John Junkerman documentary ‘Okinawa: The Afterburn’ sheds light on the ferocious anger against U.S. bases


Special To The Japan Times

The issue of the large U.S. military presence in Okinawa is divisive, deeply rooted and, frankly, one I have never completely understood. Anti-base protests have been going on for decades, and while locals elsewhere in the developed world may have been unhappy with the bases in their vicinity, the Okinawans stand out for the tenacity and, at times, ferocity of their opposition. What keeps them going?

John Junkerman’s documentary “Okinawa: The Afterburn” (“Okinawa: Urizun no Ame”) sheds more light on this question than any of the other Okinawan-themed films I have seen, fiction or nonfiction.

As a former Okinawa resident who has lived in Japan for nearly four decades, Junkerman is unabashedly on the side of the protesters (in a program note he describes the Okinawan islands as “spoils of war”), but he presents both sides without strident editorializing.

He has also found archival footage and living witnesses to Okinawa’s troubled history, which illuminate — far more brightly than the standard journalistic regurgitation of facts and figures — why Okinawans continue to resist the bases 70 years after the Battle of Okinawa began on April 1, 1945.

Okinawa: The Afterburn (Okinawa — Urizun no Ame)
Run Time 148 mins
Language Japanese and English (subtitled in Japanese)

The film begins with an account of that battle, accompanied by interviews with elderly but articulate survivors — Japanese, Okinawans and Americans.

One survivor of the battle is former Okinawa governor and anti-base activist Masahide Ota. “A lot people here say that battle still continues. That has certainly been true for me,” he says.

Another is Masa Inafuku, who served as a 17-year-old student nurse at the height of fighting. “There was no place in the world where the fighting was so futile,” she says.

Still another is Kamado Chibana, who was 26 when 83 civilians hiding in a cave with her committed group suicide rather than surrender to the Americans, despite assurances from Japanese-fluent soldiers that they wouldn’t be harmed.

These and other testimonies are illustrated by rarely seen color footage of the battle and its aftermath, showing soldiers with what former sergeant Leonard Lazarick describes as “thousand-yard stares,” as well as emaciated Okinawan civilians on the brink of collapse.

The film follows the story of these survivors and the succeeding generations, as Okinawa became a key launch pad for U.S. wars in Asia and the Middle East.

In the 1960s, local activists campaigned for the reversion of Okinawa to Japan from the U.S., who were then ruling the island as a military protectorate. “Japan didn’t fight wars, had no nuclear weapons and its economy was booming,” explains Eiko Asato, a writer who was a teenage activist at the time.

After Okinawa was returned to Japan in 1972, however, locals soon realized that the bases would remain, with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s support, together with all the problems that had long accompanied them. The film focuses on sexual violence perpetrated by U.S. soldiers on Okinawan women and others in the military, male and female. Witnesses from both sides testify, including a former soldier involved in a highly publicized 1995 group rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl.

The film concludes with an overview of ongoing disputes, including the protests over the construction of a new U.S. base in Nago’s Henoko district, which — after the intense opening sections — feels slightly scattershot. But it’s hard to neatly tie up the 70-year history of the U.S. military on the island with a bow, as the struggle continues.

Despite its English subtitle, “Afterburn” — a reference to Okinawa’s long postwar trauma — the film does not view the struggle as never-ending. The Japanese title, “Urizun no Ame,” means “the rains that herald spring” — the season of hope.

  • johninokinawa

    Mark, I cannot understand the massive presence of US military in Okinawa either. Except to say that, thanks to Abe’s grandfather, the US military can do pretty much what they like, occupy wherever they like and Japan has to foot the bill.

    Japan has to comply with SOFA. People in the rest of Japan will not have any more US military at any price. So they are here, as far as it is possible to get from Tokyo and still be in Japan.

    Okinawans are fed up. They have been lied to continually by Tokyo and Washington and they want their land back. Those few areas that have been returned to Okinawa make far more money than when they did as US bases, Shintoshin 20 times, Hamby Town 15 times and Rycom, the new shopping mall built on the site of a golf course for the US military had 500,000 visitors in its opening weekend.

