It is one of the more uneven fights in the history of Japanese protest movements.

In the official corner is the Japanese government, which is pushing a Washington-led plan to build a new U.S. helicopter base off the coast of a fishing village in Okinawa called Heneko.

Ranged against them is a small group of mostly middle-aged and elderly protesters who have been sitting in a makeshift camp here for 166 days to block government engineers trying to begin drilling surveys for the base.

As the protest has dragged on, white-haired pensioners have gone toe-to-toe with security guards and taken to canoes and wetsuits to block the invaders.

On Sept. 9, government engineers had to approach Heneko from a ship dispatched from a port 50 km away to avoid protesters.

Despite their small numbers, the protesters believe they represent the conscience of the islanders. “Most people on Okinawa don’t want the bases, but they are tired of saying so,” says 64-year-old Toyama Sakai.

Okinawans live in one of the most beautiful places on earth, a string of pristine islands anointed in tropical sun, bathed in the azure-blue waters of the Pacific, and coated with a lush carpet of green, spiked with palm trees.

Okinawa is also home to one of the world’s largest concentrations of U.S. military bases, which occupy a fifth of the main island and include Kadena, the biggest U.S. Air Force base in East Asia, and Futenma, which sprawls over 25 per cent of Ginowan City.

Now, after years of promises by Tokyo and Washington to scale down the military presence, the plan to build the marine base, 1,500 meters by 600 meters, over a coral reef off Heneko to replace an older base in Futenma has enraged many locals. Higashionna Takuma a fisherman, says: “They’re going to steal our livelihood and destroy the local environment. We’re not going to stand for it.”

Mr Higashionna has filed a suit against the U.S. Defense Department, claiming the base threatens the habitat of the imperiled dugong, a sea mammal classed as a “natural monument.”

More than 50,000 U.S. military personnel and dependents, including 17,600 marines, are on Okinawa, which has a population of 1.3 million; the U.S. military controls much of the land, sea and air.

Chalmers Johnson, a former CIA consultant and author of “Okinawa: Cold War Island,” says: “It is simply unimaginable that an ally would do this sort of thing. It’s just an accident waiting to happen.

“When (U.S. Secretary of Defense) Donald Rumsfeld visited Okinawa last November, he was told by the island’s governor, ‘You people are on the active volcano and when it explodes it is going to bring down your entire strategy in Asia in much the way the fall of the Berlin Wall did for the USSR.’

“Building a 39th military base in Okinawa is absurd.”

The region again briefly made the world’s news pages on Aug. 14, when a CH-53D transport helicopter crashed into a building in Okinawa International University.

A rally to protest the crash attracted over 3,000 to Okinawa’s streets last Saturday.

But for most islanders, the incident was merely a spike in the constant low-level tension between them and the military.

On July 8, a Marine major charged with the rape of a Filipina base worker was convicted of attempted molestation. On July 16, an Okinawan was hurt in a hit-and-run accident traced to a soldier at Camp Hansen. On July 23, a drunken off-duty soldier hit a policeman. On Aug. 8, another soldier attacked a taxi driver. The day before, the U.S. Air Force admitted that a 2.5 kg piece of metal embedded in the garden of a house had fallen from an F18C fighter.

Most of the local anger at this situation is directed at the Japanese government that foists 75 per cent of all U.S. military bases in Japan on this little speck in the Pacific. Islanders believe they are bearing the burden of Japan’s military alliance with the U.S. and, with it, America’s military strategy for East Asia.

“The Japanese government wants U.S. military protection but it knows they can never move these bases to the mainland because there they would be kicked out,” says Chibana Shoichi, a firebrand famous for burning the Japanese flag on national television.

“Here, we’re powerless so they get away with it. This is the best place in the world for the U.S. military. They love it here. The Japanese government pays them 6,700 billion yen a year. They pay for their houses, their fuel, water, cars. The only thing the government doesn’t pay is the salaries of the soldiers.”

In 1995, protests over the rape of a schoolgirl forced the U.S. and Japanese governments to agree to return Futenma Marine Corps air base to Okinawa within five to seven years.

The agreement was timed to greet the arrival of Bill Clinton, then U.S. president, who had come to Japan to renew the U.S.-Japan security treaty. Mr. Clinton shook hands with the then Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryutaro and the protesters left the streets.

Today, the return of Futenma is still 16 years away and another base is being built.

Kuba Tatsuno, a mother of four who lives in the shadow of Futenma, says: “Why should they be able to stay and take the best land? Some people say the U.S. soldiers are shut up in the bases, but they can come out anytime they like to drink, play and grab local women. We’re locked out of our land.

“They train people to kill behind those fences. I can hear them shouting all the time. It’s only a matter of time before they kill someone again.”

The refrain from Tokyo and from the governor’s office is that if the bases go the economy will collapse, but Ota disagrees: “Base-related revenues make up only 5 per cent of the total local economy. There would be jobs for 10 times more people if the U.S. forces were to vacate their bases in urban areas and the returned land was developed.”

He believes Okinawa could earn much more from tourism. “The bases are hampering, not sustaining Okinawa’s economy.”

The Heneko movement arrives at a crucial time.

Washington is experimenting with plans for a more mobile, decentralized military, and, with South Korea increasingly chafing against the U.S. presence there, Japan is seen as the key regional center of control.

Douglas Lummis, an ex-marine and now political scientist who lives in Okinawa says the Heneko movement could determine the future of the island.

“People have been saying for years, ‘we don’t want the bases,’ then say ‘but what can we do.’ Now they have something. I think the Heneko battle will be won.”

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