Expat peace group studies embattled Okinawa ecology

US for Okinawa tour covers harmful impact of U.S. bases, both existing and planned

by Jon Mitchell

At first glance, the group of 15 young Japanese and foreigners gathered together in the arrival lounge at Naha airport look like just another package tour for a week of fun on Okinawa’s tropical beaches.

Drawing close enough to overhear their talk of nerve gas, land mines and unexploded bombs, however, it becomes clear that instead of working on their tans, they are more concerned about world peace.

These English teachers, interior designers and university students are taking part in a study trip organized by the group US for Okinawa to teach people about the environmental impact of American military bases on the islands.

“The name US for Okinawa has two meanings,” explains Emilie McGlone, the group’s cofounder and international coordinator for the nongovernmental organization Peace Boat.

“On one hand, it reflects the support of American citizens living in Japan for a base-free Okinawa. On the other hand, it shows that ‘all of us’ are dedicated to raising awareness about the dangers caused by the bases.

“We believe the best way to achieve that is to come here and talk firsthand to local residents about the problems they face.”

Over the next four days, the participants will meet with a diverse range of Okinawan people — each with a different environmental horror story to share. In Ginowan, they will listen to a resident recount the 2004 crash of a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter and the subsequent scramble by the authorities to recover radioactive strontium-90 from sensors attached to the rotor blades.

Farther north, they will learn about the military mishap that strafed 1,500 depleted uranium shells across tiny Torishima Island — rendering its once bountiful fish stocks inedible for human consumption.

One of the most affecting encounters will occur in the village of Takae, where soft-spoken Ikuko Isa will describe her fellow residents’ three-year campaign to block the construction of six new military helipads in the area.

As she discusses the daily stress of living next to the world’s largest jungle warfare training center, she doesn’t raise her voice in anger. Even when she describes recent revelations that, in the 1960s, the military likely tested the defoliant Agent Orange near rivers that supply the rest of the island with more than half of its drinking water, she remains calm.

“We’re just ordinary people trying to live ordinary lives.”

Belying the myths of a politically apathetic younger generation, the tour’s participants fill their notebooks with the stories they hear. They pepper the local residents with countless questions, and back on the bus they compare notes to fill in any blanks they missed.

“I first came to Okinawa on a package tour three years ago,” explains a young Japanese woman. “All we did was visit beaches and souvenir shops. I didn’t know about these (environmental) problems. This trip is a real eye-opener for me.”

On the third day, the group’s devotion is put to the test. McGlone wakes them up at dawn, herds them onto the bus and then leads them on a 15-minute hike through thick jungle. From a hilltop overlooking Oura Bay, local resident Takuma Higashionna talks about the dugong — a relative of the manatee — that feeds on the sea grass in the waters below.

The dugong was once revered by Okinawans as a messenger of the gods, but now their numbers have dwindled to fewer than a dozen.

Higashionna is campaigning to establish a sanctuary in the area. He faces heavy opposition — Oura Bay is the proposed site for the relocation of U.S. Marine Air Station Futenma, and current plans call for two 1,500-meter runways to be built over the beds of sea grass.

In 2008, Higashionna sued the U.S. Department of Defense, arguing that the runway plans violate American laws protecting “natural monuments” (such as the dugong) wherever they live. Higashionna won the case, but Washington has failed to abandon the project.

“If this were the United States, it wouldn’t be allowed to go ahead,” Higashionna tells the group. “So why do they let it happen here?”

Following Higashionna’s talk, the tour climbs aboard boats and heads out for a closer view of the area threatened by the new base. Half of the participants don scuba tanks to search for the telltale furrows of foraging dugong, while the rest snorkel among the bay’s rare blue and “walking” coral.

Despite their failure to spot the elusive dugong, they bring back to shore a newfound sense of Oura Bay’s fragile beauty. Nao Sokei, a native of Naha, was particularly impressed.

“Seeing all of that sea life made my love for this island deeper. Now I realize I need to think more about how to protect Okinawa.”

On the final day, the tour participants meet with local campaigners dedicated to achieving precisely that. For the past 6 1/2 years, Inochi o Mamoru-kai (Association for the Protection of Life) has been staging a sit-in near Oura Bay to prevent the construction of the new base.

In 2007, elderly residents, fishermen and environmental activists waged a campaign of disruption against construction crews attempting to bore pylons into the seabed. They chained themselves to scaffolding, maneuvered kayaks in front of massive barges and wore down the laborers with a combination of heated negotiation and good humor.

Faced by the campaign and negative media coverage, the government called off the construction. However, with the May acceptance by then Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama to the relocation of the Futenma base to the area, the association expects the return of the construction crews at any time.

While Hiroshi Ashitomi, one of the campaign’s leaders, is touched by US for Okinawa’s support, the 64-year-old retiree has a word of caution: “If younger activists are arrested, they’ll lose their jobs or the police record will prevent them from being hired in the future.”

He gestures around the campaign tent to the elderly protesters sipping jasmine tea. “That’s why there are so many retired people here. We’re not afraid. We have our pensions. They can’t take those away no matter what we do.”

On their way back to the bus, some members of US for Okinawa review what they have witnessed over the past four days, and they wonder aloud why anybody would want to sign up for the military in the first place.

As if on cue, two young American soldiers emerge from the sea and sit on the harbor wall, peeling off their fins and snorkels. Some of the tour participants look startled to be suddenly confronted with the object of their antipathy, but as the Americans excitedly describe the coral and multicolored tropical fish they just saw in the bay, it appears that they share a common appreciation of the nature here.

One of the group tactfully steers the conversation toward why they joined the army and both men cite the lack of employment opportunities in their impoverished hometowns, combined with the lure of a free university education.

Bemoaning the lack of information they received when they first arrived on Okinawa, they say they’re keen to learn more about the island. One of the group hands them his business card and invites them for a drink when they’re next in Tokyo. The soldiers say they’ll be in touch.

Back on the bus, the group fills their notebooks with details of the meeting. They say it was one of the most illuminating discussions of the trip in that it helped to dispel some stereotypes about American servicemen.

McGlone, too, seems pleased at the chance encounter. “When people talk to each other, you can see the wheels start turning on both sides. It’s a great thing to watch. People learn best through face-to-face communication. That’s what US for Okinawa is all about.”

For information about upcoming US for Okinawa study tours, contact Emilie McGlone at us.for.okinawa@gmail.com