Peter Simpson had just left his students at Okinawa International University and was on his way home when a helicopter slammed into the campus administration building. That no one was killed or seriously injured in the crash was remarkable given that the three-story concrete building had to be demolished and fragments of the aircraft, including a rotor, were scattered over surrounding streets. (The three-man crew managed to escape before the CH-53D Sea Stallion exploded.)
That day — Aug. 13, 2004 — cemented Simpson’s opposition to the nearby Futenma air base. The English associate professor went on to help found the Futenma Henoko Action Group, which opposes the proposed relocation of the U.S. Marine base to Henoko, an area in north Okinawa that currently hosts Camp Schwab, under a deal struck between the Americans and the Liberal Democratic Party government in 2006.
Simpson, 45, is somewhat unusual among the expat population here in that he makes no secret of his views on Futenma. Most of the English-speakers I spoke to said it’s just not something they talk about with friends.
Privately, everyone seems to have a view: I heard opinions ranging from calls for all bases to close, to criticism of the Okinawans for building a city around a military installation. Citing the “sensitivity” of the issue, several people declined to talk to me.
Okinawa is such a small, densely populated island that just about everyone has some kind of connection with the bases. Even if they themselves don’t derive part of their income from the Americans, many of those who oppose Futenma have friends or relatives who do.
So what’s it like to live or work next to an air base?
Incredibly disruptive, says Simpson.
“Very, very often, planes and helicopters fly in circles over Ginowan City — what they call touch-and-go exercises, practicing their takeoffs and landing.
“The helicopters they use, one general called them ‘legacy systems’ because they are so old — Vietnam War-era, so they’re extremely noisy.”
He insists the base should be closed outright. To relocate it to Henoko would, he says, “be an environmental disaster.”
Although he was one link in the 17,000-strong human chain that almost encircled Futenma one Sunday last month, Simpson has doubts about the efficacy of such protests.
“In 1996 the Japanese and American governments promised to close the bases within five to seven years, so it’s hard to remain optimistic given that it’s 14 years later and the bases are still here.”
The protesters are simply too “mild mannered,” he says. “If Okinawans gathered in thousands with fence-cutters and walked onto the base, that would have more of an instant impact than holding hands around the base.”
Still, he’s glad that the protests keep the issue in the public eye, and feels that anti-Futenma momentum is building.
“There’s a lot more unity in Okinawa than at any time since I arrived in 1998, in the sense that every local administration is against the proposal as it is now and in favor of moving the base out of Okinawa completely.”
Simpson’s own stab at “direct action” landed him in trouble with his employers at the university. On July 4, 2006, he hung a huge American flag upside down from his office balcony, with its uninterrupted views of the Futenma base a couple of hundred meters away. He doesn’t know if the flag was spotted on base but he made sure local journalists were there to get the story. His rationale: “The U.S. law code states the ‘flag should never be displayed with the union down except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property’ — this was just such a case.”
Fellow Englishman Dave Webb, 41, also wants Futenma to close.
“I hear the jets take off when I pass it on my way to work — it is a terrible noise and I would never want that near me.” But he thinks the protesters have to face up to some realpolitik and offer an alternative location on the island.
“It will never get closed if it doesn’t get relocated. There’s nowhere else outside of Japan where it could go and there’s nowhere within Japan where people are prepared to accept it. If your issue is to save the people who live near Futenma from the noise and the risks of the aircraft . . . maybe you should accept that Henoko is the best option.”
Whereas Webb sees the protesters as naive, John, a former U.S. soldier, thinks they are completely unreasonable. He’s exasperated by the campaign to stop the base going to rural Henoko.
“The protesters have got their base back but they still want more. They don’t want to give and take, they just want to take, take, take.”
John (not his real name; he would only talk anonymously) has been on the island for more than 20 years and still works on base. He agrees that Futenma should close because it’s in the center of Ginowan City with its population of almost 100,000, but wonders if the Okinawans aren’t the authors of their own misfortune.
“When Futenma was built you didn’t have the schools and houses around it. A lot of other places would have put a ‘green zone’ around the base — that didn’t happen here. (Instead, the Okinawans decided,) ‘Let’s put a house or a college right on the border of that fence and then when there’s an accident complain about this base in our city.’ “
When I point out that land has always been at a premium on this narrow island, and that Ginowan, situated between the main population centers of Naha and Okinawa City, was ripe for development, he agrees and concedes that he “can’t really fault people” for building around the base.
John is adamant that the bases are necessary. “I honestly think if the bases went, China would push into Taiwan and on to Okinawa. The military are not here to create war, they are here to create peace.”
