In Japan, Okinawans Brace Themselves for Futenma Air-Base Verdict

After 17 years of protests, Okinawa prefecture governor Hirokazu Nakaima is poised to decide the fate of the controversial U.S. air base — certainly angering either local people or his government in the process

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Nathan Layne / Reuters

A man protesting the American military presence stands outside the U.S. Futenma air base in Ginowan, on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa, on July 26, 2013

Day No. 3517 of the Henoko tent protest, and on a beautiful morning like this it’s easy to understand why they do it. Northern Okinawa is an open landscape of mountain and jungle — a world away from the concrete and congestion of the island’s densely populated south — and on this bright December day the clear coastal waters off Henoko village glint blue and gold beneath a cloudless sky.

Hiroshi Ashitomi and his fellow protesters pitched their tent here nearly 10 years ago because the site offers a good vantage point from which to keep watch over the Henoko Peninsula, where the American and Japanese governments want to build a new air base for the U.S. Marine Corps.

The Marines already have a base here, called Camp Schwab, and Ashitomi says the locals have a good relationship with their military neighbors — indeed many of them work on the base. However, the new facility would be built on reclaimed land adjoining Camp Schwab, its two runways jutting out into what is currently unspoiled ocean. That would be bad for the sensitive marine environment, and bad for Okinawa, he reckons.

A retired civil servant and longtime peace activist, Ashitomi has been protesting against the proposed base since 1996, ever since the two governments first mooted the idea; the tent came later. “I’d like to stop protesting at some point,” he says, with an air of fatalism, “but I’m not going to give up.”

Not now, anyway. It is zero hour for the Henoko scheme — and crunch time for the protesters who have been battling to prevent it. Within the next few days, the proposal will finally be approved or rejected by the governor of Okinawa prefecture, Hirokazu Nakaima, with profound implications not just for this pretty stretch of coastline and for the people of Okinawa, but for the entire U.S.-Japan alliance. That’s why Okinawans — not to mention some powerful figures in Tokyo and Washington — are holding their breath as they wait for Nakaima to make the biggest decision of his political life.

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A Tale of Two Bases

The saga began 17 years ago, when the U.S. and Japanese governments first suggested building the Henoko base as a replacement for the current Marine Corps air station at Futenma, some 48 km to the south.

Futenma is the most controversial military base on Okinawa — dangerous, some say, because of its location in the middle of Ginowan City, a town of 95,000 residents. In the mid-1990s, with Okinawa protesting en masse following the rape of a schoolgirl by three American servicemen, the U.S. agreed to shut the unpopular base to demonstrate its willingness to ease Okinawa’s burden. However, Futenma had to be moved to a new site, rather than simply closed, the U.S. government insisted, to enable the Marines to keep operating. The Futenma Relocation Facility (FRF) was thus conceived, and a site on the island’s northeastern coast identified.

Fast-forward through a decade and a half of delays, doublespeak, rethinks and U-turns, and a planning application for the FRF filed by the central government finally landed on the governor’s desk in March. Now, all that remains, any day now, is for Nakaima to say yes or no.

It should be simple in the sense that most Okinawans — not least Nakaima himself — would like Futenma to close. Even so, two-thirds of the people here, as polls have shown consistently for years, oppose the relocation plan because they want Futenma to be moved off the island altogether. Having hosted American bases since 1945, and with Okinawa still home to three-quarters of all U.S. military facilities in Japan, many people feel the time for building new bases here has long since passed.

Nakaima has repeatedly said he, too, thinks it would be best for Futenma to move off the island, and it was this stance that helped him win re-election as governor in 2010. However, the voters are not the only ones he has to accommodate. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party — of which Nakaima is a member — has been urging him to back the plan, which it considers an important means of tightening a few loose bolts in Japan’s alliance with the U.S. — so critical amid flaring tensions with Beijing over the disputed Senkaku Islands (called Diaoyu by the Chinese), which fall within Okinawa prefecture. And so the governor faces that toughest of political choices: to disappoint his party, or his people.

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Dangers Real and Imagined

Ginowan is an urban oddity — a doughnut-shaped town, with Futenma as the hole. Its inhabitants live orbital lives along the Futenma fence line. Inside is an open expanse of grass, tarmac and aircraft hangars where, logically, their town center ought to be. All of Okinawa has been shaped by the American military presence, but Ginowan — with the 480-hectare air base at its heart — is the most extreme example. Under rumbling skies, the townspeople commonly complain about the noise of low-flying aircraft, and worry more vaguely about the statistical certainty that every so often one of those aircraft will crash, perhaps into someone’s house, or family, or friends.

