The Imperative of Opposing the Henoko Base and Deepening Okinawan Militarization

Joseph Gerson 

Since the mid-1980s, I have visited, learned from, and acted in solidarity with the people of Okinawa. My visits have included traveling to caves and cliffs where innocent civilians were killed or forced to commit suicide by Japanese forces in 1945. I’ve met landowners protesting seizure of their properties for the U.S. military bases, family members of women and children killed by U.S. Marines and sailors, anti-base mayors and governors, nonviolent protesters, students, attorneys and many others. And, on several occasions I’ve been privileged to join massive Okinawan “No Base” rallies.

Okinawans now face a critical election to replace anti-base Governor Onaga following his tragic and untimely death. We are thus called on to act in solidarity with the colonized people of Okinawa who are struggling for freedom, justice and peace. Read the International Okinawa Statement here.

Okinawans have resisted military colonization for more than seven decades. Beginning in 1996, with the galling rape of an Okinawan school girl, they entered a new stage of resistance. Washington and Tokyo dusted off a decades-old plan to build a massive naval and airbase at Henoko on relatively isolated and pristine Oura Bay. The governments’ promise was that the base would replace the Futenma Airbase in the heart of Ginowan City, widely seen the world’s most dangerous airbase.

Twenty-two years later steadfast nonviolent opposition have prevented the base construction, and the government apparently has no intentions of shutting down Futenma. In addition to octogenarian sit-ins, pacifist flotillas, court cases in Japan and the U.S., and creation of an All Okinawa Coalition to oppose base construction that mobilized a no base rally of 70,000 in the summer heat, voters have pressed their demands through election of anti-base mayors, governors, the prefectural assembly and their anti-bases delegation to the Diet.

With the tragic death of Governor Onaga, Okinawa’s future now hangs in the balance. Onaga, resisted Henoko base construction by lobbying the powers that be in Tokyo and Washington, revoking permits and going into the courts. He served as a unifying figure for a powerful alliance of ordinary and exceptional Okinawans, anti-base businessmen, teachers, labor activists, environmentalists, political leaders and others. With Onaga’s death and the September election to determine his successor, the ballot will serve as a referendum on Okinawa’s future.

In 2016, U.S. Consul General Al Magleby in Okinawa told U.S. scholars that “all Okinawa is a U.S. military base,” and that those who challenge the presence of the bases were “irrational.” Despite its uniqueness – home to dugongs, the instability of Oura Bay’s seabed, and the its proximity to Nago City and northern Okinawa, construction of the Henoko base is emblematic of the abuses and usurpations suffered by Okinawans. Why the resistance?

Bases increase the likelihood of war: The U.S. Okinawan military infrastructure, is comprised of 32 bases, occupying 18% of the prefecture and used for power projection. Those bases now threaten China, Russia and North Korea. In the past they were launching pads for the U.S. wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. As long as the bases remain, they will be utilized, but not for the defense of Okinawa or Japan.

Bases provide a launching point for nuclear attack: As the only nation to suffer nuclear attack, Japanese and Okinawans are uniquely opposed nuclear weapons. Yet, despite Japan’s “Three Non-Nuclear Principles,” the U.S. has used Okinawa as a base for possible first-strike nuclear warfare. U.S. nuclear capable submarines have called at White Beach and at U.S. Naval Base Okinawa. Kadena Air Base, the largest such base in Asia, accommodates B-52 and B-2 nuclear capable bombers. U.S. communications bases in Okinawa serve critical roles in U.S. nuclear warfare preparations. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, catastrophic nuclear war was narrowly averted when a senior U.S. military officer recognized that an order to launch the nuclear-armed missiles under his command was a mistake. He had to use armed force to prevent colleagues from carrying out the mistaken order. Several years later, a U.S. nuclear bomb fell from an aircraft carrier into the sea surrounding Okinawa.

Bases undermine national sovereignty: U.S. military occupation of Japan ostensibly ended in 1952, but the U.S. has exerted extraordinary influence over Japanese political life. This includes Nobusuke Kishi’s rise to become prime minister. Kishi, Japan’s wartime armaments minister, was charged as a Class A war criminal, but the CIA nurtured his political career, culminating in 1960 when Kishi undemocratically rammed extension of the U.S.-Japan military alliance through the Diet. More recently the U.S. collaborated with right-wing Japanese officials to oust Prime Minister Hatoyama, who opposed construction of the Henoko airbase.

