American director reflects critically on U.S. bases in Okinawa

by Melynie Yoneda

Special To The Japan Times

The Battle of Okinawa ended 70 years ago on June 23, yet for some Okinawans the struggle continues as they resist the ongoing presence of the U.S. military. Although Okinawa was legally “returned” to Japan in 1972, U.S. bases still occupy nearly 18 percent of the island, with as many as 25,000 military personnel currently stationed there. With MV-22 Osprey aircraft being delivered to the island’s U.S. Futenma base and the continued construction of a new base at Henoko, Okinawans, Japanese and Americans alike have been expressing concern and criticism.

American filmmaker John Junkerman focuses on the problems with U.S. bases in Okinawa in his latest documentary, “Okinawa: Urizun no Ame”, (released internationally as “Okinawa: The Afterburn”), which is being screened for six weeks from June 23 (Okinawa Memorial Day) at Iwanami Hall in Tokyo, and will run indefinitely at Sakurazaka Theater in Okinawa before moving on to theaters nationwide.

This is the first film Junkerman has made in 10 years, and it follows the themes of his 2005 documentary “Japan’s Peace Constitution” (“Eiga Nihon Koku Kenpo”), which criticized the contradictions surrounding the pacifist Constitution and U.S.-Japan military alliance.

Junkerman’s lifelong involvement with the legacy of World War II in this country began shortly after his birth in 1952, when his father was stationed at the Yokosuka base in Kanagawa Prefecture during the Korean War.

The family later returned to the United States, but Junkerman’s early experiences in Japan prompted him to study abroad at Tokyo’s Keio Shiki High School in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War.

“For me, coming to Japan was coming to the same Asia that my country was fighting against,” Junkerman says. “It was very significant for me to develop friendships with Asians — particularly Japanese who had lived through the war.”

Afraid of being drafted to the Vietnam War himself, Junkerman describes how he felt a connection with Japanese who had a deep antipathy to war.

Junkerman’s interest in Okinawa began in 1975 when he first went as a freelance writer. He later returned and spent six months in Koza (present-day Okinawa City) as a staff member for a legal counseling center. He says he was appalled by the high concentration of U.S. military bases on the island, and during his time on the island gained a profound appreciation for the Okinawan identity.

“I felt a personal mission to share what I had learned about Okinawa with American people,” he says.

In 1990, he made “Uminchu: The Old Man and the East China Sea,” his first documentary about Okinawa, which focused on a marlin fisherman living on Yonaguni island at the southern end of Okinawa Prefecture. But it wasn’t until his 2005 documentary “Japan’s Peace Constitution” was released, that Junkerman began taking stronger strides toward achieving his mission.

The film takes what Junkerman describes as a “long view” of the history of Okinawa, by looking at the arrival of Commodore Matthew C. Perry and the subsequent reopening of Japan, through to the Battle of Okinawa and on to the troubled present. However, Junkerman emphasizes that he paid closest attention to personal experiences in the documentary. This is particularly clear in the way he conducted interviews with his subjects.

“We didn’t want to go in cold with people and have an interview just out of the blue,” he says. “In almost every case we met with them several times before we interviewed them. That was time consuming, but it paid off in the end because we ended up with interviews that are quite intimate and trusting.”

These trusting relationships Junkerman built are mostly latent but come through at certain key moments when he inserts himself into the frame, such as when he shows former Imperial Japanese Army Cpl. Hajime Kondo rare film footage of the Battle of Okinawa, or when he casually chats with photographer Mao Ishikawa as she snaps pictures of a U.S. Osprey helicopter.

Although there are many voices in “Okinawa: Urizun no Ame” — both Japanese and American — that are critical of U.S. bases, it is Junkerman’s self-reflection that comes through strongest.

“There is a certain American voice behind the film, saying, ‘My country did this,'” Junkerman says. “Acknowledging that, or criticizing that from an American perspective, has a different feel from an Okinawan or a Japanese person saying the same thing about the Americans.”

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