It’s 6 a.m. outside the gates of U.S. Marine Corps Camp Schwab, Nago City, and 100 demonstrators are limbering up with calisthenic stretches designed to reduce their chances of injury from confrontations with the dozens of riot police lined up behind the installation’s barbed wire fence.

For more than a year and a half, demonstrators have maintained a 24-hour sit-in to try to stop construction of a new base in the nearby bay at Henoko. Some days the protesters succeed in blocking the government construction trucks; other days, the police manage to clear them away, often injuring demonstrators in the process.

It’s a war of attrition and both sides know how high the geo-political stakes are.

Washington and Tokyo say the new base needs to be built before closing Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to the south. Justifying its necessity, they point to a nuclear-equipped North Korea and an increasingly aggressive China.

On the other hand, the demonstrators, backed by the island’s governor and a public that overwhelmingly opposes construction, argue Okinawa already has 32 bases and it doesn’t need any more, especially one that will destroy the pristine coral reefs of Henoko Bay.

Leading those opposed to the new base is 63-year-old Hiroji Yamashiro, director of the Okinawa Peace Movement Center. Despite a six-month bout with malignant lymphoma and two detentions by U.S. security guards, he has led demonstrations in all weathers, including scorching sun, typhoons and a rare smattering of snow.

Now Yamashiro picks up a megaphone and addresses the crowd in a blend of Japanese and Okinawan.

“The American military stole our land to build bases,” Yamashiro says. “Then they used these bases to wage wars around the world. If they build a new base here, they will use it to fight new wars.”

Tightening his trademark powder blue poncho, he leads the demonstrators toward the lines of riot police.

“If we win here, we can send a message of peace around the world,” he says. “But if we lose, there is no future. The fight is here. The time is now. Follow me to the gates!”

History of abuse

In her history of the island’s peace movement, “Myth, Protest and Struggle in Okinawa,” author Miyume Tanji describes Okinawans as “among the most and longest abused peoples of the 20th century.”

It’s hard to disagree.

Once an independent kingdom, Okinawa was annexed by Japan in 1879, setting it on a downward spiral from which it has never really recovered. Beginning with the suppression of the islands’ native culture, Japanese mistreatment culminated in the spring of 1945 when Tokyo sacrificed Okinawa to delay the invasion of the Imperial homeland. More than a quarter of the civilian population was massacred — many by the Japanese soldiers who were supposed to protect them.

The end of the war brought no peace for Okinawans.

In 1952, the Treaty of San Francisco ended the U.S. occupation of mainland Japan but the U.S. military retained control of Okinawa. Governed by a U.S.-appointed high commissioner whom Okinawans had no power to elect, islanders possessed none of the basic constitutional freedoms enjoyed by mainland Japanese. Brutal military crimes, such as the rape and murder of 6-year-old Yumiko in 1955, reinforced Okinawans’ sense that their lives were worth less than those of the Americans.

Most blatant among U.S. human rights’ violations was the forcible seizure of civilian land, which, according to military records, had displaced 250,000 residents out of a total population on the main island of 675,000 by 1955. Known today as the era of “bayonets and bulldozers,” this oppression gave rise to Okinawa’s first generation of postwar peace leaders.

In March 1955, Shoko Ahagon witnessed U.S. troops destroying farmers’ houses to build a new base on the island of Iejima. Soldiers dragged families from their homes, looted their alcohol and drunkenly slaughtered their goats. In response, Ahagon led the now-landless farmers on a “beggars’ march” around Okinawa to publicize their mistreatment. He also drew up a list of nonviolent principles for Okinawans to follow in their dealings with the U.S. military.

Ahagon died in 2002 at the age of 101, but he is still remembered as the “Gandhi of Okinawa.”

Another influential leader from this period was Kamejiro Senaga.

“As a Battle of Okinawa survivor, he was appalled by war,” explains his grandson, Kazuo Senaga. “However, he respected U.S. democracy. He had more faith in democracy than military force.”

In 1947, Senaga, helped to found one of Okinawa’s first postwar political parties, the Okinawa People’s Party. However, he soon learned the limits of U.S. democracy in 1954 when he was arrested for helping to harbor Japanese communists and imprisoned for 1½ years.

Shortly after Senaga’s release in June 1956, the U.S. published the Price Report. Penned by U.S. officials after a brief tour of Okinawa, the paper legitimized the permanent presence of military bases on seized land and it paved the way for further confiscations. It also reiterated Washington’s right to store atomic weapons on the island. It’s a paper that remains at the root of many of the island’s ongoing troubles.

Okinawans reacted to the report with mass demonstrations. At one talk in Naha attended by 150,000, Senaga gave a speech still remembered today in which he proclaimed “not 1 liter of water, nor one handful of sand, nor 1 tsubo (about 3.3 square meters) of land belongs to the U.S.”

In December 1956, Naha residents chose Senaga as the city’s mayor. The election so angered the U.S. government that it altered Okinawa’s ordinances to force him from office. The move backfired and Senaga’s popularity soared.

Today in Naha, the Fukutsukan museum charts his life, including the hundreds of letters of support he received while imprisoned and photos from his time as the island’s first post-reversion Diet member.

“My father believed in the idea of ‘shinnen ga magenai‘ (sticking to your convictions),” says his eldest daughter, Chihiro Uchimura, who directs the museum. “Senaga said, ‘Oppression invites resistance. And resistance invites friendship.’ We can still see that spirit among the demonstrators at Henoko.”

‘Okinawa is ours’

Outside Camp Schwab, it’s now 8 a.m. and the number of protesters has swollen to more than 400. University students, Buddhist monks and retirees, among others, block the gates of the base, preventing traffic from entering or leaving.

The riot police form a human wall but today there are too many protesters and they’re powerless to clear them.

Many of these police have been brought in from mainland Japan and barracked in an off-season resort hotel. Local police, the demonstrators say, are too sympathetic to their cause.

At the gates, elderly Okinawan protesters stand close to the mainland police and whisper their war stories. They tell them the last time uniformed Japanese men were here they were Imperial Japanese Army troops and they murdered Okinawans. They tell them they’re exercising their constitutionally protected right to free speech. They tell them to go back to Tokyo.

Outnumbered, young and nervous, the police don’t meet the demonstrators’ eyes.

Yamashiro leads the crowd in chants of “No new base,” “Save the sea” and “Stop construction.”

Then he halts, locks arms with the protesters alongside him and breaks into a song. Soon all the demonstrators join in:

“Warera wa sakebu Okinawa yo. (We cry out ‘Okinawa.’)

Warera no mono da Okinawa wa. (Okinawa is ours.)

Okinawa o kaese. (Give back Okinawa.)

Okinawa o kaese. (Give back Okinawa.)”

Military violence

Throughout the 1960s, Okinawans continued to stage huge protests against the U.S. government, which, at the time, was using the island’s bases, including Camp Schwab, to fight its war in Vietnam.

Fearing Okinawan anger might jeopardize the ongoing presence of their bases, the U.S. returned the islands to Japanese control in 1972.

For 27 years, the U.S. had prioritized military infrastructure over civilian growth. As a result, Okinawa lagged far behind the rest of Japan, so Tokyo embarked upon a series of public works and tourism projects that slowly brought a veneer of equity with the other 46 prefectures.

For two decades, resentment against the U.S. military presence simmered. And then in September 1995, almost 40 years to the day since the murder of Yumiko, the rape of another schoolchild caused the island to explode.

“Women have borne the brunt of military violence on Okinawa for more than 70 years,” says Suzuyo Takazato, a former social worker and one of the leading figures in the islands’ current peace movement. “If all those women who have been victimized spoke out, then the public outcry would be so large that it would be impossible for the U.S. military to remain on Okinawa committing such crimes.”

Takazato has attempted to catalog rapes committed by the Americans but she says it’s a difficult task given that many women are too ashamed to speak out — among them the estimated one-third of U.S. service members who have suffered sexual violence while in the military.

“Rape is not a crime of individual soldiers — it is structural,” she says. “The U.S. military has been here for more than 70 years as government employees. They come and go — but women have been here carrying the damage.”

Highlighting Takazato’s message was the alleged rape and murder of a 20-year-old Okinawan woman by a former U.S. marine in April and the alleged rape of a Japanese tourist by a U.S. sailor in a Naha hotel in March.

