In late December, work to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma was resumed at its Okinawa replacement site in Nago to the fury of locals who fear the project will destroy their lives and the environment.
Yukihisa Fujimoto, 62, a film director who has covered issues related to U.S. bases in Okinawa for more than a decade, finds their protests symbolic of a long-standing conflict and feels a sense of responsibility to show their plight.
The relocation of the Futenma operations from the city of Ginowan, central Okinawa Island, has been pending since 1996, the year the U.S. promised to return half of its training area in Yanbaru in the island’s northern highlands. The plan was conditioned on the construction of six helipads in the mountainous Takae district in the village of Higashi. Two of the planned helipads have already been completed.
But angry Okinawans, though powerless and aware their voices might go unheard, continue to protest the move.
“Many people mistakenly think that Takae is not a major problem,” Fujimoto lamented in a recent interview with The Japan Times in Tokyo.
“The forest where the helipads will be constructed is worth being recognized as a UNESCO natural world heritage site.”
The area serves as a habitat for nearly 200 endangered species and a vast array of rare plants. “The concrete used to build paths at the site and the tilt-rotor, low-flying Osprey fleet will cause environmental damage.”
Together with journalist and filmmaker Asako Kageyama, Fujimoto co-produced a two-part documentary series titled “Takae — Mori ga Naiteiru (The Forest is Crying),” depicting locals’ struggles to protect a subtropical forest in the area where the military helipads are built.
The 64-minute film and its 70-minute sequel, which were screened in Tokyo last month, feature interviews with conservationists who discuss environmental issues pertaining to the Yanbaru forest as well as protests over the helipad construction in July. Kageyama narrates the documentaries.
Fujimoto and Kageyama have also covered Futenma relocation issues in their earlier works, including “Love Okinawa,” released in 2012.
Scores of Okinawans continue to gather daily at the entrance to the Yanbaru forest to block the construction work, chanting, “We want to protect the nature of our hometown,” and “Stop cutting down the trees.”
Nearly all in their 60s or 70s, they travel to Takae on foot or by other means on a journey that often takes two to three hours, even within Okinawa.
Fujimoto believes the protests represent locals’ silent cries against war.
“Their protests show the height of their resentment,” he said.
Local residents, including Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga, have been opposing the move since 2007 when the construction of helipads began.
Clashes between protesters and hundreds of riot police dispatched from Tokyo, Saitama and Kanagawa prefectures intensified in recent months as Tokyo and Okinawa have sued each other over the Futenma replacement plan, resulting in multiple halts and delays.
The movie also depicts the struggles of Hiroji Yamashiro, 64, a protest leader and chairman of the Okinawa Peace Movement Center who is in police custody. He was initially arrested Oct. 17 for allegedly destroying a barbed wire fence during a protest at Takae, and his detention has been renewed on various different charges, such as obstruction of public duty and assault.
Last month, activists opposed to the helipads launched a campaign to release Yamashiro, who has been in detention for more than 70 days. The activists claim the charges against him are unfounded.
They also gathered on the beach at Henoko on New Year’s Day, praying for Yamashiro’s release and pledging to continue their fight this year.
As of Friday, 12,047 people had signed a petition on Change.org, demanding that the Naha District Court and Naha Public Prosecutor’s Office release him immediately.
Fujimoto said the protesters want to raise awareness that military drills conducted in Okinawa are put to use in real war zones abroad, and to seek ways to prevent conflicts in the future. But he lamented that their plight has been misunderstood and ignored by the central government.
“The protesters in Takae and Henoko, they keep fighting to abolish war, and this is what I want to convey” through his work, Fujimoto said. “The more Japan’s government will keep bullying the Okinawans, the more it will push their hearts away. . . . The more they are oppressed by the central government, the more they will distance themselves (from the rest of the country).
“Many of the protesters lost their relatives in the Battle of Okinawa” (April-June 1945), Fujimoto said. “For Okinawans who saw Okinawa’s Kadena Air Base become the target of the U.S. Army during the battle, the construction of a new military site means only one thing: it may become another war zone.”
Fujimoto said Okinawans are concerned that in the future, Japan may introduce training programs similar to those used by the U.S. forces.
“Until now, the Self-Defense Forces were only taught to capture an enemy, never to kill, but this may change,” he warned.
Last March, the government enacted two security laws that enable Japan to engage in collective self-defense, which could significantly expand the scope of the SDF’s overseas missions to defend an ally even if Japan itself is not under attack.
“If Japan is to join the U.S. in a war zone, the cooperation between Japan and the U.S. will require Japan to use the same weapons, the same aircraft,” Fujimoto stressed.
Although his office is based in Hokkaido, Fujimoto said he is familiar with the SDF’s operations. In one of his previous co-productions, titled “Marines Go Home,” Fujimoto touched on protests over live-fire exercises conducted by the U.S. Army at the Yausubetsu Training Area, the SDF’s largest training base in Hokkaido. The land has long served as training bases for both Japanese and U.S. naval forces.
Fujimoto, who has listened to the accounts of American soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, pointed out that Okinawa’s bases are used in U.S. maneuver training, including the use of artillery.
“Wars claim the lives of civilians,” Fujimoto said. “We shouldn’t agree to allow wars and should keep seeking ways to prevent them. We need to keep people informed of (Okinawa’s) struggles as this is something we all can relate to. It pertains to the achievement of peace.”
Both documentaries are being screened at Osaka’s Theater Seven through Jan. 13, and will be screened in Tokyo and Nagoya from Jan. 14. For details, visit jtim.es/OC9x307JQI6 (Tokyo); jtim.es/TCnf307JQIF (Nagoya); and jtim.es/bcMz307JQJd (Osaka).