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This is the second of a two-part series examining the impact of the U.S. military presence in Okinawa. Part one looks at controversial plans to relocate the Futenma Marine air base.
TAKAE, Okinawa — Near the small rural community of Takae stands a weather-beaten protest tent site clinging to a roadside covered with ferns. Low clouds blow overhead, and only the shrill cry of cicadas or the hum of an occasional passing car breaks the quiet of the tropical Yanbaru Forest in northern Okinawa.
An hour’s drive north of a hotly contested yet-to-be-built military base at Cape Henoko on Oura Bay, protesters at this simple encampment keep a mostly low-profile vigil demonstrating their opposition to the large military presence in this otherwise wild place.
Seventy years after the end of World War II, there are 32 U.S. military facilities in Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture. Many of the U.S. bases there are concentrated in the crowded southern part of the island. The sparsely populated north is home to the U.S. Marine Corps Camp Gonsalves and the Jungle Warfare Training Center (JWTC). The northern and central training areas make up a 37,000-acre expanse of rugged subtropical jungle that includes the U.S.’s only site designated for practicing jungle warfare and have played a major role in training since before the Vietnam War.
Occupying almost 40 percent of the biodiverse Yanbaru Forest, the JWTC has 22 helipads used for training with the MV-22 Osprey hybrids and other military aircraft.
Rie Ishihara, a mother of four, arrived in southern Okinawa from Tokyo in 1993. Nearly a decade ago, she and her family moved north to Takae village just as the construction of helipads was being announced. Like other residents, she’s concerned about noise, pollution, forest fires and the threat of crashes and other accidents as military aircraft fly overhead.
Protesters like her are often criticized for being from the main islands of Japan, but Okinawa-born Yoshiyasu Iha — a retired chemistry teacher, a base opponent and an expert on Yanbaru’s wildlife — said he’s grateful people from outside Okinawa are also committed to protecting the islands from what they view as excessive militarism.
“This is a problem not only for Okinawa but for all Japan,” he said.
Iha — whose family survived the horrors of the Battle of Okinawa, in which a quarter to a third of the island’s population was killed, in the spring of 1945 by seeking refuge in northern Okinawa — has been exploring the Yanbaru Forest his whole life. Describing endemic plants and animals and the pure mountain streams that provide 60 percent of Okinawa’s freshwater and feed the equally biodiverse coastal and marine ecosystems below, he said its heavily militarized state precludes the Yanbaru Forest from applying for UNESCO World Heritage protective status.
“We have to win this battle,” he said. “If we don’t — if we lose — that’s the end of Okinawa.”
Every day is July 4
Meanwhile, in the urbanized south, far from the JWTC, the Kadena Air Base occupies over 80 percent of Kadena town and includes a 6,000-acre ammunition storage area.
The enormous base, built on land seized after World War II, contains the Air Force’s largest combat air wing, with two squadrons of F-15 fighters and an array of military aircraft that includes fighter jets, transport planes, refueling aircraft, helicopters, Ospreys, reconnaissance aircraft and anti-submarine patrol planes. According to the U.S. military, it is the “hub of airpower in the Pacific,” home to more than 9,000 U.S. service members and their families and contributes an estimated $700 million annually to the local economy.
The military lauds Kadena for promoting “regional peace and stability,” but many Okinawans see the base as a source of constant noise, pollution and tension.
“All aircraft at Kadena are thoroughly inspected before and after every flight to ensure mission effectiveness and the safety of the local community,” said U.S. Air Force 2nd Lt. Erik Anthony, in response to concerns over safety.
Kensaku Nakamoto was born in Kadena and owns a small automobile dealership along Route 74 just outside a high wall that runs along the runways of the air base. He remembered seeing only F-15s as a boy, but one day, without warning, he said, he began to notice many different aircraft flying in and out of Kadena.
Now 42, he can identify aircraft from a distance by their sound. “F-18s and F-22s are louder than F-15s,” he said, pointing toward the runways he sees from his rooftop. The noise from the base, he said, is excessive and nearly constant, causing stress for his household and for the rest of the community. He said he sees and hears flight operations, maneuvers and aircraft from 7 a.m. until sometimes as late as 10 p.m. The only truly quiet time, he said, is when a typhoon approaches.
Responding to complaints about noise from neighboring Futenma air station, U.S. Marine spokesman 1st Lt. Luke Kuper said that the military works hard to take “cultural considerations” into account but that its forces must remain operational at all times.
Nakamoto is party to one of seven lawsuits in Japan that challenge the noise of military aircraft. He is a quiet man but speaks with conviction. “We don’t need these bases,” he said. “Take your bases home.”
Several miles from his house, mainland Japanese tourists gather at a rest area that offers a clear view of military aircraft takeoffs and landings. As Sunao, an Okinawa resident, watched fighter jet enthusiasts take photos, he likened Kadena to a “driving school for pilots.”
“We see the Blue Angels every day,” he said wryly. “Here, every day is the Fourth of July.”
Across Kadena Air Base, directly opposite Nakamoto’s home, is the Okinawa City soccer field. The recreational area, which was part of Kadena until 1986 and lies several hundred feet from elementary and intermediate schools, was closed in March 2013 for improvements. When workers discovered more than 100 mostly rusty, deformed barrels beneath the playground, Okinawa officials launched a series of investigations.
With some of the barrels labeled “Dow Chemical,” officials feared contamination to the surrounding environment. Stagnant water taken from sites close to the unearthed barrels was analyzed and described in a report by the Okinawa Defense Bureau as containing dioxins, arsenic, PCBs and other toxins. Three independent experts suggested it was “highly likely” the barrels once held herbicides and defoliants. In 2013 Dow Chemical said the barrels would not have held Agent Orange.
In February of this year, the Air Force addressed the community near the site of the excavated barrels in a memo that concurred with local authorities, stating, “There is no health risk to the local population from the excavation site; our children are safe.”
Kawamura, however, called declarations of safety while investigations continue “both impossible and irresponsible.”
The excavated soccer field remains visible like an open wound in the middle of Okinawa City, partially patched with crumpled blue tarps and dotted with orange safety cones. Two shipping containers that house the contaminated steel drums are veiled behind a green mesh screen that hides the site, just barely, from the busy city that surrounds it.
Kawamura said the issue of the contaminated soccer field, like complaints about aircraft noise, are grim reminders of the relationship between Okinawa and U.S. bases.
“The people of Okinawa are overwhelmed and tired of this continuous struggle to deal with so-called base problems one after another,” she said. “The time, energy, money and human resources that go into dealing with these problems are immense, hindering the healthy development of Okinawa.”