Takazato explains how the proposal to build the new base at Henoko is inextricably linked to U.S. military sexual violence. In the wake of the protests following the 1995 rape, the U.S. and Japan agreed to shutter Marine Corps Air Station Futenma but there was a catch: First, they would build a new mega-base in Henoko Bay.

‘Tears of the people’

Back outside Camp Schwab, the gates are still blocked. The demonstrators have won and construction has been halted — at least for today.

The temporary victory affords Yamashiro a chance to reflect on why he values peace so highly. He explains how he grew up with his father’s accounts of being wounded in the Battle of Okinawa and the silence of his mother, too traumatized by her wartime experiences on Tinian Island to discuss what had occurred there.

As a teenager, Yamashiro protested U.S. rule by arranging a hunger-strike and then a school shut-in for which he was expelled. When he broke news of his expulsion to his mother, she told him she was proud of him.

As an adult, Yamashiro took part in campaigns to block the construction of Osprey landing pads near civilian communities in the northern Yambaru jungles and then, in 2012, he organized a blockade to protest the deployment of Ospreys, a demonstration that closed Futenma air base for four days.

In the past, he possessed a fiery temper, but age and his fight against cancer have both mellowed him to a slow burn, he explains.

Despite receiving the prestigious Yoko Tada Human Rights Award last year, Yamashiro remains modest.

“I’m just an ordinary Okinawan man,” he says. “I’m not special — I grew up in a farming family. I feel history run through me and the tears of the Okinawan people.

“How we protest is the Okinawan way. Sometimes we sing and sometimes we dance. But we always fight hard with a smile. We are not afraid of anything — except habu snakes.”

Yamashiro laughs, then he turns serious.

“Okinawans have exactly the same dreams as Americans,” he says. “All we want is the return of our land and peaceful skies. All we are asking for is the right to decide the future for ourselves.”

Yuken Teruya’s vision of peace on Okinawa

Visitors to the residence of the U.S. Ambassador in Tokyo in 2010 were met with the display of an Okinawan kimono, brightly dyed with images of the islands’ flora and fauna. Those who took a moment to examine it more closely would have spotted, interwoven among its traditional motifs, far more modern ones: parachuting soldiers, Osprey aircraft and the government construction platforms occupied by Okinawans protesting against the new U.S. Marine Corps base on Henoko Bay.

Given the kimono’s position at the heart of U.S. power in Japan, it’s a wildly subversive piece.

“This is something that only art can do,” explains Yuken Teruya, the kimono’s creator. “It can pass through gates and draw attention to sensitive issues, such as the Okinawa peace movement, in ways which newspapers or other media cannot.”

Born in the Okinawan town of Haebaru in 1973, Teruya attended Tama Art University in Tokyo before moving to New York where he currently lives. His work features in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Saatchi Gallery in London and Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum.

Much of Teruya’s art focuses on Okinawan resistance to the U.S. military. In “Riot Over the Ocean” (2014), an overturned model police car floats above a Ryukyu lacquerware table in a play on iconic images from the 1970 Koza riot, when protesters set ablaze to more than 80 American-owned vehicles. A series of portraits — titled “Heroes” — features Kamejiro Senaga, a one-time political prisoner of the U.S., alongside less controversial Okinawans such as pop star Namie Amuro and championship boxer Yoko Gushiken.

This deceptively soft approach runs through much of Teruya’s work.

“It’s easy to express anger in art but if you do so, few people will listen,” he says. “If you can bring in beauty and humor, it will help many more people to approach the issue.”

This belief is best highlighted by Teruya’s 2014 creation, “Parade From Far Far Away.”

Dyed onto banana leaf fiber, the banner-like work features more than 100 men and women celebrating an imagined post-base Okinawa. Some of them hold aloft an Osprey made from the island’s telltale broccoli-shaped trees, representing residents’ struggles to block the building of helipads in the northern Yambaru jungles. The piece was commissioned by the Humboldt Lab Dahlem, Germany in collaboration with the Ethnological Museum/Museum of Asian Art in Dahlem, Germany. It has become a part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Asian Art.

Teruya hopes such a prominent display will help to give Okinawa’s pacifism the international recognition it deserves.

“The peace movement is part of Okinawa’s cultural heritage,” Teruya says. “It is nonviolent, patient and sincere democracy in practice. Watching from a distance, I hope the world will gain hope for their own countries’ futures, too.”

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