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U.S. washes hands of rights violations at Okinawa helipad site

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Special To The Japan Times

The U.S. State Department, the federal body tasked with promoting human rights overseas, is refusing to censure Tokyo over its aggressive tactics to force construction of new helipads for the U.S. Marine Corps in northern Okinawa.

Since July, the Japanese government has been conducting a massive police campaign in the Takae district of Higashi village that has left at least five demonstrators hospitalized, infringed upon press freedoms and been condemned by Gov. Takeshi Onaga, media unions and local residents.

Asked for comment on the injuries and blocking of reporters, the State Department referred The Japan Times to the Japanese government and U.S. Department of Defense. Anna Richey-Allen, spokesperson for the department’s East Asia and Pacific Bureau spokesperson, then issued a stock statement unrelated to the inquiries.

Likewise, USMC Public Affairs Officer George McArthur declined to comment on the alleged rights’ violations. The U.S. Marines in Okinawa also rejected an interview request from The Japan Times to discuss the helipad construction. Despite the request being made 10 days in advance, McArthur dismissed it on the grounds of it being “short-fuse” (sic).

On Aug. 25, Onaga blasted the Japanese government’s dispatch of hundreds of mainland riot police to Takae as “excessive.” Meanwhile, the Japan Federation of Newspaper Workers’ Unions called police obstruction of journalists reporting from the site “a serious violation of the free press by the state.”

The district of Takae abuts the USMC Northern Training Area, also known as Camp Gonsalves. The sprawling 7,800-hectare (19,000-acre) jungle warfare center opened in 1957; once commanded by Oliver North, veterans have alleged that it also served as a test site for the toxic defoliant Agent Orange.

In the near future, Washington plans to return half of the base’s land, but only on condition that six new helipads be built near Takae. Despite opposition from villagers, two of the 75-meter-wide pads have been completed and are now in use for round-the-clock USMC training flights of helicopters and Osprey aircraft. In June, the Okinawa Defense Bureau catalogued Takae residents’ exposure to aircraft noise at more than a dozen times a night.

The construction of the helipads at Takae is just one part of an island-wide program by Tokyo to consolidate the USMC presence on Okinawa.

Plans to build twin runways and a deep sea port at Camp Schwab in the city of Nago are currently the focus of a bitter court dispute between the national and prefectural governments. Washington plans to relocate marines from aging Air Station Futenma in Ginowan upon completion of the new base near Camp Schwab. But in a sign that the Japanese government expects the legal dispute to drag on, Tokyo has just suggested it may spend billions of yen to repair facilities at Futenma.

Also on Okinawa, the Japanese government has started work on infrastructure to support the deployment of Ospreys and F-35s to USMC Iejima Auxiliary Airfield, located on a small island near Okinawa’s northern coast.

“The Japanese government keeps saying it is reducing Okinawa’s military burden but the reality is the total opposite,” says Yutaka Ohata, an Iejima resident and member of a local peace museum. Ohata cites ongoing military construction on the island and recent usage of the civilian port by the USMC.

“Iejima assembly and local communities voted to protest against the new military infrastructure,” says Ohata, “but the government doesn’t listen to our voices whatever we say.”

Washington and Tokyo assert the construction projects at Takae, Nago, Futenma and Iejima will ultimately enable the return of land elsewhere on the island.

However, many Okinawans suspect that USMC usage of the island will expand in the years to come. Such concerns were exacerbated by recent revelations that the U.S. Marines were training two U.K. Royal Marine lieutenants at Camp Schwab and Camp Hansen, central Okinawa. The program, which is currently the focus of a Japanese government inquiry, is a violation of the long-standing interpretation of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, which does not allow for the training of third-nation forces on U.S. bases in Japan.

Okinawan fury at the USMC remains at boiling point following the April murder of a local woman, allegedly by a former U.S. Marine, and revelations that orientation lectures for new arrivals denigrated island residents and political leaders. On Tuesday, a U.S. Marine sergeant was arrested on suspicion of attempting to break into a woman’s apartment in the village of Yomitan. In May the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly passed an unprecedented resolution demanding the removal of all USMC bases from the island.

In June, U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy, experienced local anger toward the USMC firsthand. During her official visit to the island to commemorate the 71st anniversary of the end of the Battle of Okinawa, Kennedy attended a community relations event at Camp Schwab. As she was leaving, her motorcade was blocked by demonstrators who had to be forcibly removed by police before her car was able to move.

In a request for comment on the incident, the public affairs office at Naha’s U.S. Consulate General told The Japan Times, “While we steadfastly support individual freedom of speech and peaceful public assembly, we look to the Government of Japan law enforcement officials to take necessary measures should anyone interfere with installation access or violate the laws of Japan.”

The decision for Kennedy to visit Camp Schwab appears to have been designed to send a signal that the U.S. was standing by Tokyo’s decision to landfill the neighboring bay for the relocation of the Futenma air base. However both the location and the timing of the visit struck many Okinawans as insensitive at best and, at worst, a provocation.

Three months prior to Kennedy’s visit, Justin Castellanos, a sailor stationed at Camp Schwab, had been arrested for the rape of a woman in a Naha hotel. Moreover, Kennedy’s visit to the base rubbed salt into the wounds of many Battle of Okinawa survivors. Camp Schwab is located upon the former site of the Ourasaki Internment Camp where Okinawans were imprisoned following the war, and the remains of approximately 300 civilians still lie within the grounds of the installation, inaccessible to family members or recovery teams.

In response to the surge in public anger against the USMC on Okinawa, the U.S. military has recently embarked upon an online public-relations charm offensive. In June, U.S. Forces Japan launched a “Fact for the Week” campaign on social media. Its first post apparently set out to contradict Japanese government data that says three-quarters of U.S. installations are located on Okinawa. Instead, the USFJ post claimed, the true number was 39 percent.

The USFJ claim — based upon the number of installations rather than the area of land they occupy — was met with consternation by Gov. Onaga, who called it “an attempt to manipulate the facts.” Online commentators were more harsh, likening the USFJ’s post to false rumors commonly spread by so-called Netto uyoku, or anonymous extreme right-wing internet users.

Jon Mitchell received the inaugural Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan Freedom of the Press Award for Lifetime Achievement for his investigations into U.S. military contamination on Okinawa and other base-related problems. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp.