Solidarity with Okinawa and Removal of Foreign Military Bases

Joseph Gerson – August 5, 2021


I want to thank Gensuikyo for inviting me to join this important workshop. Let me begin by expressing profound respect and appreciation for the Okinawan, Guam and other anti-bases freedom and peace movements. With extraordinary moral vision and persistence, and in the face of unremitting resistance from Washington’ and in Japan’s case Tokyo’s, military colonialism, Okinawans have insisted on respect for their people’s dignity, for justice and peace. In her book In the Realm of a Dying Emperor, the Okinawan-American Norma Field wrote that it is the sensitivities and commitments of an abused minority that serve us all with their insistence on justice, peace, and democracy.

I initially met Okinawan and Guam anti-base movement leaders when I first came to Japan for the 1984 World Conference. I was shocked to learn that the U.S. still had more than 100 military bases and installations across Japan, with nearly three-quarters of them concentrated in Okinawa. I was pained and angered to learn the many ways that people suffered from the military accidents, crimes, prostitution, and sexual violence, environmental degradation, low altitude and night landing flights, live-fire exercises, and the political corruptions that are inherent to foreign military bases. We see the latter in Washington’s and Tokyo’s efforts to buy Okinawan elections and in their refusals to honor the outcomes of referenda and anti-bases election victories.

Representatives of the Guam Landowners Association were at that World Conference. They brought with them two maps of Guam. One showed the location of the nation’s best drinking and fishing waters and its best farmlands. The other was a map of the U.S. bases. The maps were nearly identical, hammering home the suffering and injustice of the U.S. conquest and military colonization of the Chamorro people.

The U.S. Declaration of Independence, more than 200 years ago, referred to similar actions by the British military as “abuses and usurpations” that had to be resisted. Hearing Okinawan and Chamorro testimonies led me to anti-bases education and organizing – inadequate though it has been. The marines in Okinawa and Guam, along with other U.S. warriors, should be brought home. They deserve real educations and honest jobs building a green economy, housing, and the health care system that my country needs.

Instead of telling you what you already know, I thought I would speak personally about what I have seen and learned – especially in Okinawa – over the decades. I hope it will help others to understand the importance of Okinawans struggles and to encourage you to support them as best you can.

A few years ago, I was taken to a 500-year-old Okinawan compound where elite figures of the Ryokan Kingdom era hosted Chinese officials during the time of the Chinese tributary empire. The compound’s layout and its impressive technology reflected an advanced culture and were intricately designed to protect the compound from devastating typhoons. The experience of the compound communicated the depths of historical and cultural identity that are a foundation of the Okinawan freedom struggle.

Earlier, I learned how Okinawa was sacrificed at the end of the Pacific War to buy time for the Emperor system, and about the oppressions that came even earlier with Japan’s conquest of the independent Ryokan kingdom following the Meiji Restoration. I was shocked when a good friend told me that even in his student days he and his friends were routinely punished in school for speaking Okinawan instead of Japanese.

Another dear friend gave me the book The Girl with the White Flag. I devoured the book, consumed by the intimate description of one girl’s devastating experience of the Battle for Okinawa and about Okinawans’ sufferings and kindnesses. I can still envision the seaside cliff where I was taken to be shown where Okinawan student nurses were forced by the Japanese military to commit suicide en mass, and the peace cranes someone had left on the floor of a deep and slippery cave that once sheltered Japanese troops or desperate civilians.

In 1996, I had the humbling honor of meeting Governor Ota, when I was asked by the Cambridge Okinawa Committee to deliver hundreds of U.S. signatures on a statement expressing outrage and remorse over the kidnapping and rape of a schoolgirl by three Marines. Twenty years later, I saw the governor again and was even more deeply impressed by his moral, intellectual and political clarity, and by his courage.

Once, with Cora Fabros, I had the emotionally challenging responsibility of paying my respects and expressing sympathy to a family who had recently lost their mother and sister to one of the many accidents by drunken G.I.s. Nothing we could say could ease their pain or bring their loved ones back to life.

