A crowd numbering in the tens of thousands gathered June 19 in a stadium on the small island of Okinawa in Japan to demand the removal of US military forces. The other demand of the rally was to end plans by the US and Japanese governments to move a major US Marine base from the crowded center of Okinawa to the pristine Northern coast.
On the same day as the Okinawa protest, similar demonstrations were planned in 41 of 47 prefectures in Japan, including a rally of 7,000 outside the parliament building in Tokyo.
The protest were in response to the rape and murder of a 20-year-old Okinawa woman, Rina Shimabukuro, whose body was found in a forest a month after she disappeared. Kenneth Shinzato, an ex-Marine who worked as a contractor for a private firm at a local Air Force base, has confessed to the crime.
Shinzato took the last name of the Okinawa woman he married and recently became a father. The couple personifies the type of relationship between US military personnel and locals that the Pentagon points to as positive.
Okinawa is a tropical island only 70 miles long and seven miles wide at its widest point. Its natural beauty, autonomy and history have been marred by numerous US military bases that cover over 20 percent of Okinawa’s total land area and 40 percent of its arable land.
Okinawa was part of an independent Ryukyu kingdom until Japan took it over in 1879, and Okinawans have always felt treated as second-class citizens.
During the Second World War, the Battle of Okinawa was the only land battle to take place on Japanese territory. The Okinawan people were forced to care for injured Japanese soldiers while their homes and many lives were sacrificed, often at the hands of Japanese soldiers. Between 40,000 and 100,000 Okinawans were killed in the battle, many of whom the Japanese forced to commit suicide.
Then came the US occupation. The US-dictated terms of the peace treaty that ended the war barred Japan from having armed forces and stated that the US would maintain its own security forces in Japan. The surrendering Japanese conceded with the understanding that the vast majority of the bases would be on Okinawa.
Tiny Okinawa is home to 75 percent of US bases in Japan. In the 1950s, under the perceived threat from the former USSR, the US built 39 bases in Okinawa, displacing many landowners. Plans to give lump-sum payments for land drew massive protest rallies, and eventually a rental plan was established. Much of Okinawa-owned land was conceded at the end of a bayonet or bulldozer. To this day, not one piece of land has been returned to any landowner.
The Pentagon’s city-sized Kadena Air Base, called the “Keystone of the Pacific,” hosts the biggest combat wing in the US Air Force and has served as a launching pad for wars in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. The base, like many others on the island, places military equipment and landing strips next to the tropical green of farmers’ fields.
In 1972, the US government “gave back” control of Okinawa to Japan, but other than switching from dollars to yen, the US still controls the island with a soft glove over a very heavy fist.
Throughout these years, there were constant and peaceful protests against the US occupation, the theft of land, pollution and environmental degradation caused by the bases, and crimes against Japanese citizens committed by military personnel and US civilians associated with the military.
Other recent incidents involving US soldiers in Okinawa include the rape and murder of a Japanese tourist by a Navy sailor and injuries to two Okinawans injured when a drunken sailor drove down the wrong side of the highway and crashed into oncoming cars.
The murder of Rina Shimabukuro invoked painful memories of the 1995 murder of a 12-year-old schoolgirl by three American soldiers. It was because of massive protests around that crime that the US agreed to move operations from the Futenma Marine Corps Air Station to another location.
Futenma has been called the most dangerous air station in the world due to its location in a densely populated urban area. More than 3,000 people live in what should be a clear zone around the base.
After much wrangling, lawsuits and contractor shenanigans, the noisy, polluting base still hasn’t been moved. With the rise of real or imagined threats from China in the East China Sea, the decision was made to move the base to Camp Schwab in Henoko, a much less populated area in the Northern part of the island, where it would be best positioned to challenge China.
The move goes against the will of the majority of the Okinawan people. It would involve expanding the current base by doing construction on a delicate coral reef and sea grass beds inhabited by dugong, an endangered marine mammal beloved by the Okinawans and protected under Japanese and US law.
Okinawan’s anti-base governor, Takeshi Onaga, wants the Futenma Air Station to be moved off the island. In terms of military bases, of course, “moving” means rebuilding the base somewhere else. According to the terms of the ever-evolving agreement, the new base must be built before the other base can be closed and returned to civilian use—which, of course, might never happen.
The Japanese central government began work on the new base on October 29, 2015, despite the Okinawans’ strong opposition and political and legal action undertaken by the governor. Onaga has the constitutional right to reject the project under the country’s environmental laws, but that right is being ignored.
The work on the base has not gone smoothly because of large and occasionally violent protests—the violence always being unleashed by the state. On the day construction began, approximately 300 mostly elderly protesters laid down on the ground in front of the gate of Camp Schwab to prevent construction workers from entering. Police dragged away the elderly demonstrators.
Katsuhiro Yoshida, a 70-year-old Okinawan prefectural assembly member, said, “Don’t the people of Okinawa have sovereignty?…This reminds me of the scenes of rioting against the US military before Okinawa was retuned to Japan.”
For more than a year and a half, Okinawa demonstrators have maintained a 24-hour sit-in to try to block construction of the new base at Henoko by preventing government construction trucks from entering the gates. Sometimes they succeed, and sometimes the police are able to remove them, often causing injuries in the process.
Peaceful rallies have been the Okinawans’ only weapons against the brutal US occupation as their homes have been stolen, their lands polluted and their citizens beset by crimes perpetrated by the occupiers.
A 2015 article about how the US war in Vietnam was carried out from Okinawa does much to explain the island residents’ complicated relationship with US forces. Okinawa was the largest launching pad for US soldiers going to Vietnam, and the islands and its people were major players in the war, not always willingly.
It was during the Vietnam War that Japan began to negotiate with the US for the return of Okinawa. Reversion in 1972 turned out to be a betrayal for the Okinawans and a great deal for the Americans.
Today, construction on two bases that were vital to the Vietnam War effort is being fought by the Okinawans who fear the US will once again make them complicit in further wars against their neighbors. In the Northern Training Area, where Okinawans helped US soldiers train for jungle warfare, the Okinawans are fighting the construction of new helipads that they feel threaten their safety.
Camp Schwab, the site of the continuous sit-in, was used during the Vietnam War as a secret storage site for nuclear warheads and Agent Orange, a chemical that sickened many US veterans and civilian workers, and left a toxic legacy for the Vietnamese people, while the US denied its existence.
At a recent ceremony commemorating the 71st anniversary of the end of the Battle of Okinawa, Governor Onaga called on the US and Japan to revise the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) to grant to the Okinawan people the same democratic rights guaranteed to the citizens of both countries.
The rally on June 19 contained contradictory demands to remove all US forces from the island, while making plans to relocate a Marine Air Base. Later, demands were changed to include the removal of all Marines and the hope for a reduced US military footprint.
Today, Okinawans are fighting the expansion and building of US bases because they remember how they were used in the Vietnam War, and they fear being exploited in other US wars in the future. Like photographer Ishikawa Bunyo, the Okinawans believe that “Nothing has changed since the Vietnam War — Okinawa is still being used by the US.”