    The presence of US bases is holding down the Okinawan economy. Tourism is booming, but 20 percent of the land is used by the US military.

    There are, of course, historical reasons, but there is also this practical reason for wanting the burden of hosting the vast majority of US military to be shared proportionately through the rest of Japan.

    • Starviking

      Of course these new developments on returned land are making money – but will the 10th big development, the 20th?

      Looking at the way things are developed in another poor area of Japan, Tohoku, The next Rycoms future competitors will drain money from Rycom, and few will be left standing.

    • Carl Corey

      “All is fair in love and war.”

      Japan had no problem massacring the Chinese and cutting off the heads of American soldiers during WWII. A little occupation seems reasonable considering the Japanese history of warfare. Death marches, torture, gruesome medical experiments carried out on prisoners of war, etc. They’re lucky that’s all they got. They made the Germans look like choir boys.

      • isnamthere

        Then I guess it’s about time a world power military needs to step in, kick america’s ass and start building their foreign military bases on US soil.

      • The Penitent Man

        Well, more like hang all of the American politicians and bankers (and groups like the ADL, SPLC, JWL, NAACP, AIPAC, NAACP. etc.). Problem is they would have to deal with the largest military on the planet (in terms of machines, bombs, the American Navy which is larger then the next 13 navies in the world) and a population that is armed to the teeth. It wouldn’t be easy, that’s for sure.

      • Steven

        Sounds like the American government & military of today. The US government and military is like an invasive species, once they invade, they never leave, even if the indigenous population demands it. So much for being democratic.

    • agbrina

      Almost half of the people of Okinawa voted to remain a territory of the United States rather than revert to Japan. (What the majority of Okinawans really wanted, was to become an independent country. But they were not given that choice, since the communist party was by far the best-organized party in local politics.) Even today, somewhere between 20% and 30% want the US military to stay in Okinawa.

      • White Priv

        exactly, the activists portray it like it’s a unanimous opinion.

    • White Priv

      ” People in the rest of Japan will not have any more US military at any price. So they are here, as far as it is possible to get from Tokyo and still be in Japan.”

      False- there are multiple military bases in/near Tokyo — Camp Zama Army base; Yokota AFB. Just from that quote alone I can tell that you don’t really know what you’re talking about.

      and despite the tunnel vision of the activists, if the US pulled out of Japan, nationwide, China would pick the bones clean within a month.

      this is the problem with liberal thinking; you think just because you *don’t* want to fight that the fight will somehow go away because you hope and wish it will… China already has its fist clenched, and a defenseless Japan would be ripe for the picking… you honestly think the region would be safer without US military presence? You’d rather see China seated at the table?

  • Liars N. Fools

    I hope to see the documentary. Thanks for letting us know about it.

    The anger is rightly directed at the Japanese main island leaders that have consistently treated the Okinawans as second class citizens whose real property and personal bodies have essentially been left to be exploited by American military officials and diplomats all too willing to insult and denigrate them.

    The ill treatment of Governor Onaga during his recent visit to America, the fawning over Nakaima by Ambassador Kennedy while cold shouldering Onaga, the collusion of Marine Corps public affairs personnel with right wing Japanese media, the reported labeling of Okinawans as “lazy” and “masters of extortion” by a former State Department Japan desk chief, the crimes committed by the American military — these stand as testimony to America’s continuing shameless occupation of Okinawa and the Japanese government complicity.

    • agbrina

      I think that the people of Hawaii could have similar objections. The Hawaiians were taken over by the Americans for reasons that is not too different from the reason why the Japanese took over the Ryukyu Islands. Hawaii has prospered greatly as part of the United States. Okinawa also seems to be better off for being part of Japan, but perhaps not as much.

      • Liars N. Fools

        There is a superficial parallel, but there are huge and ultimately overriding differences.

