HENOKO, Okinawa Pref. — To understand just how determined the opposition in Henoko, Okinawa, is to Tokyo’s plan to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station here, just go to the turquoise waters off Camp Schwab.
There, you will find Henoko residents, aged 9 to 90, and protesters from other parts of Japan paddling out in canoes to confront government boats. You will also find them staging sit-ins on the beach, and even scaling government-built scaffolding in the sea, all in order to prevent seabed studies that are the first step to building a new base.
“We will never, ever allow this base to be built. Since April 2004, we have maintained a vigil here beside Camp Schwab, and we will continue to protest until the central government gives up its plans to build the base,” declared the Rev. Natsume Taira, one of the leaders of the local antibase movement.
Japan and the United States agreed last October to relocate the Futenma base in central Okinawa to the waters off Henoko, on the northeastern side of the island.
The agreement came after months of tension and occasional clashes between prefectural and central government officials, who had hoped to start studying the close-in seabed in preparation to filling in part of the offshore area for an airstrip, and hundreds of protesters from Henoko and around the nation who were determined to stop them.
Since 2004, the government has tried to study the seabed off Henoko, which is part of the town of Nago.
On one occasion late last April, over 240 waterborne protesters confronted the survey team boats, as others dived into the waters around the scaffold towers, which were occupied by activists.
Tensions were high, and at one point, a government boat rammed one of the protester’s vessels, but there were no injuries.
“I felt I had to be here and do my bit,” said 93-year-old Yoshi Shimabukuro, a local resident who joined dozens of other protesters in the activists’ camp on the beach near Camp Schwab as younger people went out on the water.
The study team went away, and despite repeated attempts over the rest of the year to get the protesters to leave, a small group remains camped there.
“Following a typhoon last autumn, the scaffold towers were taken down by the government, ostensibly because of typhoons. That has set back plans to build the base even further,” Taira said.
Many people outside Okinawa often wonder to what extent the protesters represent the feelings of the majority of Okinawans toward the relocation plans and the presence as a whole of U.S. bases in the prefecture.
Taira claimed that since April 2004, nearly 50,000 people from Okinawa, other parts of Japan and overseas have taken part in the Henoko protests.
Earlier this month, nearly 35,000 people gathered in Ginowan to protest the relocation of the Futenma base to Henoko.
Antibase feelings are particularly strong in Ginowan, where planes and helicopters from the adjacent Futenma base roar over crowded city streets and shake the windows of area houses.
Anger over the noise is compounded by worries of a major accident, a fear that was heightened in summer 2004.
That Aug. 13, a U.S. Marine Corps CH-53D Sea Stallion heavy assault transport helicopter based at Futenma crashed into a building at Okinawa International University, which was in recess, and burst into flames. The three crew members were injured.
After the crash, the building was evacuated and the U.S. Marines closed off the area in order to carry out a secure crash investigation. Okinawan firefighters told local media the marines refused to tell them what, if any, cargo was on board. Police were initially refused entry to the crash site, as were the Ginowan mayor and the university president.
Officials from the police, university and city condemned the Marines for refusing to share information.
The U.S. has said it did everything it could to facilitate communication with local authorities.
Residents in both Ginowan and elsewhere were angered at the reaction of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi toward the crash.
Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine went to Tokyo just after the accident to talk to Koizumi, but was refused a meeting.
Okinawa media said Koizumi had time to telephone an Olympic gold medalist and take in a movie, but was too busy to meet with Okinawa’s highest elected official. Koizumi did meet with Inamine later that month and issued a statement of concern about the crash.
However, the accident, the way in which the Marines handled it, and the perceived indifference of the central government toward it, took its toll on public support for the U.S. presence in the prefecture.
A survey of Okinawa residents by the newspaper Ryukyu Shimpo following the accident revealed that 81 percent were against relocating Okinawa bases within the prefecture.
The U.S. military and crime is another emotionally charged issue.
Emotions again ran high in July, when a rally to mark the 10th anniversary of the rape of an Okinawa schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen drew an estimated 10,000 people, including Inamine.
Suzuyo Takazato, head of the nongovernmental organization Okinawan Women Act Against Military Violence, which documents crimes against Okinawan women by U.S. military personnel, said the horrific rape was not unusual.
“U.S. soldiers are responsible for thousands of crimes, reported and unreported, against Okinawan women since the end of World War II,” Takazato claimed.
Both U.S. military officials and Okinawan residents are concerned by crimes committed by service members. But the two sides look at the official statistics differently. The U.S. says the significance of the figures is being exaggerated and Okinawans claim the official numbers do not represent the true number of crimes, which is higher.
The latest figures, compiled by the prefecture, show that 72 U.S. service members were involved in 59 separate crimes in 2004, down from 133 members in 112 incidents in 2003.
“Since June 2004, the movements of the marines have been restricted as a curfew has been in place at night. Because of this, as well as deployments to Iraq, the crime rate went down in 2004,” Takazato said.
Crime figures for the past decade show that in some years the numbers declined, only to spike again afterward, usually after a curfew was lifted.
And Okinawans, no matter what their feelings about the bases in general or the U.S. military as an organization, often express concerns about the stress young U.S. service members soldiers experience, particularly those who have been to Iraq.
“So far, we’ve not had any incidents of U.S. Marines returning to Okinawa from Iraq with postcombat stress and causing problems,” Taira said. “As the Iraq war drags on and more soldiers from Okinawa are deployed, it’s something that people in not only Okinawa but also Tokyo and the U.S. are going to have to think about.”