HIGASHI, OKINAWA PREF. – Late last year, the government steamrolled through the construction of helipads for the U.S. military in the northern main island of Okinawa amid a local outcry over what is viewed as a further increase in the burden of hosting U.S. bases in the prefecture.
The move left a group of residents in a small hamlet in the Takae district reeling after spending the past 10 years staging sit-ins to halt the work.
They have also warned of the broader implications such an approach may have for the rest of Japan.
“The local people’s will was neglected and the construction work was conducted with an iron grip,” said Masatsugu Isa, 54, who lives in Takae in the village of Higashi. “If what has happened in Takae becomes something common, it means Japan’s democracy is at stake.”
Construction of the helipads in a vast U.S. military training area near Takae has come under fire mainly due to concerns that they would be used by Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, which have been the subject of complaints in Okinawa due to their noise and poor safety record.
But the government proceeded with the project to build six helipads, two of which were completed and handed over to the U.S. military in 2015, for the sake of achieving the return of about 4,000 hectares of forest inside the training ground.
The land swap was anticipated by Okinawans, but Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga has said many people in the prefecture felt it was unfair that it came in exchange for building new helipads. Adding to the anger was the central government’s seemingly “high-handed approach” in pushing forward the work to make the four remaining helipads.
Isa said it was emblematic that the central government began delivering equipment into the construction site just a day after the Upper House election last July, in which the then minister in charge of Okinawa issues lost her Diet seat to a newcomer opposed to the helipads and other base burdens.
“The anti-base candidate won (the single Okinawa seat that was contested) by a margin of more than 100,000 votes and yet the government stance was, ‘We’re not going to listen to the public’s will,’ ” the Higashi assembly member said, adding, “Doesn’t a person picked in an election represent the popular will?”
Soon after, hundreds of riot police were mobilized from within and outside Okinawa to confront Takae residents and their supporters. Police removed people who sat on the road to hamper workers’ access to the site and frequently scuffled with protesters, resulting in injuries and arrests.
The government has argued that the police acted properly to prevent chaos and accidents, but Diet members from Okinawa constituencies criticized the act, saying human rights were violated because of “excessive policing.”
Satoshi Kamata, a well-known journalist who visited Takae when tensions were running high, said in Tokyo that the police were focused on “keeping people away to ensure the work progressed smoothly,” which led them to impose tough traffic controls that even affected ordinary passers-by. He also said he was startled to see dump trucks “convoyed” by police cars.
“In that situation, things like freedom of expression and freedom of passage had ended up on the back burner,” Kamata said.
The government also drew flak for using CH-47 Ground Self-Defense Force helicopters to airlift dump trucks for the construction work at one point. Civic groups called the action a violation of the Self-Defense Forces Law because such activities are not included in the list of missions troops are allowed to undertake.
It is not clear why the work was rushed, but a government source said Tokyo had hoped to give then-U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy the credit for the “massive land return” upon her planned departure from the post ahead of the Jan. 20 inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump.
The land return was marked by a ceremony on Dec. 22, in which both the Japanese and U.S. governments hailed their efforts toward alleviating Okinawa’s base burden. Onaga skipped the event to show he is against the expected use of the Osprey aircraft at the new helipads.
The protest activities in Takae have since scaled down, but civic groups have kept a watchful eye over what they call an inappropriately long period of detention of an arrested activist in Okinawa, who was at the front line of the anti-helipad campaign and other anti-base actions.
Hiroji Yamashiro, head of the Okinawa Peace Action Center, was arrested in October on suspicion of cutting barbed wire near the helipad construction site and has faced additional charges for alleged violation of laws during his protest activities.
“We’re seeing a crackdown against a person who was exercising his right to reject and to assert his opinions,” Kamata said, arguing that the government’s real intention appears to be barring the campaign leader from campaigning.
Seiji Endo, a political science professor at Seikei University in Tokyo, said the government appeared to steamroll the helipad construction because it expected little pushback from the majority of Japanese on the issue, with the struggle of Takae not known much outside Okinawa compared with another high-profile campaign to block the replacement of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within the prefecture.
“In fact, past results show that no matter how many terrible things are done against Okinawa, it never really destabilizes the central government,” Endo said.
But he warned that people on the mainland should show more interest in what happens in Okinawa because the central government could employ the same tactics they have found effective in the island prefecture toward grass-roots movements in other parts of the country.
Masatsugu Isa’s 56-year-old wife, Ikuko, said Takae’s fight will continue with the aim of not allowing the U.S. military to actually use the new helipads that surround her community of about 150 residents.
“I don’t think the completion of the helipads means an end. As an eyewitness, I also have a lot to do to let other people know what the government had in fact done to build these helipads,” she said.