Okinawa: pocket of resistance

The battle over Henoko Bay looks set to challenge the power of the archipelago's protest movement.

by Jon Mitchell

Special To The Japan Times

On Aug. 13, 2004, a U.S. Marine Corps transport helicopter crashed onto the campus of Okinawa International University, Ginowan, injuring the three service members on board and sparking a large fire. Although the accident occurred on civilian soil, U.S. forces cordoned off the scene and blocked access to police investigators. That night, the national TV news networks either failed to report the crash or afforded it scant attention.

To many Okinawans, the lessons of the accident seemed clear: The U.S. military felt it could operate with impunity on their island and the mainland didn’t give a damn.

A decade later, very little has changed.

Despite repeated promises from Tokyo to reduce the military burden on Okinawa, U.S. bases still comprise 10 percent of the prefecture (and 18 percent of Okinawa Island) but give back less than 5 percent to the local economy. Military aircraft continue to crash, lose chunks of fuselage and make emergency landings — to which the mainstream media typically turn a blind eye.

In a 2012 survey conducted by the prefecture and made public in January, 74 percent of Okinawans said they felt the large military presence on their island amounted to discrimination. In a healthy democracy, these Okinawans would be able to rectify their grievances via the ballot box. However, the island has a long, well-documented history of electoral interference — first by the CIA during the 1960s when the island was under U.S. administration and then, ever since, by Tokyo-orchestrated economic threats, bribes and dirty-tricks campaigns.

With their democratic means exhausted, Okinawans have been forced to seek alternative ways to express their anger. And here — like nowhere else in Japan — resistance manifests itself in many forms.

The most visible expressions are the protests that occur almost daily outside the gates of Okinawa’s larger U.S. installations: Camp Gonsalves, Marine Corps Camp Schwab and Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. Demonstrators line the roadsides holding colorful banners calling for the bases’ closure and tying to the fences red ribbons — the color of Okinawan anger.

Following a military crash or reports of a crime, these small-scale demonstrations swell exponentially. After the 2004 helicopter crash, 30,000 people protested; in September 2012, a demonstration against the deployment to Okinawa of Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft drew more than 100,000. Many of the participants in these demonstrations are in their 70s and 80s — possible proof that Okinawans’ renowned longevity is fueled not only by a diet rich in tofu and goya bitter melon, but also a healthy dose of civil disobedience.

“The elderly protesters are especially passionate,” says Kazue Nakamura-Huber, a co-founder of grass-roots peace movement New Wave to Hope. “Their enthusiasm can even intimidate younger Okinawans. The younger generation feels just as angry as their elders (about the military presence) but with jobs or children to look after they’re sometimes too busy to attend rallies.”

Many of these younger Okinawans take a different approach to resistance.

Take, for example, hip-hop artist Kakumakushaka, who raps about the U.S. occupation of Okinawa — including “Tami no Domino,” a blistering track about the 2004 helicopter crash. Then there are the designers for fashion label Habu Box, whose T-shirts feature bright hibiscuses flowering from the barrels of G.I. rifles and jackets embroidered with U.S. Ospreys clashing with giant shīsa — the mythical lion-dog that can often be seen guarding Okinawan rooftops.

Humor has always been a helpful tool to subvert authority — think Mark Twain, Bill Hicks and Jon Stewart — and Okinawan comedy troupe Owarai Beigun Kichi performs skits to audiences lampooning daily life on the militarized island. Included in the group’s 2014 lineup are two new mascots: the Mesprey (in Japanese, the suffix mesu is used for female animals and osu for males) and a Funassyi-like barrel of Agent Orange spluttering defoliants.

To circumvent what they perceive as media censorship of Okinawan voices, many in the younger generation harness technology — including Twitter, Facebook and live-streaming — to broadcast their anger. This approach bore fruit when 60 university students organized a flash mob in February to coincide with U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy’s first visit to the island.

From teenagers and pensioners to fashion designers, comedians and musicians, the peace movement on Okinawa is remarkable in its diversity but one philosophy unites it: a belief in nuchi du takara, or life is precious.

Legend has it that the words were uttered by Sho Tai, the last king of Okinawa, upon being banished from the island after the Japanese annexation in 1879. However, the words took on their true power two generations later during the Battle of Okinawa when in the spring of 1945, between a quarter and a third of the island’s civilian population was slaughtered.

“On Okinawa, the World War II generation and the subsequent generations (through collective memory) have been severely traumatized by the Battle of Okinawa,” says Satoko Oka Norimatsu, co-author of “Resistant Islands: Okinawa Confronts Japan and the United States.” “The people there know that the military only attracts violence and death, instead of peace and stability.”

