Last week tens of thousands of people gathered to demonstrate for human rights and against harmful U.S. government policies. At a huge racetrack, they held thousands of identical signs that carried a simple message “NO.”
Was this in Boston? Atlanta? New York? And what were they saying no to?
The protest was on the island of Okinawa and demonstrators were saying a resounding “NO” to the planned expansion of a U.S. military base that could destroy communities and the pristine ecosystems near the quiet villages of farmers and anglers along Oura Bay in Henoko district on the main island of Okinawa.
The U.S. military is pushing forward with the blessing of the central Japanese government in the face of overwhelming opposition from Okinawa’s people and their elected representatives. The protesters were also saying “NO” to flights over Okinawa of the dangerous -- and maddeningly loud -- Osprey aircraft. The Osprey is nicknamed the “Widow-Maker” for its tendency to fall out of the sky.
Last December, an Osprey crash-landed off the Okinawan coast. Earlier this month an Osprey based out of Okinawa crashed off the coast of Australia killing three U.S. Marines. During a brief pause after the crash, Okinawans begged for an end to the flights. But then the U.S. quickly announced the resumption of flights. Governor Takeshi Onaga expressed his fellow Okinawans’ frustration saying, “With [the central Japanese government] quickly backtracking after being told [the Osprey overflights] were necessary for proper operations, we have to conclude that Japanese independence is nothing but a myth.”
Given the widespread opposition to the base, Okinawans view the development as not only harmful to the environment and public safety but as an attack on democracy and the basic freedoms of Okinawans. Okinawa has roughly three-fourths of the military facilities in Japan and many Americans are probably unaware of the long and painful history of the oppression of Okinawa. After a brutal invasion during World War II in which many civilians died, the U.S. occupied Okinawa for 27 years until 1972, when the island was turned back over to Japan. Since then the U.S. has continued to control much of the island. The presence of thousands of U.S. troops has exacerbated the situation as the young military men, "have not been perfect guests.” According to the Okinawan group Women Against Military Violence, U.S. troops stationed there have committed hundreds of serious crimes including rapes and murders.
As the protests have grown the Japanese government has reacted with a crackdown on political rights. Protesters have been forcibly and violently removed and protest leaders have been singled out for detention. One of the indefatigable protest leaders is antiwar activist Hiroji Yamashiro of the Okinawa Peace Movement Center. He was held for five months without due process and without being able to see his family. The right to protest has historically been respected in Japan so Hiroji Yamashiro’s case is a sign that Okinawans’ rights may be an exception.
Those who are fighting for civil rights here in the United States, should also be concerned about the civil rights violations and environmental damage caused by the sprawling network of U.S. military bases around the world. We need to educate the U.S. public and our representatives about these violations of human rights being made in our name. Just as there have been solidarity actions all over the country in support of the Standing Rock water protectors, Americans should support the protectors of the pristine blue waters and the impacted communities of Okinawa.