. The islanders went through unspeakable misery of the war where 25% of the citizens were believed to have died and most of their houses destroyed.

After the defeat in 1945, Japan was occupied by the US military administration until 1952 when it regained its independence following the San Francisco Peace Treaty. However, Okinawa was disconnected from Japan and was continued to be ruled by the US military until it was finally returned to Japan in 1972. During those years under the US rule, the human rights of Okinawans were not guaranteed by the US constitution. In a sense, even the situation in current Okinawa and in Japan as well, for that matter, has not changed much. Because of the existing SOFA (US-Japan Status of Forces Agreement), the Japanese police cannot do anything with respect to crimes committed by US military personnel.

Immediately after the war and during the US occupation, Japan hosted many US military bases throughout the country. However, after 1952, the US military moved many of its functions and bases to Okinawa, which was still under its rule. As a result, the Okinawans were forced to bear heavier burden of having to live with more noises and base-related crimes. The main reason of the Okinawans’ struggle to rejoin Japan was that they thought they would be ensured of human rights as much as those in the mainland Japan enjoyed and that they would be able to live in peace and quiet with much reduced US military bases.

However, there was no reduction of US bases there even after Okinawa returned to the Japanese rule. Its burden of hosting US military bases has not been lightened at all; in fact, both the Japanese and the US governments intend to maintain the level of US presence there. The area of Okinawa is only 0.6% of the whole of Japan, but 74 % of US military bases located in Japan are concentrated in Okinawa. Moreover, both governments have pushed for the construction of a new and bigger base in Henoko as a condition to close the Futenma US military airfield, which is said to be the most dangerous airfield in the world as it is surrounded by densely populated areas. The governments have been promoting and pushing for a new base in Henoko by ignoring the strong opposition of the Okinawans who have been forced to carry heavy burden of hosting military bases.

Throughout Japan, the proponents of a new base assert to those who oppose it that Okinawa would not be viable economically without US military bases. However, available data show that the base-related revenue accounted for 15.5% of the prefectural gross income in 1972, which declined to 4.9% by 2011. On the other hand, the tourism revenue jumped more than ten-fold from 32.4 billion yen in 1972 to 390.5 billion yen in 2013 ( Against the backdrop of Asia’s continuing economic growth, the tourism sector might even grow further if bases are eliminated from Okinawa. In any case, what the Okinawans are now demanding is that the hazardous Futenma airfield be closed as soon as possible and a new helipad in Takae and a new base in Henoko not be constructed. They are not demanding that the US Air Force Base in Kadena or other bases elsewhere in the archipelago be closed.

After arriving in Naha airport, we first visited the Sakima art museum in Ginowan city. There we saw a huge painting by Iri and Toshi Maruki entitled “The Drawing of Battles of Okinawa”, a powerful picture describing the suffering of the people of Okinawa during the war. Just standing in front of this impressive art work, I could feel the agony of the people of the archipelago in those days. From the rooftop of the museum, one can see the Futenma airfield. Later we listened to the talk of Ms. Eiko Itami, a member of Soul Flower Union, a music group, who had moved to Okinawa from the Kansai area of the mainland Japan 10 years ago. She is opposed to the construction of a new base in Henoko, but since 2007 she has been organizing music events in Ginowan city involving those who accept the new base. There seems to be a good atmosphere being created between the groups through cooperative work to make the events successful. Her positive outlook and open-mindedness must be paying off.

On the second day, we visited the seaside site of the group movement opposing a new base in Henoko. We also went to the tent in front of the gate of Camp Schwab, a US Marine Corps base, where a proposed new base is to be constructed by extending the current Marine base into the beautiful sea by reclaiming land. This would definitely destroy the natural habitat of dugons, an endangered species of sea mammal which can be seen only in Henoko around Japan. There, the leaders briefed us on the background and current status of their struggle. We also joined the demonstration in front of the gate, which was conducted peacefully as it was before the riot police from Tokyo arrived.

There is no convenience store or eating place in front of or near the gate. Under such circumstances, the lunch prepared by three charming women was delicious. Clad in a pink T-shirt with anti-base slogans on both sides of the shirt, these three ladies in their 70s, known there as “Zama Candies” apparently make monthly trips to Okinawa from Kanagawa prefecture to support the anti-base movement as volunteers and prepare lunch for the supporters, charging the actual cost. Where there is no eating place in front of the gate, the heartfelt lunch prepared by them was much appreciated.

Those who condone the new base in Henoko claim that those who oppose it are being paid the daily allowance of 20,000 yen for participating in demonstrations. What is the base for their assertion? We did not meet anyone who seems to fit that category. All the members of my study tour group paid for our trips out of own pockets, keeping the expenses down by staying in low-cost accommodation. It was reported that the members of the riot police are staying in luxury hotels costing taxpayers 20,000 yen per person per night (Shukan Kinyoubi News, Nov. 20, 2015 issue). We are different from the riot police who stay in top-notch hotels.

I learned a lot before and during the trip. The thundering noises of jet fighters in training flying overhead from early in the morning was too much to bear, but this is what the Okinawans have to put up with daily. However, the most memorable experience for me was the meeting with Mr. Minoru Kinjo, a sculptor-artist. Being a peace activist, he entrusts his powerful messages of the misery of war and desire for peace in all his works. His numerous sculptures being displayed side by side in both his garden and atelier condensed the sadness, anger and tenderness of Okinawa before, during and after WWII and they captured my heart. When P.M. Abe and other dignitaries of his administration visit Okinawa, I wish them to visit Mr. Kinjo’s atelier to truly understand the people there.

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