In particular, this World War II suffering affords Okinawans a perspective on today’s resurgent trend toward militarism that is lacking among many mainlanders. While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promises that a stronger military will help to protect the nation, Okinawans recall the last time Japan’s leaders marched the country into war — the Imperial Japanese Army bases in their communities made them a target and when fighting began, Japanese soldiers reportedly looted food, forced families from the safety of their caves and pressured hundreds to commit mass suicide.

“Now the Japanese government is claiming to protect us from China,” says New Wave to Hope member Naomi Kinjo whose uncle was killed and father wounded in the Battle of Okinawa. “But both the U.S. and Japan have stolen our human rights for decades. They should use our tax money for education and health care — but instead they’re wasting it on the new base.”

The new base Kinjo mentions is the one planned alongside Camp Schwab at Henoko Bay, Nago.

First dreamed up by the Pentagon during the Vietnam War when Okinawa was its key launchpad for the conflict, plans were soon abandoned due to the cost. Resurrected in the 1990s as a replacement for the ageing facility at Futenma, now Tokyo is pushing forward with construction more aggressively than ever — despite polls showing opposition standing at between 70 percent and 90 percent and a local election in Nago in January that returned Mayor Susumu Inamine, a staunch opponent of construction.

Many of those interviewed for this article believe the reason behind Tokyo’s insistence is simple: In the coming years, the new base will be used for the revived Japanese military — either solely or jointly with the U.S. in what the military dubs “interoperability.”

“The U.S. and Japanese military have become more and more integrated,” Norimatsu says. “For example, one of the Japanese Cabinet’s key phrases is ‘seamless’ operation. This seamlessness — between both peacetime and wartime and between the U.S. and Japanese military — is actually behind the whole changes that the U.S. and Japanese governments are trying to bring about. ‘Seamlessness’ is the key and, for that purpose, Japanese bases will be used by the U.S. and vice versa.”

To prevent this from happening, Okinawan campaigners have been staging a protest sit-in near the proposed site at Henoko for the past 10 years — believed to be the longest demonstration in the world.

This summer, Henoko has once again become the prime focus for peace campaigners. One stormy day in June, 60 protesters waved banners outside Camp Schwab as passing motorists tooted their horns in support. At the sit-in tent, meanwhile, campaigners explained about the bay’s unparalleled biodiversity to 100 mainland visitors.

Further down the beach, near Camp Schwab’s fence, there unreeled a scene that must have made military police monitoring the security cameras first reach for their glasses — and then their panic buttons. Across the sands, two dozen people accompanied by a massive shīsa were in close pursuit of Abe and Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba. As the crowd whooped and blasted trumpets, the shīsa chomped its teeth, forcing the terrified politicians to stumble — until finally, with nowhere else to run, they were driven into the sea.

“That’s a wrap!” shouted Mao Ishikawa, Okinawa’s most famous photographer.

Moments later, as the men playing the politicians took off their rubber masks and the shīsa’s two occupants wriggled free from their costume, Ishikawa explained her thinking behind this hallucinatory tableau.

“I want these photographs to show the many different ways that Okinawans protest — as well as the full range of their anger,” Ishikawa says. “On Okinawa, the shīsa is like a god that protects us and chases away bad things. The Japanese government has done so many bad things to Okinawa. It truly is the lowest of the low.”

As powerful as the shīsa is, it may be another animal that wins the day for Henoko: the dugong, a cousin of the manatee.

“In Okinawan mythology, the dugong has divine status — it is a messenger of the sea gods,” says Hideki Yoshikawa, secretariat of nongovernment organization Citizens’ Network for Biodiversity in Okinawa. “Today, however, there are only between three and 10 alive.”

From May to July, 110 dugong grazing trails were discovered near Henoko and despite Japanese government assertions that the new base will not impact them, these feeding areas will almost certainly be destroyed by the 21 million cu. meters of landfill slated for the new base.

Whereas Tokyo seems happy to allow the dugong to die out, support has come from an unexpected quarter — the U.S. judiciary.

In 2008, the District of Northern California Court ruled in the Dugong vs. Rumsfeld lawsuit that the dugong was protected as a natural monument and the Department of Defense — if it went ahead with the base construction — would be failing to take into account its preservation.

Currently, lawyers on both sides of the Pacific are feverishly attempting to ascertain whether the Pentagon has complied with this ruling. On July 31, for example, representatives from U.S. environmental law nonprofit organization Earthjustice filed a lawsuit with a federal court in San Francisco, demanding that construction of the Henoko base be halted.

