Resistance builds in Okinawa

May 27, 2015

K. Smith explains the backdrop to the latest protests against U.S. bases in Okinawa.

TENS OF thousands of people took part in three days of mass demonstrations in Okinawa against the U.S. military presence. The largest rally came on May 17, the last of the three days, when more than 30,000 people gathered in Okinawa Cellular Stadium in Naha, the capital. The protests were against the proposed construction of a new military base at Henoko in Nago City, where the enormous Camp Schwab is already located.

Okinawa is the southernmost prefecture of Japan. It consists of Okinawa Island and a number of smaller islands. Though it comprises only 0.6 percent of Japan's total territory, Okinawa is the site of three-quarters of U.S. military facilities and the base for two-thirds of the roughly 47,000 U.S. troops stationed on Japanese land. About a fifth of Okinawa's land belongs to the U.S. military, as does an incalculable amount of the sea surrounding Okinawa and the airspace above it.

Activists and scientists have called attention to the threat that the proposed base poses to Henoko and Oura Bay's ecosystem. The bay is rich in biodiversity and home to the dugong, an endangered species of marine mammal. According to Hideki Yoshikawa of the Citizens Network for Biodiversity in Okinawa, the proposed base "would threaten the extinction of the Okinawa dugong population." To highlight this threat from the proposed base, protesters at the May 17 rally wore blue.

A protest against further U.S. military expansion in Okinawa
A protest against further U.S. military expansion in Okinawa

The other significance of the base at Henoko is that, along with new helipads to be built in Takae in the northern part of the island, this would be the first large expansion of U.S. bases in Okinawa in years.

The protests are just the latest wave of resistance to the U.S. bases and to the construction of the new facilities at Henoko in particular. For more than 11 years, activists have maintained a sit-in on the beach of Henoko to stop the base construction. Thus far, they have been successful.

ONCE AN independent kingdom called Ryukyu, Okinawa was captured and annexed by Japan in 1872. Physically distant and culturally distinct from mainland Japan, it has long been marginalized by Tokyo. During the Second World War, Okinawa was considered a "fifth column" by Imperial Japan and subjected to brutal martial law.

In 1945, Okinawa became the site of one of the last battles of the war--with catastrophic consequences for the people. Unsurprisingly, invading U.S. forces, which aimed to capture Okinawa and use it as a base for an assault on mainland Japan, were also vicious. In the slaughter that ensued, at least 100,000 Okinawans were killed, caught between the two warring powers.

Since the war, Okinawa has faced the combined violence of the Japanese and U.S. empires--now allied in the interest of Western domination of the Asia-Pacific region.

Central to this project has been the collaboration of the one-time rivals in colonizing Okinawa. When the American military's postwar occupation of Japan ended in 1952, the U.S. and Japanese governments agreed to continue it for another 20 years it in Okinawa--effectively severing the prefecture from the rest of Japan. During the occupation, the U.S. seized land to build bases that remain operational in Okinawa today.

In 2011, the Obama administration unveiled its so-called "pivot to Asia," the term for the American empire's new strategic focus on the Asia-Pacific region. This is focus is now in the spotlight because of the congressional battle over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an economic treaty that would further tie together U.S. allies in the region, while excluding China.

Activists in the U.S. and elsewhere have criticized the TPP for giving corporations and the free market free reign. But it is important to remember that there are also political and military dimensions to the "pivot to Asia," including a large expansion of U.S. armed forces and greater military collaboration with American allies in the region, including Japan.

The proposed base at Henoko is being sold as part of a package deal, in which the U.S. and Japanese governments close the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which is located in densely populated Ginowan City and long the object of protests. In addition, thousands of Marines will be transferred from Okinawa to U.S. bases in Guam.

ALL THIS is being presented in part as a response to bitterness of Okinawans at bearing a disproportionate burden of the U.S. military presence in Japan. But there is more to the story. The U.S. bases in Okinawa have been central to Washington's military operations in the region since the Second World War, particularly in the Vietnam era. They remain important for the pivot to Asia, and thus Okinawan resistance is a thorn in the side for Tokyo and Washington.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has taken a hard line on the construction of the new base--there is a growing police presence at the construction site and increased political pressure on Okinawa to accept the plan. This month's protests were the latest stage in a building showdown between the Japanese government and the anti-base movement in Okinawa.

Coincidently, the protests took place the same week that a U.S. Osprey military aircraft crashed in Hawaii, killing two Marines and injuring another 20 on board. The Osprey is a hybrid airplane-helicopter that presents strategic advantages on the battlefield, but has a long record of crashes. When the U.S. and Japanese governments announced that Ospreys would be stationed on Okinawa in 2012, this inspired a further wave of resistance from Okinawans fearful that the crash-prone aircraft would be based in densely populated areas. The crash in Hawaii will only fuel more opposition to the aircraft and the U.S. bases in Okinawa.

The issue of the Osprey and planned base expansion are two of many grievances of the resistance movement in Okinawa. The list also includes a history of rampant sexual violence committed by U.S. troops against Okinawan residents, especially women and girls; other crimes committed by U.S. personnel, which are dealt with through the U.S. military's legal system rather than the one that governs Okinawan residents; accidents such as an August 2004 U.S. Marine Corps helicopter crash on the campus of Okinawa International University; and the constant noise of aircraft taking off and landing on Okinawa bases.

With resistance heating up in Okinawa, it will be important for activists elsewhere, especially in the U.S., to build solidarity with the movement.

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