        In the late 19th century, the native Hawaiian population had been shrunken by disease and internal conflict to only about 40,000 people, and the Kingdom had been infiltrated by outside business interests, particularly those interested in sugar, and even the traditional leading families had some intermarriage with outsiders. The monarchy was extremely weak, and was easily overthrown by the relative newcomers, with the assistance of American military forces. Although those who identify as wholly or partially Hawaiian in the population have grown, economically there are far more non-native ethnic Hawaiians who dominate the economy, politics, and government. Moreover an outsized military presence contributes mightily to the economy as does tourism, both domestic and foreign. President Clinton signed a law during his term which formally apologized for the annexation of Hawaii.

        In contrast, the history of Okinawa is far bloodier. The Ryukyu Kingdom was overthrown and annexed by the Satsuma feudatory in the early 17th century through invasion and military. Throughout the rule of Okinawa during Shogunate and Imperial rule, Okinawa was considered part of the country but with a status not on par with the feudatories and, later, prefectures of Japan. During the 1945 battle itself, some 150,000 civilians were casualties, many forced or persuaded to commit suicide by Imperial Japanese military forces. Of the 120,000 Japanese military casualties, the vast majority fatalities since Japanese forces did not surrender, were probably as many as 40,000 Okinawans pressed into military service. I believe that in the Imperial Japanese Navy headquarters on the island, the commander wrote a testament prior to committing suicide and noted that the Okinawan people had acquitted themselves almost as much as Japanese — which indicates just how much the main island Japanese did not regard the Okinawans as equal to Japanese. The numbers of dead Okinawans and the havoc wreaked on the island should tell you something about the massive wounds and impressions incurred by the survivors, which the documentary deals with.

        This view of Okinawans as not equal to main island Japanese was reinforced by the fact that even though the Americans lifted the occupation of Japan in 1952, the “reversion” of Okinawa did not occur until 1972. During the military occupation of Okinawa, the Americans essentially colonized the inhabitants, establishing bases and facilities essentially at will. The “reversion” agreement continued the pattern of concentrating American military facilities disproportionately on Okinawa, limiting land use and occasionally exposing the population to violent crime.

        Please do not equate the situation on Hawaii with that on Okinawa.

  • agbrina

    I SERVED ON OKINAWA, OFF AND ON BETWEEN 1971 AND 1975. I believe that after the end of the Cold War all foreign bases occupied by the US should have been closed. So, of course, I support the movement to remove the US forces from Okinawa.

    But there is a problem with this. Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan must build up there own military strength, in order to defend themselves against China, North Korea, and Russia on their own. Of these, only South Korea is willing to do so and is in the process of preparing to defend itself without depending upon the US military.

    Japan’s military must triple in size. A viable amphibious landing capability, which means at least 4 carriers capable of serving about 24 high performance aircraft each, plus supporting surface combat ships and submarines. It will need long range bombers, fighter attack aircraft and fighter interceptors, supported by state of the art anti-missile defense systems. And Japan must base a significant combined arms military force on Okinawa, in order to respond to Chinese threats. So, just how different will the Okinawans feel, if their bases were Japanese instead of American?

  • JJ9876

    Okinawans spend most of their time looking backward. They teach their children more about the past than the future. If you watch their news, it is the same…more time spent on news articles about the past than reflecting on the future. What about North Korea? What about Russia? What about China? Most Okinawans view these countries favorably because all they represent right now are tourist dollars and little else. While I can commend them for trying fevorantly to be pro-peace, they also run very close to anti-self-defense, and that makes absolutely no sense given their strategic place in the world physically. They have had a terrible history and one that does need to be remembered. But without proper reflection on what their current decisions could mean for the future, they are charging headstrong into chaos. Get rid of American bases in order to build malls and resorts…Great idea. In 10 years we will be reading articles about how much the Okinawans hate all of the Chinese and Korean soldiers who visit the island and all of the problems they bring. You really can’t have your cake and eat it too.

    • Terence and Phillip McKenna

      Only one discus comment. Troll account.