The browser or device you are using is out of date. It has known security flaws and a limited feature set. You will not see all the features of some websites. Please update your browser. A list of the most popular browsers can be found below.
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series examining the U.S. military presence in Okinawa.
HENOKO, Japan — Demonstrators, many old enough to have survived the bloody Battle of Okinawa as children, sing buoyant but defiant protest songs while holding placards reading “No new base” and “Give us back peace, give us back land.” One sign, directed at the U.S. Marines reads, “We respect you but not your job.”
Polls consistently show Okinawans and, increasingly, mainland Japanese are opposed to replacing Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, a sprawling military base in the south of the island, with a new facility in the rural Henoko district of Nago in northern Okinawa. Referred to as Henoko, the Futenma Replacement Facility (FRF) is planned to have multiple helipads, 5,900-foot dual runways, an ordnance depot, a fuel depot and an 892-foot pier capable of docking amphibious assault ships.
In May 35,000 Okinawans gathered to protest the Henoko base plan, days before Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga led a delegation to the United States to express opposition to Washington. Their demands, however, fell on deaf ears. U.S. and Japanese officials insist a new facility near Henoko Point in Oura Bay is “the only solution” to alleviating decades of tension stemming from the U.S. military presence.
Today, 43 years after the U.S. returned Okinawa to Japanese control, the U.S. maintains 32 U.S. military bases and installations plus 48 restricted air and ocean training sites on the island.
In early August the administration of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced a one-month pause in construction at Henoko, purportedly to pursue negotiations with local officials.
But as Abe pushes forward legislation that would redefine Japan’s role as a military power and Washington ramps up its Asia-Pacific pivot, part of an effort to counter Chinese influence in the region, Okinawa’s importance to the U.S. military has never been greater.
‘World’s most dangerous base’
The existing Futenma base swells in the middle of densely populated Ginowan and, like other U.S. bases in Okinawa, has been long criticized for noise, pollution and the danger posed by crashes and accidents. During a 2003 visit, then–Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld reportedly called Futenma “the world’s most dangerous base” because of its urban location, although Marine spokesman 1st Lt. Luke Kuper disputed the claim.
Instead, Kuper stressed Futenma’s role as the staging point for two squadrons of MV22 Ospreys, a hybrid aircrafts that take off and land like a helicopter but have tilt rotors that allow them to fly at airplane speeds and distances. “We have a unique lift and logistics capability … that you won’t find in many other militaries or any civilian sector,” he said.
During the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Ospreys were used to transport personnel during air assault campaigns, but he emphasized the aircraft’s role in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts in the region.
To those who criticize the controversial Osprey and question its safety record (an Osprey crashed at a military base in Hawaii in May), Kuper responded, “They’re not the ones on the ground receiving the aid after the earthquake, after the typhoon.”
“They may just hear it leave and think, ‘That was loud’ … but what they don’t understand is the lifesaving capacity that this aircraft bring[s] to the region,” he added.
In the 70 years since World War II ended, Okinawa has been central to the United States’ military presence in East Asia, serving as a testing and training site for military personnel and for the storage and transport of weapons used in wars from Korea and Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq.
That the U.S. formerly housed nuclear weapons in Okinawa has also been widely reported, although a U.S. military spokeswoman told Al Jazeera that all nuclear weapons on Okinawa were removed before returning control of the island to Japan in May 1972.
Today nearly 26,000 U.S. military personnel — almost half of U.S. forces in Japan — are stationed on the island. But serving as America’s “Keystone of the Pacific” is a role many Okinawans never wanted.
Protests around the clock
Ginowan City Council Member Isao Tobaru was one of several dozen protesters being dragged away by Okinawa police for blocking the gate at Marine Base Camp Schwab on a weekday morning in June. Tobaru, who drives an hour each week to join the peaceful protests, is frustrated by what he calls a lack of awareness among Americans of how their military affects his people.
“I feel Americans don’t think or care about other places … or realize what is happening to people in other countries,” he said, taking a break from the midday tropical sun in an open tent encampment across from Camp Schwab, where protesters keep vigil 24 hours a day.
Two miles to the south, protesters have demonstrated for more than 4,100 consecutive days at an open tent encampment where newspaper clippings and posters document the protest movement and how a new base could threaten the environment.
Hiroshi Ashitomi visits the site six days a week and likens Henoko to a volcano that could erupt at any time, potentially threatening the future of all U.S. bases in Okinawa by completely eroding support across the islands. He sees a double standard in the U.S. pushing to build a base on reclaimed land against the wishes of the majority of Okinawans.
“We can’t imagine them building a military base in such a beautiful place,” he said. “Could the Americans do such a thing in their own country?”
Meanwhile a third protest takes place just north of Camp Schwab on the blue-green waters of Oura Bay, where small motorboats and kayaks challenge seafloor survey work that precedes land reclamation.
Okinawan photographer and diver Osamu Makishi captains a small boat that helps coordinate protests on the bay. He has been going to Oura regularly since 2004. Like many local divers and scientists, he fears building a base at Henoko will irreparably harm Oura Bay’s biodiverse marine life and fragile ecosystems, recognized by scientists as some of the healthiest and most intact in East Asia.
In addition to hundreds of species of fish, marine invertebrates, corals, seaweeds, sea snakes, crabs, turtles and other rare marine life, Oura Bay is home to seagrass beds that are feeding grounds for the dugong, a manateelike animal that is classified as vulnerable and declining in Okinawa by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
No plans to go
At Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Kuper said Henoko protesters are a “vocal minority” fueled by an anti-military local media. But he noted that demonstrating is the hallmark of a free society, saying, “If they have issues with government of Japan projects, they can protest.”
However, Mayor Susumu Inamine dismisses U.S. claims that the Henoko plan is simply a domestic dispute between Okinawa and the Japanese government.
“The reason we have this problem is the new base is being built for U.S. Marines,” he said. “Once completed, it will all be used by America and so the U.S. needs to address this problem as a principal player here, not just as a third party.”
Inamine criticized the forceful way in which kayak protesters have been handled. “Is this something that should happen in a democratic nation?” he asked. “Would Americans permit this inside the United States?”
But as daily protests continue daily, Kuper said the U.S. military will maintain operations at Futenma until a suitable replacement facility is built.
“Wherever that would be, that’s where we’ll go,” he said, adding that he expects it to be Henoko. “It’s happening. It’s already been decided.”