Instead of waiting for the outcome of these legal cases, the government has stooped to new lows in dealing with demonstrators. Last month, with U.S. backing, it created a 2-km exclusion zone in the seas around Henoko and threatened to prosecute anyone entering it under the keitokuhō, a long-mothballed criminal law dating back to 1952 when the Japan-U.S. security treaty first came into existence. In addition, Tokyo ordered the National Police Agency to create a special team to suppress protesters and installed sharp metal grills outside Camp Schwab to prevent sit-down demonstrations from blocking the gates.

With the stakes so serious, the battle for Henoko Bay looks set to challenge the power of Okinawan protest. However, what seems certain is that campaigners young and old will remain dedicated to nonviolent civil disobedience and the spirit of nuchi du takara.

“The Japanese government has looked down on Okinawans for many years,” Yoshikawa says. “Now we are up against those in power in the U.S. and the media, too. But we’ll keep fighting. We won’t give up — we can’t.”

Satoko Oka Norimatsu and Hideki Yoshikawa will be among speakers at “What Okinawa Expects from the World,” a symposium focusing on the Henoko issue at Nago Civic Center, Nago, on Aug. 13 from 7 p.m. Mao Ishikawa’s photo exhibition on the history of Okinawan injustices, “Dai Ryukyu Shasshin Emaki,” will be on display at Naha Shimin Gallery, Naha, from Sept. 16-21.


History of protest

1609: Kingdom of Ryukyu — a prosperous independent trading nation — is invaded by Kyushu samurai.

1879: Japanese government annexes Ryukyu and renames it Okinawa Prefecture. In attempts to homogenize Okinawans into the Japanese empire, Tokyo bans Okinawan languages and customs, including female tattooing and shamanism.

1920s: Famine kills thousands of Okinawans and drives many more overseas.

1945: Japanese military leaders decide to use Okinawa as a sute-ishi (a throwaway stone) in order to buy time to fortify defenses on mainland Japan. Battle of Okinawa ensues, killing more than 120,000 civilians.

1952: Treaty of San Francisco places Okinawa under U.S. military control, which is soon followed by the “bayonets and bulldozers” period, when American troops tricked or drove farmers off their land. These injustices sparked the current Okinawan peace movement.

1972: Okinawa reverts to Japanese control under the promise kaku-nuki hondo-nami (without nuclear weapons and with the number of U.S. bases as proportionate as on mainland Japan); the nuclear weapons are removed — but the bases remain.

1995: To placate public fury following the rape of an Okinawan child by U.S. service members, Washington and Tokyo agree to reduce military presence on island.

2004: U.S. military helicopter crashes on Okinawa International University campus. Peace campaigners start a sit-in to protest against the construction of a new base at Henoko Bay.

  • johninokinawa

    Jon, an excellent article. Thank you for taking the time to research this. Tokyo is still using Okinawa as a “sute-ishi.” For Abe, Okinawa is “expendable.”

    The presence of so much US military power on this small island almost guarantees that if there is any act of aggression, Okinawa will be the first place to be hit. This is why those with capital do not wish to invest in Okinawa. It is a tourist paradise, with its own distinct culture, food and music, wonderful beaches and mild weather. For trade, it is ideally located. Without the bases, there would be investment and a boom for the area.

    While the PR is that the US bases supply an income to the people of Okinawa, and this may have been true in the 1950′s, it certainly isn’t true in 2014. Their presence is holding down the Okinawan economy.

  • Dogstar2

    Yes, I have seen some of those “protests”. Very few people. Very few. Not saying that there are not those opposed, and not saying that those few don’t have reason, but…..

    • Toriotaku22

      Maybe because these protesters are here everyday and it is not a single event… And as most of them still need to work to earn their food, it is difficult to be 1000 everyday of the week… I actually was quite surprised of the amount I saw blocking the road when I passed there a few times in the morning (and for once, I did not mind to be blocked in traffic jam).

      • johninokinawa

        Toriotaku22, in the media they usually try to make it appear that “it’s just a few trouble makers,” or “only old folks.” The fact is that it is mostly the older Okinawans who can spare the time to appear at demonstrations. Okinawa is the poorest prefecture in Japan and people need to work.

        The anti-US base sentiment in Okinawa can be seen in public opinion surveys as mentioned above and the number of local representatives who were elected solely because of their anti US base stance. One of whom, notably, was Nakaima, the current governor. He was elected on the anti-base platform, but turned 180 degrees after a clandestine meeting with PM Abe last December.

        One wonders what was discussed.

      • Desk Pilot

        I don’t know what media you are referring to, because I always see “tens of thousands” and other over-inflated number descriptions.