Okinawans have suffered a double colonization. In 1878 the independent Ryukyu Kingdom was conquered by Tokyo, with Okinawans forced to abandon their language and take Japanese names. Then, in 1945, it was conquered by the U.S.

As part of the 1952 deal ending formal U.S. military occupation of Japan’s main islands, Tokyo and Washington agreed that the U.S. military occupation of Okinawa would continue indefinitely, with U.S. bases in Japan concentrated in Okinawa. This resulted in twenty years of nonviolent Okinawan struggle demanding Okinawa’s reversion to Japan and its peace constitution. Reversion came in 1972, but the bases remained. As McCormack and Norimatsu have written, “The US-Japan security treaty continued to serve as Okinawa’s key charter, in effect transcending and negating the constitution, and all important decisions were reserved for Tokyo and Washington” This is exemplified by Washington’s and Tokyo’s insistence on the construction of the Henoko airbase.

Bases undermine democracy and human rights: The U.S. military occupation flies in the face of ostensible U.S. and Japanese commitments to human rights, democracy, and self-determination. Beginning with the 1968 Okinawan election, during which reversion was the central issue, surreptitious means of political control have been employed. Then the CIA spent more than $1.6 million dollars to elect a pro-militarization candidate, who lost! Similar bribery has been reported in many local elections – those in Nago, the site of the Henoko base.

The right to peaceful protest has routinely been infringed upon. Peaceful protests, from small gatherings to as large as 60,000 people have been attacked with tear gas, auditory assault and physical intimidation. Okinawans also assert their right to sleep, which is denied them as jets and helicopters often fly just above people’s homes at all hours of the night. Classes are also disrupted by terrifying blasts of jet and helicopter noise. The result: anxiety, depression, emotional instability, and loss of physical health.

Seizure of Private Property: The US controls 18% of Okinawan land, often the most arable farmland and richest ecological areas. This began in 1945, when the civilian survivors of the Battle of Okinawa were confined to concentration camps. In addition to confiscating former Japanese military bases, people’s land was seized to expand those bases and to construct new ones. Forty thousand landowners were deprived of their land. Twelve thousand lost their homes. On Iejima Island, US forces “drove inhabitants to emigrate, requisitioned 63% of the island, and bulldozed and burned the homes of 13 protestors.” The Kadena airbase comprises 83% of Kadena township. Three towns were also deprived of 50% of their land. Camp Hansen is ten times larger than Futenma, and sprawls across miles of farmland and jungle dotted with simulated cities for urban jungle warfare training.

Despite comprising only 0.6 % of Japan’s land area, Okinawa “hosts’ 75 % of the US military bases there. The density and spread of military installations on Okinawa evolved until, as former governor Ota Masahide stated: it was “almost impossible to live as [decently as] humans should.” And the initial seizure of land without due process violated Article 46 of the 1907 Hague Convention.

Bases reinforce violent and dehumanizing treatment of women and girls: The presence of US military bases on the island has contributed to the growth and sustaining of the sex trade, perpetuating human trafficking, violence against women, and dehumanization and disrespect of local women. Sexism and sexual abuse are prevalent against women in host communities, where rape and other sexual crimes have profound impacts. The most egregious example, which shook the foundations of the U.S. Japanese alliance, came in 1995 when three marines abducted and raped a 12-year-old girl, leading to months of massive protests. Despite curfews and other efforts to discipline GI behavior, rapes and sexual violence have continued.

Bases cause environmental contamination and serious health risks: Environmental integrity is routinely ignored. Transforming land into military bases has involved bombing biodiverse coral reefs to deepen channels and creating landfills that bury rich coastal ecology. The island of Torishima, once sheltered by forest, was devastated when it was used as an aircraft firing range, a testing site for depleted uranium weapons, and practicing cluster bomb attacks. Add to these, oil spills and forest fires across Okinawa.

