A wave of anti-U.S. protests in Okinawa

Khury Petersen-Smith reports on unrest in Japan as the U.S. military escalates its weaponry and troop presence in a region vulnerable to war and violence.

Osprey aircraft deployed by Marines in Okinawa, Japan (Sgt. Daniel K. Brown)Osprey aircraft deployed by Marines in Okinawa, Japan (Sgt. Daniel K. Brown)

THE DECISION by the U.S. and Japanese governments to deploy the Osprey MV-22 military warplane to Okinawa, a Japanese island south of the mainland and north and east of China and Taiwan, has sparked a wave of mass protest.

The largest demonstrations to date took place in a simultaneous mobilization on September 9 when 100,000 people gathered in Okinawa, thousands of people surrounded the Diet (Japanese legislature) in Tokyo, and protests were held on Ishigaki and Miyako Islands as well as the city of Iwakuni on the mainland, where Osprey aircraft are currently stationed.

The Osprey has tilting rotors that allow it to take off and land like a helicopter, but it also has fixed wings so it can fly like an airplane. These qualities, along with the fact that it can fly four times further than the helicopters that it is replacing, give the Osprey appeal as a tactical vehicle for the U.S. military. However, the Osprey is prone to crashing--there have been two Osprey crashes so far this year, in Morocco and Florida.

The deployment of the Osprey to Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, located in the densely populated city of Ginowan on Okinawa, comes with obvious risk to the civilian population.

"We refuse to accept a deployment of Osprey that has already proven so dangerous," said Ginowan Mayor Atsushi Sakima at the September 9 protest, according to the English-language news site Japan Update. "Who is going to take responsibility if they crash onto a populated neighborhood?" In 2004, a U.S. military helicopter did crash into a building at Okinawa International University.

Kazuhisa Kawamura, principal of Ginowan's Futenma No. 2 Elementary School--which is located just 200 yards from the Marine air station--is worried about an accident involving the Osprey. "The aircraft fly right over our school every day," he said in a recent report by National Public Radio (NPR). "It's frightening."

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THE CURRENT wave of demonstrations is only the latest in a history of Okinawan protest against the U.S. and Japanese governments following the Second World War--and the deployment of the Ospreys is only the latest injustice in a bitter history of crimes against the Okinawan people.

While August 1945 is generally understood in the U.S. to be the end point of the Second World War, the war did not end for Japan until April 1952 when the U.S. occupation formally ended. And when the Treaty of San Francisco re-established Japan as a sovereign country, exception was made for the southern prefecture of Okinawa, which remained formally occupied by the U.S. until 1972.

The deal under which Japan allowed Okinawa to remain under U.S. military rule is considered one of many betrayals in which Okinawa has been sacrificed by the Japanese state for Tokyo's--and now Washington's--strategic aims. Today, Okinawa bears the burden of more than half of the U.S. troop presence of 50,000 soldiers, and three-fourths of Washington's military bases in Japan. The Okinawa prefecture (similar to a state) comprises only 0.6 percent of Japan's total land area--fully 20 percent of the prefecture belongs to Washington's bases.

Okinawa's tropical climate and location have made it ideal for training and stationing of U.S. troops there. U.S. bases in Okinawa were central to the U.S. war in Vietnam in the 1960s and '70s, played a critical role in the 1991 and 2003 invasions of Iraq and the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. The Pentagon continues to regard the Okinawa bases as strategically invaluable.

But the cost to the prefecture has been heavy. According to Closethebase.org, a website run by a coalition of peace groups called the Network for Okinawa, there were 1,434 incidents and accidents related to training exercises by U.S. forces between the end of the formal occupation and 2008. During the same period, there were 5,584 cases of U.S. military personnel committing crimes against Okinawans.

Sexual crimes, in particular, have been a disturbing and constant feature of the U.S. military presence in Okinawa. In the recent movement against the Osprey's deployment, many commentators referenced the last great wave of Okinawan protests against the U.S. military in 1995, sparked by the rape of an elementary school girl by three U.S. Marines.