During my first visit to Okinawa in the 1980s, I was introduced to Suzuyo Takazato of Okinawan Women Act Against Military Violence. She and others recounted the terrible decades-long history of U.S. military sexual harassment and violence, including against young children, and by systematized my military prostitution.

I remember, about a decade or so ago, being taken to the somewhat deserted place where a month earlier a G.I. had murdered an Okinawan woman. We left flowers as a symbol of remembrance and solidarity.

This is a photo from a demonstration that I was unexpectedly asked to address. These men’s headbands communicate the sacred Okinawan truth that “Life is a Treasure”. The men were sitting-in outside an Okinawan courthouse, demanding the return of their lands that had been seized for military bases.

Seared into my memory are visits to the Miyamorei Elementary School, where a U.S. warplane crashed, and Japanese authorities were prevented from coming to help. There is also the image of Ginowan children playing in a schoolyard within meters of the terrifyingly loud and dangerous Futenma runway. I’ve returned to a Ginowan rooftop to look out at Futenma’s expanse and warplanes. No progress has been made to fulfill the now 25-year-old agreement to shut down what is said to be the world’s most dangerous airbase. One cause of the delay is that with Oura Bay’s mayonnaise-like seabed, the Henoko base is impossible to complete, but the political charade and environmental devastation continue.

My friend Hideki Yoshikawa, who has played leading roles in the environmental court cases to block construction of the Henoko base, took me to an open area near another Okinawan school. That’s where deadly carcinogenic Agent Orange was long stored before being removed after popular protests.

At Kadena, you can see the base’s nuclear weapons bunkers, and I recently learned that in the 1960s nuclear weapons were stored at Henoko. I was privileged to host Shoji Niihara in Boston when he was doing the research that led him to documents that confirmed the secret 1972 agreement – still apparently in force – permitting the U.S. to bring nuclear weapons into Japan despite the Peace Constitution and the Three Non-Nuclear Principles.

Returning to visit the veteran activists at their encampment at Oura Bay I have been inspired by their commitment but saddened that it is still necessary to be out there protesting. But my spirits have certainly been lifted by joining the raucous but nonviolent protests in front of the Heneko base gates.

I can still feel my friends shock and sadness at the news of Governor Onaga’s death. Added to the sense of loss was concern about whether a candidate who could unify the prefecture’s anti-bases forces could be found to succeed Onaga-san. There was the joy when Denny Tamaki was elected to carry on the anti-bases struggle.

This is a photo from my 2017 visit to Okinawa. On seeing the breadth of support for the Okinawa Coalition Against Construction of a New Base, it was clear to Lisa Clark and me who we should be nominate for the International Peace Bureau’s annual Sean McBride Peace Prize. I was heartened to see Toguchi-san’s photo of that ceremony.

Friends, the Biden Administration is lost in imperial blindness and the arrogance of power. They are like the U.S. consul general in Naha who told Peter Kuznick and me that all of Okinawa is a U.S. military base, and that Okinawans who will not accept this are irrational. The Biden administration, like Trump’s and Obama’s before them, see China as a competitor whose rise must be militarily contained and managed by the U.S. and its allies. They should, instead, be pursuing mutually beneficial common security diplomacy that can eliminate the existential threats of nuclear weapons, the climate emergency, and pandemics, as well as the conflict over the uninhabited Senkaku/Diaoyu rocks.

The current U.S. strategic doctrine makes preparing for great power war – including nuclear war – the nation’s priority. To selectively enforce what they term the “rules-based order” – the imperial system imposed by the U.S. and its allies in the aftermath of World War II – includes the oppressive and dangerous 800 or so U.S. foreign military bases. In shows of force and to prepare for catastrophic wars, the U.S., its allies, and China are engaged in provocative military operations in the South China/West Philippine Sea and near Taiwan where accidents or miscalculations could trigger a military conflict and escalation to nuclear war. This helps to explain why the U.S. is so committed to building the Henoko base and why there are plans to deploy first-strike related missile defenses in Okinawa.

Our response must be clear: No new base at Henoko. Withdraw all U.S. foreign military bases. Abolish nuclear weapons. Reverse climate change. Stanch pandemics. And build the future that promises us all peace, justice, and security.