Oliver Stone warmed to Okinawans, fired up base foes

Famed director, war vet gets eye-opener from firm resistance of 'high-consciousness people'

by Jon Mitchell

Special To The Japan Times

On Aug. 13, a dozen anti-base demonstrators scuffled with police outside the gates of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, Okinawa, as marines watched from behind the fence cracking jokes and laughing.

Such scenes occur daily in Okinawa, which is saddled with roughly 70 percent of U.S. bases in Japan, and are usually ignored by the national media. But on this day, Tokyo TV stations had dispatched so many reporters they outnumbered the protesters.

The journalists had come to interview American movie director Oliver Stone, who’d just arrived and was standing on a hilltop overlooking the Futenma base. Although the reporters bombarded Stone with questions about his reaction to the U.S. presence in Okinawa, he declined to give any statements and soon ducked into his van to escape the camera scrum.

“What do they want me to say? Okinawa is pinned between the United States and Japan. The bases have been here for 68 years and it seems they always will be,” he told The Japan Times.

It was not a promising start to his trip to Okinawa.

In less than 36 hours, he was scheduled to give a talk to 1,500 people about U.S. bases on Okinawa Island but now he just looked hot, irritated and ready to go home.

Stone’s visit to Okinawa came at the end of a 12-day tour of Japan — which included stops in Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Tokyo — to promote his book “The Untold History of the United States.” Co-written with Peter Kuznick, an associate professor at American University in Washington, who joined him on his tour, the book — and its accompanying 10-hour TV series of the same name — attempts to debunk traditional postwar U.S. history. In particular, it focuses on the needless barbarity of the atomic bombings of Japan and subsequent ill-fated Pentagon interventions around the world, including in Vietnam, Afghanistan and, most recently, Iraq.

Stone has not always held such progressive views. Growing up in a conservative family, at the age of 20 he volunteered to fight communism firsthand in Vietnam. During his 15 months there, he was wounded twice. He wove these experiences of combat into his 1986 movie “Platoon.” Stone followed the Academy Award-winning movie with a string of blockbuster hits — including “Wall Street,” “JFK” and “Natural Born Killers” — which stirred public debate and confirmed his place as one of Hollywood’s most influential directors.

Stone’s decision to write “Untold History” came in 2008 — sparked by frustration with the direction the U.S. was heading in after eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency. Writing the book and TV series took four years and proved to be the toughest project of his career, but also, he said, the most satisfying.

“I’m not the same person I was at 19, 25 or 40. I have evolved. I have deepened my views of the world,” he said. “For me, life is always a learning experience.”

However, this was Stone’s first visit to Okinawa and “Untold History” deals only briefly with the island’s past. Shaking his head, he looked outside at the cramped houses squeezed against Futenma’s fence line. “It looks just like any other base town. Run-down and depressing.”

If these initial reactions to Okinawa were anything to go by, it was clear his learning curve here would need to be precipitously steep.

Early the next day, Stone headed to Itoman in the south of the island — scene of some of the most brutal fighting of the 1945 Battle of Okinawa. Trapped between the clash of a combined 300,000 Japanese and U.S. troops, Okinawan civilians sought refuge wherever they could. One of these places was a cave named Todoroki no Gou.

With Masaie Ishihara, professor emeritus at Okinawa International University, accompanying him as a guide, Stone hiked through dense jungle and climbed down into the deep crevice. Ishihara explained how more than a quarter of the island’s civilian population, over 100,000 people, were killed in the battle — not only victims of crossfire but forced into mass murder-suicides by Imperial Army forces. Ishihara pointed to where the Japanese soldiers, who were supposed to protect Okinawan civilians, instead forbade them to surrender to U.S. forces.

Wiping sweat and spider webs from his face, Stone muttered that the cave reminded him of the tunnels of Vietnam. “War is terrible,” he said.

The next stop reinforced the horrific scale of the Battle of Okinawa: Peace Memorial Park — the prefectural monument to those killed on all sides of the battle. Stone paced through the rows of black granite slabs inscribed with the names of the dead, looking drained by the number of those who had lost their lives.

In the adjoining Peace Memorial Museum, he stopped to read each description of the Japanese forces’ prewar militarization of Okinawa. Then he squeezed himself among a row of schoolchildren to watch a short documentary about the battle.

Everywhere Stone went, Okinawa residents explained what the war meant to them — the Japanese military bases here hadn’t protected civilians, they had made them into a target. After 1945, U.S. bases seamlessly replaced those seized from the Japanese, bringing with them accidents, crimes and hobbling the island’s economy. Okinawans’ anti-militarism is not directed solely against the U.S. — given their bitter history, they are against any military presence on the island.

