In early August, I visited Takae, a remote and small district of about 150 inhabitants in Higashi village in the northern part of the main island of Okinawa, to take part in a sit-in against the construction of “Osprey-pads”. Two have already been built near Takae, adjacent to or surrounded by the pristine sub-tropical forest called Yanbaru, rich with its unique biodiversity. About 7,800 hectares of Yanbaru is reserved as the Northern Training Field (NTF) where the US Marine Corps’ Jungle Warfare Training Center is located. The US Marines have used the area since 1957 for training their soldiers for jungle warfare before they were dispatched to Viet Nam, Afghanistan, Iraq or elsewhere in the world.
The proposal to construct new “Osprey-pads” stems from the SACO (Special Action Committee on Okinawa) agreement dating back to 1996, concluded between the Japanese and the American governments. The agreement followed a huge demonstration in Okinawa in 1995, demanding the reduction of US military presence there after a local school girl was raped by three American soldiers. According to the Administrative Agreement under Article III of the Security Treaty between the two countries, Japan cannot even arrest and try any member of the US military forces who commit crime on Japanese soil (ja.m.wikipedia.org). Naturally, the Okinawans have rightly been angry at this situation in view of the fact that they host 74% of US military bases situated in Japan when their prefecture comprises only 0.6% of the total land area of the country (See my previous blog “Okinawa’s Struggle”).
Alarmed by the growing hostility of the locals towards the US military presence, the two governments tried to appease them by announcing that about 4,000 hectares of the NTF be returned to them, thereby reducing their burden. About half of Yanbaru forest now occupied by the US Marine Corps to be given back to the people sounded too good to be true. Sure enough, it was to be delivered with a certain condition.
There are already 22 helipads built throughout the NTF. Therefore, the condition of returning half of the NTF was based on the relocation of six existing ones in the part to be returned to the part remaining as the NTF. Moreover, the six “helipads” were to be built in such a way to surround the community of Takae (“Voice of Takae”, Oct. 01, 2013). However, little had the locals been told that the new “helipads” were no ordinary “helipads”, but were for flight training of MV22 Osprey, “a tilt-rotor hybrid aircraft almost universally reviled for its noise and safety record (See “Fighting to Save A Remote Okinawan Forest” by Jon Letman in his blog dated Aug. 12, 2016). Besides, each new “Osprey-pad” would require a space of 75 meters in diameter, including the landing pad of 45 meters in diameter, much larger than an ordinary helipad (“Voice of Takae”, op cit.). So, this was far from having the locals’ burden to be reduced. It was totally the opposite.
In response to the SACO agreement, the Takae residents adopted in 1997 a resolution opposing the construction of new “helipads” in their district, and this was repeated in 2006. Nevertheless, the Japanese government ignored them and went ahead with the construction work in July 2007, when the residents began their sit-in. So, the government took some sit-in participants to court for obstructing traffic on a public road. But it was clearly a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) lawsuit by the government to bully, harass and divide the villagers. The case, in which 15 individuals had originally been accused, including a child, lingered on till 2014, in which one defendant at the end was found guilty (Information provided at a lecture meeting held on July 30, 2016, at Community Centre in Funabashi, Chiba and “Voice of Takae”, June 28, 2015).
While the villagers continued with their opposition to new Osprey-pads, two were completed by 2014, one of which is located only 400 meters away from the nearest house in the village. The actual Osprey flight training using the completed ones began in 2015. While it has been reported that they are not allowed to fly over residential areas in the United States, they fly low over houses and schools in Takae day and night, destroying the quiet life of the villagers and precious environment in Yanbaru (“Voice of Takae,” June 28, 2015). Due to continuous resistance by the villagers and their supporters from elsewhere, however, the construction of other Osprey-pads had been suspended till July this year.
The work resumed suddenly and forcefully, however, soon after the elections of the upper house of Parliament in July. This was despite that the Okinawans clearly expressed their opposition to new US military installations by overwhelmingly defeating the member of PM Abe’s cabinet who was up for re-election there. As if to take a revenge for the election result, PM Abe sent in early in the morning of July 22 about 500 riot police gathered from different municipalities around Japan to remove about 200 villagers and supporters taking part in a sit-in in front of the main entrance leading to the construction site in the NTF.
Owing to soft soil in Yanbaru, heavy-duty trucks carrying building materials in and out of the construction sites have apparently caused a few places to cave in, hampering dumper trucks to transport materials smoothly. Therefore, the government announced the acceleration of the work by allowing trucks to enter from another point into the NTF, where the villagers have been blocking the entry by putting up a fence.
There was a rumor in early Aug. that the riot police would storm this gate early in the morning of either the 5th or the 6th of August. The villagers therefore appealed urgently to supporters around Japan, asking as many of them as possible to come and assemble in front of the gate to prevent the riot police from destroying the fence and removing the sit-in participants. So two friends and I flew to Okinawa to join about 1,500 others who responded to the appeal that weekend and spent tense and sleepless nights in tents and cars. Perhaps the number of us gathered there was too overwhelming for the riot police, so nothing happened on those days. Since then, the sit-ins by the villagers and supporters continue, and as at this writing, the gate blocking trucks’ entry at the other point is still intact.
The way the Japanese government has proceeded with the construction of new and large Osprey-pads under the pretext of reducing the Okinawans’ burden in relation to the presence of the US military forces has been awful and cowardly. The government tactic cannot be justified in a democratic country where human rights and pursuit of happiness of all citizens, including those of the Okinawans, are guaranteed under our current Constitution. A villager said that although PM Abe and the LDP, the ruling party, had been warning the Japanese people that unless we strengthened our defense, we might be engulfed by China or North Korea, but it was the riot police from the main land Japan who invaded Takae.
There should be open and nation-wide debates on national security and defence matters to agree on what should be done for the future of our country. Once we have a consensus, the burden should be shared fairly, rather than forcing the Okinawans to shoulder a large part of it.
It should be noted here that the US Veretans for Peace (VFP) adopted at its 31st annual convention (Aug. 11- 15, Berkeley, California) the Emergency Resolution Opposing Arbitrary Resumption of Helipad Construction at Takae. VFP “condemns the renewed helipad construction at Takae, and urges the US Government, and in particularthe US military, to communicate to the Japanese government that the US wants no part of this shameful, anti-democratic and discriminatory action, that it does not want new bases at such a price, and that it wishes Japan to abandon the plan to construct new US bases at Henoko and Takae.”