In late November, on a deserted stretch of pristine beach at the southern tip of Okinawa, on Henoko island, half a dozen sun scorched protestors and their friendly Husky marked their 2,415th day of protesting a new U.S. air force base. That same day, the island voted in a major gubernatorial election that could decide the future of the U.S in Okinawa.
The incumbent governor, 71 year-old Hirokazu Nakaima, ran on a campaign of relocating the bases. "Relocation," for Nakaima, once meant shifting the largest U.S. base, Futenma Marine Corps Air Base, to Henoko, but as election day neared, and polls showed both candidates in a dead heat, Nakaima made a last minute change in policy and called for a complete withdrawal of bases from Okinawa. Nakaima's last minute switch may have helped him win.
Okinawa is to Japan what health care is to the U.S. The issue is toxic. The previous Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama (whose party, the Democratic Party of Japan upended the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party of Japan), set a removal date for U.S. bases. He effectively killed his own political career. A fraught task, he reneged on his promise and retired last June amid low poll numbers, and a financial scandal, saying he was leaving office because he was unable to fulfill his campaign promise of removing the bases from Okinawa (Japan is now on its fifth prime minister in almost as many years). Before leaving office though in May, Hatoyama pledged to President Barack Obama that Japan would honor the U.S. and Japan agreement to keep the bases.
A few weeks ago, his successor, Prime Minister Naoto Kan, made his first visit to Okinawa as the leader of Japan. He flew over Henoko by helicopter, and saw the stalwart protestors unfurl a massive banner reading "no base." And he met the recently reelected governor, Nakaima, who maintained his staunch commitment to shifting the bases out of Okinawa.
And it's the governor of Okinawa who has the crucial ability to approve or veto base relocation (the site of the proposed base on Henoko is public land, so the governor would need to approve any building on that property). So, what the Okinawans say does matter. And while many Okinawans benefit from having U.S. bases on their islands, there is also widespread support for relocating the bases out of Okinawa entirely and a governor who shares that opinion.
One local professor and protestor, Tsuchida Takenobu, 64, took a group of visiting journalists to the site of the proposed U.S. base in Henoko. The blue coral reefs that surround the Oura Bay there are reported to be some of the largest in the world and are home to a rich ecosystem that includes sea turtles and dugong, which looks like a manatee with a mermaid-like fan tail. There are only about 50 dugong left in the world, according to a report by the Citizens' Network for Biological Diversity in Okinawa.
Tsuchida talked about a time when Marines conducted routine drills and accidentally steered a tank into the ocean there. He says it took them over a month to pull it out of the sea, and by that time, all the gas had leaked out. He says sea turtles used to drop their eggs on that stretch of beach, but no more. A razor wire fence on the border of U.S. territory at Henoko is covered with colorful ribbons and messages of peace and love.
Tsuchida and his fellow activist, Hiroshi Ashitomi, acknowledge the need for security in Asia, but don't believe Okinawa needs to bear the entire burden. The islands are closer to Taiwan (341 miles) than mainland Japan (715 miles from Tokyo) and Ashitomi hints that he'd like to see the islands co-managed by the Japanese, Chinese and Okinawans. When the idea of an independent Okinawa is proposed to him, he says it's something to consider.
Figures from the Okinawa prefecture government report that 74 percent of facilities used by U.S. forces in Japan are located in Okinawa. The Okinawa government also says the island receives about 10 billion yen a year in a "sympathy budget" from mainland Japan for hosting the bases. There is not much industry on the island to speak of, other than tourism. Okinawa is made up of 49 separate islands, has the highest unemployment rate in all of Japan and the lowest per capita income in the country. The bases are pretty much, economically, all that Okinawa has going for it.
In total, U.S. forces employ about 9,804 Japanese in Okinawa, but development projects, which should provide local employment, are usually given to the highest bidders, and those are often competitive companies from mainland Japan.
Yet, one resident who gives tours of a Futenma base look-out, where photographers and school groups gather to watch planes headed overseas take off and land, is ambivalent. She says if the bases leave, "it would be devastating." She says many locals think they want the U.S. to leave, but they are also living off the fees paid by the U.S. for building on their property (many bases are located on private property).
The most fervent anti-base voices point to the 1995 rape incident involving two marines and a servicemen who abducted a 12 year-old girl as an example of the difficulties living with U.S. marines. The other incident the government calls, "vivid proof that Ginowan citizens (the city near Futenma) constantly lived with danger," is when a helicopter crashed into a university in 2004. There were no deaths, but a charred tree trunk at the site of the crash is memorialized as a constant reminder to residents. At first glance, the trunk looks like a defiant hand raising an accusatory finger to the sky. A report from the Japanese Military Base Liaison of Ginowan notes that that incident is why their residents "now desire from the bottom of their hearts the immediate end to the operations and quick return of this base."
The editors of the Ryukyu Shimpo, one of the two local newspapers (both take a strong anti-base stance) echo the Okinawan government's feelings on the base. They say it took the U.S. over a year to issue a report on the helicopter crash and even then there was no explanation for the cause, no punishment and even the apology was "not appropriate."
The editors say American leaders have a double standard when it comes to human rights. They question whether American leaders would allow the military to build a base in the middle of an American city with such a pristine natural environment. One editor says he posed this very question to an American commander who admitted this would not happen on U.S. soil.
At one of the bases, Camp Foster, Deputy Assistant Chief of Staff Dr. Robert Eldridge, a history professor, says incidents like the rape in 1995 did very little to change Okinawans opinion about the importance of maintaining the U.S. Japan Alliance (i.e. keeping the bases in Japan). He says that Okinawan support for the alliance has steadily increased every year since the 1960s.
David Griesmer, the head of public affairs on that base says U.S. forces do build goodwill in the community by participating in various kinds of outreach. His examples included U.S. marines assisting in Okinawa's Special Olympics and the Fourth of July festivities, when Okinawans are invited on the base to celebrate America's independence.
In the lobby of the main office on the base, there is a poster of a solider with the words written in bold: "Ask her when she's sober." When asked about the number of crimes committed by U.S. forces reported by the Okinawans, Griesmer said, "with 50,000 residents, bad things will happen."
As far as the suggestion that the bases should be moved to mainland Japan or even Guam, the American officials remained steadfast in their commitment to Okinawa. Griesmer said that moving soldiers, "changes the dynamics, it's too difficult." He likened it to a baseball team allowing their pitchers, catchers, infielders and outfielders to practice in different cities.
There are already 34 separate facilities strewn across the islands and the military already conducts drills in Guam.
The editors of the local paper say when Obama was elected, Okinawans were also inspired by his message of change and believed it applied to them as well. They hoped for an end to what they call the "stagnating situation." They are disappointed, and feel little has been done to address their concerns.
Prior to Obama's visit to Japan in 2009 they published a full page of editorials in English in the Ryukyu Shimpo. In one of the articles, the editors directly addressed Obama:
In Okinawa, we have a saying, 'Nuchidu Takara' (life is precious). This is a lesson we learned after going through tremendous sacrifice.
If you genuinely believe that the future is made by deeds and not by words, please show your strong leadership and change Okinawa dramatically from an island of tragedy to an island of peace. Here in Okinawa, we sincerely hope that you take such a decisive step, worthy of honor [sic] recently bestowed upon you by the awarding of the Peace Prize.