Majority of Okinawa landlords content living with bases

IE-JIMA, Okinawa Pref. — In the northwest corner of this 22-sq.-km coral island lies the U.S. Ie-Jima Auxiliary Airfield, where Marine Corps units from mainland Okinawa hold drills using Harrier vertical takeoff and landing jets around the clock.

A step outside the fenced-in exercise area, farmers are busy harvesting sugarcane in a vast expanse of arable land as if they couldn’t care less about what was going on inside the fence. “These fields are all leased to the U.S. forces,” said Ken-o Oshiro, head of the Ie village office section dealing with base-related measures. “Yet they have let the landowners continue to cultivate the land while they receive rent (from the central government), thanks to a gentlemen’s agreement between us and the U.S. forces.”

According to Oshiro, 35 percent of the entire island is provided to U.S. forces, and 15.6 percent of that, or 357 hectares, is “tacitly permitted cultivated land.” This coexistence of the U.S. military and local farmers is in stark contrast to other areas of Okinawa, like the towns of Kadena and Kin, where the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Base and Camp Hansen stand as trouble spots amid densely populated neighborhoods.

“People outside Okinawa nowadays tend to associate base issues only with Futenma, Kadena and firing drills over prefectural highway No. 104,” said Ie Mayor Seitoku Shimabukuro. “But they do not necessarily represent all the bases in Okinawa.”

Once known as the point of origin in the Okinawa antibase struggle, when local farmers rose up in revolt after the U.S. forces took their land literally at bayonet-point shortly after World War II, Ie-Jima Island is now somewhat notorious for its probase stance amid growing nationwide unrest over the overwhelming presence of U.S. bases in the prefecture. Last year, when Gov. Masahide Ota and municipal government leaders waged a fierce administrative battle with the central government over the forced renewal of land leases for U.S. military installations in Okinawa, Shimabukuro boldly collaborated with Tokyo in signing official documents for the continued use of local land for the U.S. military under the 1951 special land-lease law.

When the prefectural government held a plebiscite in September in an attempt to express Okinawans’ outcry against the U.S. bases, nearly 70 percent of the qualified voters among the some 6,000 villagers here abstained. “They all mirrored the demands of a ‘silent majority’ of villagers who make their living by providing their land to the military, by farming with substantial support from the central government in the form of compensation for providing one-third of the island’s area to the U.S. forces, or by working for the U.S. military here,” Shimabukuro said. “Are all Okinawans for immediate removal of the U.S. bases from the prefecture?

“I do not think so. But those who are against that idea no longer have the guts to express themselves in public under the present antibase sentiment.”