It’s been almost 10 years since Welsh investigative journalist Jon Mitchell first broke the news in The Japan Times about the American military’s use of Agent Orange on Okinawa. Mitchell says that discovery was only the beginning: “My initial research snowballed into a 10 year accumulation of facts on the persistent military contamination of Okinawa and beyond, an ongoing list of environmental crimes that have been perpetrated throughout the entire Pacific region.”
Mitchell has doggedly followed the contamination trail, accessing over 12,000 pages of documents under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and visiting sites and sources across the Asia-Pacific region. He even flew to the U.S. to record numerous accounts of personal tragedy as uncompensated veterans shared their experiences with the debilitating effects of working alongside chemical agents.
ROWMAN & LITTLEFIELD
Mitchell’s tenacity expanded the scope of his initial probe, and his findings now fill three books in Japanese detailing the use, storage, testing and subsequent cover-ups of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons by the American and Japanese governments. The issue has been the subject of three award-winning Japanese documentaries, earning him the 2015 Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan’s Freedom of the Press Lifetime Achievement Award. He’s also endured the uncomfortable glare of the American military machine, which has sought to undermine his research.
The distillation of this long journey of unraveling truths about widespread military contamination, makes its English debut with “Poisoning the Pacific.” Mitchell’s advocacy for human and environmental justice pushes for sweeping change as he offers up a blueprint of hope in the last chapter and a call to action boldly addressed to the American government.
“Current U.S. policy toward past and present contamination is mired in opacity, irresponsibility and arrogance. Deeply entrenched in the military is a culture of secrecy and entitlement that has allowed it to act with zero oversight for decades,” Mitchell writes in his book. He entreats the governments of Japan and the U.S. to act with accountability and transparency, warning of “a violation of human rights on an unprecedented scale, stretching across hundreds of thousands of square kilometers and more than seven decades.”
Yet Mitchell is not interested in an “us” and “them” dichotomy of finger-pointing. “It’s not only an American problem,” he says. “Military operations, wherever they are, they contaminate — and all too often it’s the colonies which bear the brunt. The British tested chemical weapons on Indians and nuclear weapons in Australia; China conducted nuclear detonations in Muslim Uighur territories. All militaries contaminate the planet, not only in places of war, but also in places where they make and test munitions.”
“Poisoning the Pacific” focuses on the Asia-Pacific region, and the book also points out Japan’s military transgressions, including its use of chemical and biological weapons in China. As Mitchell points out, “Chinese people have suffered, but the Japanese government hasn’t taken responsibility, in the same way that atomic victims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been ignored by the U.S.
“America and Japan are the only two countries to use weapons of mass destruction in combat during WWII, and neither country has accepted the damage that it caused nor reflected on its lingering impact on the many victims.”
Mitchell catalogues in detail the present-day victims of the poisoned Pacific: indigenous residents of Okinawa and various Pacific islands, forced to help clean up chemical spills, drink contaminated water, and deal with ruined soil and rampant disease; the waters of the Pacific Ocean itself, containing thousands of liters of leaking contaminated barrels; the unprotected American military personnel and their families stationed in Japan and exposed to dangerous chemicals that cause birth defects and cancer.
Among a surfeit of examples, Mitchell details a series of discoveries in the areas within and near the Kadena Air Base on Okinawa in 2013: 108 barrels of chemical agents buried under the surface of a children’s soccer field; the poisonous spread of asbestos and lead; and the accidental release of toxins within its prolific use of firefighting foams during routine exercises. If such contamination occurred in the U.S., clean-ups would take place under federal mandates, but as Mitchell explains, because of the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement, such violations continue unchecked and Japanese taxpayers pick up the tab for remediating contamination caused by U.S. bases.
Mitchell wants nothing less than to change current bilateral policies in the near future, and admits he hopes American military leaders read his book. “I suspect that most American policymakers have no idea about the extent of the damage, just as most base commanders in Japan have no idea,” he says.
Mitchell also advocates for victims to gain compensation. He’s released thousands of pages of documents to universities in Japan and the U.S. to inform the public and help American veterans seeking support. Key documents are available on both publisher Rowman and Littlefield and Mitchell’s websites, in the hopes that more victims will receive medical and financial care.
Mitchell concludes that, “(For incidents occurring) in America, the military holds press conferences to explain contaminations or provide alternative, safe water supplies within the communities they’ve poisoned. But in Japan, there’s no accountability. The more I researched, the more I’ve realized it’s a pattern U.S. authorities have followed since Hiroshima and Nagasaki: deny, cover-up and lie, to ensure the public does not realize the extent of their environmental and human damage.”
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