Chemical weapons are also a concern. Exposure of US servicemen to leaked VX gas in 1969 brought the issue to the forefront. Two years of protests were required before approximately 12,500 metric tons of phosgene, mustard gas, sarin, and Agent Orange were removed from Okinawa. Agent Orange, the carcinogenic chemical warfare weapon used to destroy Vietnamese forests, were stored on Okinawa. Their containers were “buried in a trench in the vicinity of the town of Chatan” There is also evidence that Agent Orange was utilized for weed control around bases, and nearby Yambaru jungle may have been used as an Agent Orange testing site.

Construction of the Henoko base will involve destruction of endangered blue and other protected corals, and the bay’s rich biodiversity. Surveys there also found 36 new species of crabs and shrimps, 182 documented species of sea grass, and the habitat of the endangered dugong, ostensibly protected by Japanese and American law. In 2011, when the head of the Department of Defense’s Okinawa bureau was asked why the governments were stalling an environmental impact assessment, he replied: When you are about to rape someone, do you say, ‘Now I am going to rape you?”

Bases distort local economies: In communities near military installations, employment is heavily skewed towards servicing the military, but base-related income constitutes only about 5% of Okinawan GDP. Tourism and agriculture dominate an economy whose unemployment rate is roughly twice the rest of the country. Okinawa’s economy was designed to create dependence that can be manipulated to reinforce continued leverage by the central government in Tokyo. Because Okinawa is functionally a Japanese colony distant from the industrial and commercial heartland, it has long been seen as a backward province. Japanese bureaucrats use “development” funds as a tool to undermine base opponents. The 18% of Okinawa controlled by the US military should be repurposed to benefit its people.

Bases increase the risk of life threatening accidents: Bases in Okinawa, often in the midst of bustling communities, pose continuing dangers to Okinawans. Accidents include the dropping of a military trailer on a house, killing a young child; a plane that crashed while training, falling into an elementary school and surrounding houses, killing students, neighbors, and injuring others; a transport helicopter that crashed onto the campus of Okinawa International University in 2004; and numerous other helicopter and Osprey crashes.

Between 1972 and 2010, there were nearly 10,000 officially recorded US Military-related crimes and accidents. More than 2,500 traffic accidents involving US personnel from 1981 to 2010, including the 1996 crash which killed a mother, 36, and her two daughters, 10 and 1.

Military bases are expensive and divert funding from urgent human needs: U.S. bases in Okinawa cost the Pentagon more than $10 billion per year to operate in non-personnel costs. Okinawa is responsible for over $2 billion of that sum. This money could be better spent addressing human needs. As then Congressman Barney Frank stated, “We don’t need marines in Okinawa. They’re a hangover from a war that ended sixty-five years ago.” The military has nonetheless continued to push for Henoko base construction. In an era of tightened budgets and cut backs in social programs, reallocating the $2 billion spent on Okinawan militarization should be spent for schools, housing and other social services.

Looking at this in context: I have long been struck by the hypocrisy of the U.S. global infrastructure of more than 800 military fortresses, none more intrusive or destructive than those in Okinawa. The U.S. Declaration of Independence, my country’s founding document, decried the presence of King George III’s “standing armies” in times of peace, which committed intolerable “abuses and usurpations.” Those bases were so intrusive that they became a cause for national independence and even going to war.

I don’t advocate violence to halt construction of the Henoko base or to win the withdrawal of other U.S. bases. That said, I urge everyone, Japanese and Americans alike, to take action in support of the election an anti-bases governor and to extend the solidarity that we would expect of others, were we facing similar abuses and usurpations.

1 Author’s notes from meeting with Consul General, August 11, 2016

2 Taoka Shunji, quoted in Taketomi Kaoru, “Amerika ga keikai suru Ozawa dokutorin ‘honto no nerai’,” Sapio, 9 September 2009, pp. 11-14

3 McCormack, Gavan, and Satoko Oka Norimatsu. Resistant Islands: Okinawa Confronts Japan and the United States. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012, page 7

4 Ibid. page 78

5 Chalmers Johnson. Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (2000, rev. 2004 ed.). Owl Book. page 268.

6 McCormack and Norimatsu Op. Cit. page 172.

7 Ryukyu Shimpo, Nov. 29, 2011

8 McCormack and Norimatsu Op Cit. page 10

9 Johnson Op.Cit. pp 45-47