Okinawa International University is located at Futenma’s southern edge, and it does not coexist happily with its next-door neighbor. Near its front entrance, a charred tree stump and a slab of half-demolished wall gashed by rotor blades reveal the background to this tense relationship. They form a curious memorial to the day, almost 10 years ago, when a U.S. Marine Corps CH-53D Sea Stallion helicopter ploughed into the university campus — curious because nobody at the university was killed or even hurt in the crash, making it perhaps unique as a memorial to a disaster that, in a sense, didn’t quite happen.

Nevertheless, Aug. 13, 2004, has been seared into the university’s collective memory as the day their worst fears were almost realized. For many here, and in Ginowan generally, the horror of what might have been was enough to cement their view of Futenma as an intolerable source of danger. The event is still recalled, with grim humor, as “the day the U.S. occupied OIU.”

Inside, one of the university’s professors, Masaki Tomochi, complains about noise pollution — as the occasional helicopter clatters overhead — and its impact on his students and on his own family. The risk of another crash is obvious, he says. But above all Tomochi regards Futenma as a symbol of Okinawa’s subjugation. “I once saw a military airplane flying above the town, and I realized — they are disrespecting us, making fun of us,” he recalls. “I realized that clearly. I saw that I had to do something.”

For Tomochi, that something is to push for Okinawa’s exit from the Japanese state: to that end he recently founded a proindependence group with some colleagues. “Even though we keep on saying no [to U.S. bases], the Japanese force us to have them,” he complains, “so it’s pretty clear that independence is the only way.”

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Unlike Tomochi, Okinawans are generally quite moderate in their views of the U.S. military presence. If not exactly cheerleaders for the Air Force or Marine Corps, most people are simply used to having them around.

Nothing better demonstrates the multiplicity of views about Futenma, and about Okinawa’s situation in general, than the shifting scene outside Futenma’s gate No. 3. Every weekday, people who want the U.S. military to leave Okinawa decorate the fence with ribbons and anti-American slogans. Then, every Sunday, people who want the U.S. military to stay take them down again.

On this particular Sunday, around 50 people have gathered to clear the fence of protest ribbons — far more than habitually attend the actual protest. The organizer of the Futenma Fence Cleaning Club, a local radio presenter called Bogey Tedokon, says the fence cleaners are a disparate group in terms of their views on the U.S. military: some are probase, others are antibase. Even Tedokon himself thinks Futenma should be shut down.

“But the one common thing is the understanding that putting things up on the fence is not a peace movement,” he says. Tedokon criticizes the protesters’ use of hate speech, and occasionally physical violence. “The ‘peace activists’ create friction and try to return the U.S. and Japan to a state of hatred,” he says, before gesturing toward his companions stripping down the anti-American messages. “This is the true peace movement right here.”

However, not all of Okinawa’s protests are so easy to dismiss. In mid-December, in anticipation of Nakaima’s announcement, around 500 women gathered outside the prefectural-government building to urge the governor to reject the relocation plan. Though couched as a show of moral support for Nakaima, it was also a reminder that people will certainly take to the streets if he lets them down.

One of the organizers of the gathering, Suzuyo Takazato, who is also the founder of the civil-action group Okinawa Women Act Against Military Violence, is adamant that the building of a new base, and the prolongation of the U.S. military presence, would be a disaster for Okinawan society. Women here continue to suffer acts of sexual violence at the hands of U.S. personnel, Takazato says, insisting that the problem is far worse than most people realize because most serious sex crimes go unreported (officially, there have been no rapes by U.S. personnel in 2013).

“Not all the individuals [in the U.S. military] are bad,” she accepts, “but the organization is a violent one. The U.S. line is that the military is a very good organization with a few bad apples — but it is more serious than that.” To Takazato, the answer is straightforward. “For the bases to leave is the only real solution.”

While most people oppose Futenma’s relocation on principle or because of the environmental impact of the new base at Henoko, Takazato’s opposition on the grounds of violence against women demonstrates how the Futenma issue has the potential to focus a wide range of civic interests and concerns into one powerful beam of Okinawan protest.

Governor Nakaima will find himself in its full glare, if he decides to say yes.

With reporting by Nika Nashiro

Moss is the former Asia-Pacific editor of Jane’s Defence Weekly

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