This past is impossible to separate from the current protests. In the words of anti-base activist and professor at the University of the Ryukus Kosozu Abe, "Without Okinawa's history, our opposition to the Osprey wouldn't have materialized. This forced deployment is symbolic of what we have experienced in the past."

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THE OTHER factor that can't be ignored in the deployment of the Ospreys is Washington's new strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific region.

The Obama administration has coined the term "pivot to Asia" to describe a whole set of steps that the U.S. government is taking to militarize the region in preparation for growing conflicts with China.

This includes deploying a majority of the U.S. Navy's fleet to the Pacific Ocean (it had been previously split evenly between the Atlantic and Pacific); stationing more U.S. troops in the region; increasing the already large U.S. military presence in Hawaii and Guam; greater military cooperation with partner states, including Vietnam, Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, South Korea, Indonesia and Japan; and the introduction of more weapons.

The U.S. deployment is designed to help ensure that Washington shapes the economics and politics of Asia for the foreseeable future. In a November 2011 article in Foreign Policy magazine, titled "America's Pacific Century," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote, "From opening new markets for American businesses to curbing nuclear proliferation to keeping the sea lanes free for commerce and navigation, our work [in Asia] holds the key to our prosperity and security at home."

U.S. officials are very explicit about preparing for a military conflict with China in the future. The U.S. is anticipating this confrontation because of China's rise as a world power, but it is also ensuring it by threatening China with its escalation of weapons and forces to the region.

The horrible prospect of a future war with China, however, shouldn't stop us from seeing the violence of Washington's "pivot" as it is unfolding right now. The deployment of Ospreys and the more forceful U.S. presence in Japan have already had negative consequences for ordinary Japanese.

For example, when a U.S. serviceman stationed at the Atsugi Naval Air Facility in Kanagawa Prefecture raped a local Japanese woman in July, police were prevented from arresting him by the Japanese government. According to the magazine Shukan Bunshun, supervisors at the local police station were told: "Because of the problems with deployment of the Ospreys, an incident involving the U.S. military might have repercussions, and is undesirable"--and therefore, they weren't allowed to issue a warrant for the serviceman's arrest.

With this latest chapter of Washington's violent history in Japan unfolding, the outpouring of Okinawan protest is very hopeful.

The movement has been building for some time throughout the prefecture. In the Yanbaru Jungle, home of the largest base in Okinawa--the Pentagon's Jungle Warfare Training Center--residents have sustained a five-year long sit-in to stop the construction of new helipads, which is where the Ospreys would land if they are ever built.

Opposition to the Ospreys is uniting Okinawan society, including peace groups, trade unions and elected officials from across the political spectrum. As Australian Okinawa solidarity scholar and activist Gavin McCormack wrote in a September op-ed in Ryuku Shimpo, "This is no longer an opposition movement, but a prefecture in resistance, saying 'No.' Japanese history has no precedent for this."

Takeshi Onaga, the mayor of Okinawa's capital, Naha and member of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, described the situation this way in the New York Times: "Anger has been building up like hot magma beneath the surface, and the Osprey could be what finally causes an eruption. If they force the Osprey onto us, this could lead to a collapse of the U.S.-Japan alliance."

On October 9, Okinawa's governor Hirokazu Nakaima and Ginowan Mayor Atsushi Sakima met with Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to urge the removal of the Ospreys.

As more plans for the Osprey come to light, the demonstrations are spreading. While the U.S. and Japanese governments have kept the routes for the Ospreys' training flights a secret, an Osprey sighting last week revealed that the routes extend over cities in Kochi Prefecture, leading to protests there.

Elsewhere in Asia, Korean peace activists in Gangjeong Village are waging an heroic struggle against the construction of a base on Jeju Island. The base, which South Korea's government insists is for Korean purposes only and won't be used by the U.S. is nevertheless understood by activists as another local aspect of the U.S. plan in the region. But the Korean, Japanese, and U.S. governments are vulnerable to these social movements, which represent an alternative to another century of war in Asia.