However, he does think it unfair that Okinawa has to shoulder the bulk of the American military presence — just 1 percent of Japan’s land mass, the prefecture hosts 75 percent of the country’s U.S. bases, meaning that around a fifth of the main island is the hands of the Americans. But he still insists Futenma should be rebuilt on Okinawa, saying that no other island (outside the mainland) has the infrastructure necessary to support the base.
When I ask John what he makes of a newspaper poll showing that 90 percent of Okinawans want Futenma closed (and not relocated on the island), he accuses the media of whipping up anti-American sentiment. For example, he says, they give disproportionate coverage to crimes committed by soldiers.
“The military are an incredibly well-behaved group of people, but if they do the slightest thing wrong they are treated as barbarians.”
While he condemns any lawbreaking by the military (including the “appalling” rape of a 12-year-old girl by three servicemen in 1995), he can “understand” why some of them have recently driven away from the scenes of traffic accidents.
“If they felt they would be treated fairly or justly they might stay, but what has happened is that (because of the hype) their military career will be over. . . . Even if it is a simple accident, it will be taken so far out of context that they are unwilling to take the risk.”
Carol (not her real name) from the Philippines wants Futenma to remain as a functioning base. As her children’s school is just a few hundred meters from its fence, she can understand the opposition and, indeed, would be happy to see the airstrip relocated.
“I still want Futenma though, because there are a lot of people still working there. Not just Filipinos but Okinawans too who’d lose their jobs in the restaurants and movie theaters if it closed.”
Carol’s job isn’t one of those under threat. She’s one of a number of well-qualified Filipinos working for Japanese engineering firms with maintenance contracts at the bases. She feels sorry for those Okinawans who depend on the military and says their plight has been largely ignored by the media.
“I know a lot of Okinawans who have been working on bases for more than 10 years — that’s how they feed their children. Maybe the protesters have no connection with the bases, but a lot of other people do benefit from them.”
Some opponents of the bases argue that Japan should follow the example of the Philippines, which forced the U.S. to close its bases in the country in 1992. Such an argument doesn’t wash with Carol.
“It took a lot of jobs away. They created other kinds of jobs but it didn’t fully compensate for what they lost. I haven’t talked to anyone who gained from the closure of the bases.”
Aside from the economic benefits, Carol insists there are sound strategic reasons for keeping the bases here. She says they make the entire region safer.
“They are important for the security of my country as well. As a Filipino I am reassured that the U.S. is in Okinawa.”
American Chris Melley, 56, rejects any suggestion that the Okinawan economy depends on the bases. The English and philosophy lecturer spent 24 years in Germany and saw bases shut en masse following the fall of the Berlin Wall and, “if Japan is anything like Germany, they’ll have re-schooling for base workers. As Aristotle says, ‘Nature abhors a vacuum,’ so if the American military goes, something else will move in.”
And he very much hopes that the marines will go.
“I couldn’t imagine the Germans putting up with it,” he says. Even at the height of the Cold War when there were up to half a million U.S. troops and support staff in Germany, they were relatively unobtrusive, he says.
“I’m flabbergasted at how dense it is here — every time I turn a corner I see another military facility or a ‘Y’ plate (the car number plates given to U.S. military personnel).
“I couldn’t imagine if in my hometown (Red Hook, N.Y.) there were almost 30,000 foreign troops that don’t speak three words of my language and have committed crimes, and accidents, and a thousand, thousand idiocies over the decades. I just don’t know how I’d deal with that.”
Like Melley, Reg Kearney is also a university lecturer. Unlike Melley, he’s a former marine, but he too is clearly very sympathetic to the anti-Futenma movement. However, he stopped short of taking part in the protests.
“I don’t think the Japanese government would look kindly upon foreigners taking part in demonstrations,” says the 72-year-old. “I don’t want to be kicked out, so I don’t participate.”
As long as the Americans are being paid a reported $4 billion annually to keep their troops on Japanese soil, Kearney says there’s very little incentive for them to leave.
“I’d stay if you’d paid me to be in your house,” he laughs. But he’s not convinced the marines need to be here. He thinks the “strategic” argument — that Okinawa is best placed to respond to crises in both Taiwan and Korea — has been overplayed. In fact, the concentration of troops here, he says, actually makes it a target.
“If you have serious difficulties with the U.S., you want to hit those bases that are in greatest proximity,” he says, wrapping up our interview with a chilling thought. “Okinawa could become in the 21st century what Pearl Harbor was in the 20th century.”
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