Nowhere is this feeling more evident than Stone’s next stop after the museum: the northern city of Nago. Here in Henoko Bay, Washington and Tokyo want to build a vast new U.S. base. One of the key obstacles standing in the way of their plans is Nago’s current mayor, Susumu Inamine. A staunch opponent of the new installation, Inamine faces re-election in January and his rivals — including local supporters of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and companies likely to profit from the construction project — have already embarked on a campaign to topple him.

Meeting the embattled mayor in his office, Stone described his impressions of Okinawa. “I walked the caves and museums and I learned a lot. In Okinawa I feel the great tragedy of the war,” he said.

Stone listened to Inamine explain about the new base, which, if built, will fill in Henoko Bay with 2 km of concrete, devastating one of Japan’s most naturally rich regions. Among the rare species living in the area are the dugong — a relative of the Florida manatee and once a sacred mammal for Okinawans. According to some estimates, the number of dugongs has been reduced to fewer than 20.

“But do they taste delicious?” Stone asked.

The joke was one of several he tossed out in formal meetings throughout the day and, while Inamine took it in stride, Stone’s unpredictability seemed to unsettle those accompanying him. With his public talk now less than six hours away, they looked nervous about what would come out of his mouth when he took the stage.

After the meeting with the mayor, Stone headed by boat to Henoko Bay to talk with local residents who, for the past 17 years, have maintained a sit-in protest on the shoreline.

Beneath their white canvas tent, the most remarkable moment of Stone’s trip to Okinawa unfolded, a scene that took everyone — even the organizers — by surprise.

Approaching Kayo Muneyoshi, an elderly Henoko resident dressed in white, Stone asked if he was a military veteran. The man nodded, then pointed to a long scar on his leg that was the result of a bullet wound.

“Where were you shot?” asked Stone.

“Vietnam — when it was under Japanese occupation in 1945.”

When Stone and Muneyoshi clasped hands, the gesture seemed to have brought history full circle. Both men were wounded veterans of Vietnam — survivors of lost wars the histories of which their governments today are trying to conceal to keep the true brutality of empire from the new generation.

For Stone, the meeting suddenly appeared to cement everything he had seen during the day. This was a chance for him not only to write history but to help to shape the future.

“Okinawa is a sacred island and it has a great meaning to many people — as well as to the world. I am against the development of this beautiful landscape for another military base. The war ended here 68 years ago — there’s no reason to have bases still fighting the Cold War,” Stone told those in the tent.

Stone rode this wave of angry defiance through to his final talk in Ginowan Conference Center that night. At the event, held to mark the 120th anniversary of the founding of the Ryukyu Shimpo newspaper, he began by describing his view of the region’s past.

“This is a very strange history — how the U.S. has controlled much of the Far East since 1945. The war never really ended. . . . All of us, Americans, Japanese, Okinawans, we are victims of that mindset that drove that war,” he said.

In a comment that appeared to link to his first impression of Okinawa, Stone said: “Having been a GI in Vietnam and seen what the U.S. military does when it comes to a country, it trashes the place. The culture changes.”

He then proceeded to discuss how he has been transformed during his life.

“As a young man (in Vietnam) I was shocked and alienated and numbed by the war. I didn’t fully understand the reasons for it — until later when I talked to people who enlightened me over the years. . . . (This) gives me a hope that the rest of humanity will learn from the lessons of life and the experience of brutality and cruelty — and always seek the direction of the light.”

In his speech, Stone stressed the need for schools to teach the truth about their nations’ pasts and he reiterated his opposition to the new base plan at Henoko Bay and expressed his support for Inamine.

The director ended his talk with a call for Okinawans to continue their protests over the injustices that governments attempt to impose on them.

“We need regional powers to speak out and resist. We need Japan to resist. . . . We need resistance!”

Well before the interpreter finished translating, the audience had erupted into loud applause. Here was someone who backed their struggle against Japan and the U.S. — two of the most powerful nations in the world. Here was a message of hope to hold close during the difficult days ahead.

After the talk, in a rundown Naha bar once popular with U.S. servicemen during the Vietnam War years, Stone spoke to The Japan Times about the evolution he’d undergone on Okinawa.

“The people in the protests really changed my view — being surrounded by high-consciousness people opened my eyes. They enlightened me.”

He touched on the subject with which he has devoted himself for the past four years.

“Both Japan and the U.S. have been deprived of their history. They are uneducated orphans of the war. So where does that leave Okinawa? People seem to know their history here.”

Stone quoted from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses” to offer his final thoughts on the people he’d met during his visit.

“Okinawans have been made weak by time and fate — as Tennyson says. But they are strong in will.”