Henoko, a small seaside town in Okinawa, has for months been the site of daily demonstrations against the construction of a new US military base.
On 14 December, private contractors hired by the Japanese government were to begin the final phase of building an offshore airstrip by filling in Oura Bay with dirt and rocks. The protesters are focused on the damage to the marine environment and local fisheries that will result.
According to a recent editorial in Japan’s Asahi newspaper, “More than 5,800 species of living things, including 262 endangered species, have been confirmed to inhabit Oura Bay off Henoko. It should not be forgotten that the dumping of earth and sand would cause immeasurable damage to this fertile sea”.
The proposed base, which is a relocation of an existing Marine base at Futenma, was first announced in 1996 to diffuse anger over the rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl in Okinawa by three US Marines. But a referendum at the time revealed 89 percent of Okinawans wanted a reduced military presence and a review of the Henoko relocation plan.
Since 2014, candidates opposing the construction of the base have been elected to local councils. In 2017, the Okinawa local assembly voted unanimously for a resolution calling for the removal of all US Marines from the island. Last year, the Abe government’s preferred candidate in the gubernatorial elections, a fierce advocate of the new base, was defeated by 70,000 votes. And in August, 70,000 Okinawa residents and supporters protested against the presence of US bases but particularly the relocation and construction of the base from suburban Futenma to Henoko.
A second referendum is to be held in February, and it is expected that opposition to the base relocation will remain high.
The Okinawa Peace Network of Los Angeles reports that, since 1972, about 4,700 crimes have been committed by US military personnel in Okinawa.
The US has stationed troops in Okinawa since the 1950s. US concern with the USSR and “containing communism” meant Japan and especially Okinawa gained greater military significance. The US embarked on a huge base construction program. While the majority of Okinawan landowners refused to give up their holdings, bulldozers were moved in, stealing the land.
The US military controlled Okinawa until 1972, when it once again became Japanese territory. Article nine of Japan’s post-war constitution states that Japan renounces war and will not have its own military – but this did not rule out a continued US presence.
Okinawa has more than 30 US military installations and nearly half of the 50,000 soldiers stationed in Japan.
Successive US governments have reaffirmed their determination to maintain bases in Japan and Okinawa. And the Japanese ruling class is keen for the US to remain, particularly as a bulwark against China.
But the commitment and tenacity of the Okinawan people and their supporters should not be underestimated. It has been a long fight, but they are determined not to be cowed by the US military or pressure from the Japanese government.
Recently, one veteran protester was quoted in the Asia-Pacific Journal as saying: “No matter how much they bully us, we will never change. I’m going to keep up the fight until I drop. And I’m in this fight with the intention of winning”.