      • Desk Pilot

        Or maybe that’s because they are paid to sit there to appear to be protesting.

      • johninokinawa

        Gosh DP, you have drunk deep of the KoolAid.

        Do you honestly believe that someone is paying Okinawans to protest? What ALL of them?

        Ryukyu Asahi news report on the “No new base at Henoko – Island Costume Conference” held in Naha on July 27, was attended by 2,000 Okinawans. Supporters & attendees included representatives of all 41 Okinawan municipalities, business leaders, academics, students, & retired elders. The theme of the conference: united Okinawan opposition to the attempt to transform Okinawa into a prefecture dominated by V-22 Osprey training & a mega-base at Henoko.

        Attendees criticized the current Okinawa governor’s fixation on economic subsidies, stating that peace, human rights, & human dignity are more important. They criticized the use of militarized force to impose a new base at Henoko: “This is trampling on the dignity and will of the Okinawan people, a denial of the basic aspects of democracy and social justice. We reject a future of Okinawa dominated by a new mega-base. We want to provide hope to our children & have the right & responsibility to decide the future of Okinawa. We want to build a friendly society, for everyone.

        [Today 100 people from civic groups, business circles, & volunteer groups, with the leaders of the "Island Conference" held recently in Naha arrive at the Henoko sit-in in front of the base. All together, around 300 people raised their voices together, chanting "Don't allow reckless construction," & "Residents are Angry." Hiroji Yamashiro, chair of Okinawa Heiwa Undo (Center Okinawa Peace Movement Center) and Ms. Suzuyo Takazato, joint representative of the conference, commented on the the level of anger throughout Okinawa; the Japanese government's show & use of excessive force. They vow to keep fighting, & mobilizing the 70+% of Okinawans who are opposed to construction of an airbase & military port at the Sea of Henoko.]

  • Desk Pilot

    There was a flash mob? Pretty effective. Not.

  • Toriotaku22

    And among the locals you know so well, how does the 80 year old grandmum reacts to the constant presence of American military force around her? What do you tell her when you learn that her sister was shot down by American soldiers during the wars (yes it is not only the bad islamists that shoot kids during a war) while running just beside her to escape?

    Do you really think she needs to get a wage to go protest?

    Certainly some supporters come form mainland to contribute to the major demonstrations, I think nobody ever tried to hide that. Actually usually this kind of support is rather advertised. Because, although mainland people largely ignore (or don’t care) what is going on here, some people still do.

    I really think that it is only because Okinawan, and especially elders, are so peaceful that we are still only at the peaceful protests and sit in step here. I think anywhere else I know in the world, the Tokyo government/US army would have faced much more violent clash with their sneaky behaviour. And I must say that I admire how Okinawans are still making the distinction between American individuals living on the base and governments actions. It is a right thing to do, but when you look at the easy xenophobic generalisations you see happening all over the world, it is not so evident to achieve.

    All that said, I must tell that I totally agree with your point that Okinawa needs to take control of itself. But this will not be promoted in anyway by the destruction of the island, the American bases or by subsidising more the construction lobby…
    To me one large part of the answer resides in a better education and in a management less blindly following the mainland system and more adapted to the specificities of the Island. And although I tried, I see nowhere the inputs of the military presence in these aspects.

  • Erik Rogal

    I say, Yankee go home! It’s about time the U.S. minds it’s own business
    and stop being the “Big Brother” of the world and only looking out for
    it’s “interests” which is basically hogging up the world’s resources for
    itself to support the inflated lifestyles of a bunch of mostly
    culturally insensitive, monolingual, SUV driving, Walmart shopping,
    fast-food eating, over-weight so-called “Christians” most of whom have
    never read the Bible! Americans are either ignorant or conveniently
    forget that Jesus instructed his true believers to be non-violent and to
    “love thy enemy” and that means that when your enemy comes to kill you
    that you are ready to die in the name of Jesus! However, most Americans
    don’t think this way and think in error that we have some God-given
    mandate to live the way we do and use aggression against those who
    disagree and/or challenge us. Well, I’m sorry but that isn’t the way it
    works according to Jesus and there is no “just war” which was an idea
    that was thought up by man and not Jesus! So America, if you call
    yourself a Christian it’s time to throw away the guns and take apart the
    nuclear missiles because if you don’t then according to the Bible when you
    stand before Christ upon your final judgement he’ll simply say, “I
    never knew you!” A true believer doesn’t get the option of picking and choosing among that what Jesus taught and equally important is the fact that God doesn’t just “Bless America” but rather he Blesses the Whole World!! Tell that to your military chaplain!!