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NAGO, Okinawa Pref. — From a tiny desert island off the U.S. Marine Corps’ Camp Schwab, Takuma Higashionna looks out over the coral reef amid clear water.

“They’re going to build (an airport) there,” he says. “Can you believe it?”

Seaweed in this shallow coastal area is believed to nurture a number of dugongs, which have been spotted several times recently in the surrounding waters.

The appearance of the endangered sea mammal has given momentum to those opposing the planned construction of a joint civilian-U.S. military airport, which will serve as a replacement for the marines’ Futenma Air Station heliport in Ginowan, central Okinawa.

Higashionna, 37, like many others in his rural village, used to work at a local construction company.

One day, as he walked along the coast of a nearby island to survey land for a road, he marveled at how beautiful the ocean was and was disturbed that the road’s construction would introduce red clay into the water.

After a confrontation with his boss, who asked Higashionna to cooperate in promoting the airport construction plan, he quit his job in December 1997.

“Roads still mean something to villagers, but military bases do nothing for us but destroy things,” he said.

Higashionna now spends most of his time lobbying against the airport plan. He organizes meetings and local festivals and talks with reporters flocking to the small town. He also offers eco-tours of the area.

Higashionna’s campaign, the planned relocation and the shape of the debate over the U.S. military’s presence in Okinawa all goes back to a shocking crime five years ago.

The rape of a 12-year-old Okinawa schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen in 1995 unleashed a wave of long-smoldering antibase sentiment and prompted the Japanese and U.S. governments to form a team to re-evaluate the massive presence of U.S. forces on the southern island prefecture.

The Special Action Committee on Okinawa reached an agreement in November 1996 to reduce the burden on Okinawa, which is host to 75 percent of land allocated for U.S. facilities in Japan while making up just 0.6 percent of the

nation’s total land area. The accord included the planned return of the Futenma base, which sits in a densely populated part of Ginowan.

If there was any euphoria over the reversion of the base, however, it was short-lived, as plans for new facilities in the prefecture emerged.

Late last year, the Henoko district on Nago’s east shore was formally chosen as the site of the new airport, drawing mixed reviews in the local community and its vicinity.

The attempted suicide of one community leader in January was blamed on the tremendous pressure he was feeling from both sides.

“He just couldn’t say anything about his position over the issue,” said a villager close to the man. Local residents are torn because the central government has pledged a 100 billion yen economic promotion package for northern Okinawa, the site of the new facility.

The plan was approved by the Cabinet at the end of last year, along with plans to build the airport in waters off the Henoko district.

Part of the budget is earmarked for those municipalities around the construction site: Nago and the villages of Higashi and Ginoza. The rest will go toward the economic promotion of the prefecture’s northern area.

The central government, prefecture and heads of the northern municipalities are currently working out a framework for the economic measures, an official at the Prime Minister’s Office said.

Jisei Asato of Toyohara, a district neighboring Henoko, is one local businessman who is trying to bring in funds from the central government for the Kube area, centering on the Toyohara, Henoko and Kushi districts.

“I have visited Tokyo four times so far on this matter” since the central government announced the economic plan, he said.

But Asato, a former Toyohara district chief and chairman of the Kube Area Economic Promotion Council, said his campaign does not mean he is welcomes the facility with open arms.

While he supports plans to construct a floating airport about 3 km offshore, he is against the reclamation of the coast, which is one planned option.

Details of the airport plan have yet to be mapped out, including the size and method of construction.

However, given that the central government and the prefecture have agreed to have the new facility jointly used by airlines, the commercial use of a “megafloat” will be technically difficult, informed sources said.

Generations of Okinawans have traditionally cherished the land and nature, Asato said, pointing out that the scenic landscape of the area cannot be given away for such projects as a military facility. “If (the project) damages the reef, it will directly affect our daily lives,” said Asato, who was on a fishing boat crew in the Philippines during World War II. “I know about the sea.”

While committed to preserving the environment, Asato said he also recognizes the necessity of sustainable development, adding that while he served as district chief, the area lacked even basic facilities.

“There were no waterworks, roads or streetlights. I took care of everything,” he said.

Like Asato, Shigeru Shimabukuro, who runs a construction survey firm in Henoko, accepts the base plan as a reasonable trade for economic stimulus.

He said a five-year technical high school, which is to be built in the area as part of the economic package, may help promote the local economy. Details of the school have yet to be determined, but Henoko has been recommended to the central government as the venue.

“I want to somehow keep young people from leaving the village,” he said. “The way people in cities think is different from people in the country.”

Although he recognized as being in favor of the base, Shimabukuro admits to mixed feelings because of his close ties with residents opposing the plan.

“I actually don’t want a (new) base,” he said. “But it cannot be helped. This is a good opportunity for us to develop our town with state funds.”

At the same time, however, he said he realizes that most of the money will go to Nago’s more populated area on the west shore.

“Even in the same city, the east and the west are different. Every development, including public facilities, has always been granted to the west side since the old days,” he said.

Antibase sentiment is stronger in the northern district around Camp Schwab, including the village where Higashionna lives. Part of this may be attributable to concerns that helicopter flights may increase over the area when the new facility is built.

Shimabukuro suggested that such antibase sentiment might be because the area has always been left out of public development projects.

Higashionna said he is annoyed by the prevailing perception that residents must choose between prosperity and bases or poverty without them.

“It’s not just a matter of seeking fair opinions from both sides,” he said. “We can still live without such economic stimulus measures.”

Etsujiro Miyagi, a former professor at the University of the Ryukyus, said some people may be willing to hold out on principle. “It is a matter of pride,” he said. “(The central government) might think Okinawans will accept anything for money.”

Miyagi said the bases have always been forced on the minority by the majority — mainland Japan forces bases on Okinawa, and Okinawa then thrusts them onto its villages.

Miyagi said this process should not be viewed in merely economic terms. “It is also a moral question for all Japanese people.”