Japan’s poorest prefecture is Okinawa — and on Okinawa the poorest region lies along the northeastern coast blanketed by the dense Yanbaru jungle. Here, the villages of Higashi and Kunigami were the last areas on the island to receive electricity and running water. Until 1978, they lacked even a paved road.
Yet when it comes to biodiversity, this is one of the richest places on the planet, with almost a dozen unique species, including the noguchi gera, an endangered woodpecker that has become a symbol of the prefecture.
On a recent visit, the Yanbaru’s bountiful nature lulls me into a sense of serenity — which soon proves false. Parked at a roadside stall of sugar-sweet pineapples for which the area is renowned, I watch chickens peck for grain while a wild boar and her two piglets nose through the nearby hibiscus bushes. The boar are the first to sense something is wrong. The mother squeals ,then butts her babies into the undergrowth just as three huge helicopters roar overhead, followed by a convoy of camouflaged trucks barreling down the narrow road. Suddenly it feels like the front line of a war zone.
This stretch of the Yanbaru, in addition to being the poorest and most ecologically abundant, is also host to one more superlative: the largest U.S. installation on Okinawa, the Marine Corps Jungle Warfare Training Center — also known as Camp Gonsalves.
At 72 sq. km, almost 15 times the size of troubled Futenma Air Station to the south, the JWTC was founded in 1957 and during the Vietnam War it was used to coach GIs in jungle survival and to test the toxic herbicide Agent Orange. In the ’60s, local residents were hired to play Viet Cong in guerrilla war games, but today the massive base employs only a handful of Japanese staff and two dozen Americans.
People living in neighboring communities have long campaigned for the installation’s closure, arguing that it is an anachronism of the Cold War era. In 1996, in an attempt to allay public fury over the gang rape of an Okinawan schoolgirl by U.S. troops, Tokyo and Washington agreed to return half of the JWTC to civilian administration. However, there was one condition: First the military wanted to build six new 75-meter helipads near the Takae district of Higashi village. For the past five years, local residents have been staging a sit-in to block these helipads’ construction.
The protesters’ tent, located alongside Highway 70, has become one of the most visited tourist attractions in the Yanbaru, and for good reason. Festooned with colorful flags and banners, signs sport pictures of Okinawa’s homegrown TV superhero Ryujin Mabuyer, and cardboard cutouts provide souvenir photo opportunities for visiting children.
Today the tent is packed with visitors young and old. Among them are a group of tanned Tokyo girls who have driven their rental car from one of the southern resort hotels hoping to catch a glimpse of UA, the J-pop star supporting the movement who recently relocated to the area. UA isn’t here, but the young women now sit listening attentively to residents’ accounts of their ongoing struggle. It looks like Takae has won some more converts.
The villagers explain that the proposed helipads are near Takae’s only school and so they worry about their children’s safety. Their fears have been exacerbated by current U.S. plans to use the pads for crash-prone Osprey aircraft. Records since the 1970s show that the JWTC has been plagued by a steady string of accidents involving conventional military craft that have cost the lives of 20 service members.
At the core of the residents’ struggle with the Okinawa Defense Bureau, the Japanese government agency tasked with building the helipads, is a commitment to nonviolence common to protests all across the island. During the past five years, demonstrators have faced down bulldozers with bowls of wild-boar stew and Valentine’s Day chocolates — accompanied by a sense of justice and humor that throws the strait-laced bureaucrats for a loop.
So far such tactics have worked, but that seems set to change. In July, despite anti-Osprey pledges by Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, two truckloads of workers arrived in Takae and once again attempted to start construction of the helipads.
Today there is a lull in the struggle, which gives me an opportunity to talk to some of those involved in the sit-in. Kobun Sasaki, a Buddhist monk, explains, “It’s all about human rights and the way that the Japanese and American governments are destroying them here in Takae.”
Kosuzu Abe, an associate professor at the University of the Ryukyus and a self-professed “sit-inner” since its start in 2007, says, “This is a litmus test for the future of Japan-U.S. relations. Especially after the Fukushima meltdowns, people in mainland Japan have begun to sympathize more with our struggle here. The Tokyo government has tried to suppress the will of the people and buy off both Okinawa and Fukushima with handouts.”
To more clearly explain the residents’ passion for the Yanbaru, Abe takes me to Cafe Yamagame, located deep in the jungle and run by a husband and wife closely tied to the sit-in. Resembling an Endor village of wooden decks and walkways, the cafe’s food, like the building, is all handmade: vegetable curries, cinnamon toast and raisin buns so good I buy a bag to take home.
The land around the cafe is carpeted in translucent ferns, and as bright red dragonflies dogfight above a gurgling stream, it’s easy to understand why residents are risking jail to protect their jungle paradise.
According to Abe, antimilitarism is not new to the Yanbaru — and nor is it simply anti-American militarism. “Before World War II, there are stories of residents inflicting injuries on themselves to avoid being drafted into the Japanese Army. Then during the war, they also helped Imperial military deserters to hide out here.”
After lunch, Abe invites me to drive with her to another site that highlights the pacifism of the Yanbaru. On the way, the immense scale of the JWTC becomes clear — stretching to the horizon in 50 shades of green punctuated by military observation towers. Stopping on a bridge, 20 meters below I spot a trio of GIs struggling to wrestle a rubber boat across a creek. Dropped for a week at a time armed with only a cigarette lighter and a knife, trainees like these are forced to forage for insects, snakes and roots. As I watch them struggle with the dinghy, I’m tempted to toss down the bread buns from Cafe Yamagame, but before I can do so they’ve disappeared downriver, leaving a trail of curses in their wake.
A 15-minute drive later and we arrive at our destination: the village of Ada. Here, a 2-meter slab of black granite immortalizes residents who in 1971 successfully blocked attempts to construct a Marine Corps bombing range in the district. According to the statue, upon learning of the military’s plans to launch live-fire exercises, hundreds of men, women and children stormed into the JWTC and occupied both the gun emplacements and targets. After a lengthy showdown, the Marine Corps was finally forced to abandon its plans. Despite the illegality of the protesters’ actions, the statue, erected in 2009, was funded entirely by the municipality — final proof of the Yanbaru’s spirit of resistance.
I ask Abe if she hopes there will be a similar memorial created at Takae if the government gives up its proposed helipads. To my surprise, she shakes her head. But then she smiles.
“I wish that one day, there will be a memorial in Takae not just to remember the victory over the helipads — but for when the entire JWTC is closed and returned to civilian use. The sit-in at Takae deserves to be remembered by future generations as a testimony to the strength of 21st-century activism.”
Getting there: Takae is a 3-hour drive from Okinawa’s capital, Naha. Directions, as well as updates on the sit-in, can be found in Japanese at takae.ti-da.net. Cafe Yamagame is open 11 a.m.-6 p.m., closed Tue and Wed; www.mco.ne.jp/~yamagame. The memorial to the successful demonstration in Ada is a 30-minute drive north from Takae.