By Aviraj Gokool, Special from Okinawa
Suzuyo Takazato, a Japanese politician, feminist and peace activist, leads a band of protestors opposing the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station in Futenma every Wednesday.
Since July 2014, the 82 year old and her group have protested in every weather condition except during typhoons just outside the base of Camp Schwab in Henoko, Okinawa. This small community of social workers, nurses, and former teachers sing, chant, and block the entrance of Camp Schwab. Their peaceful protests have delayed military supplies from being delivered and prolonged the construction of the base while voicing their concerns.
“They might think that deploying soldiers might be helping our community or environment but actually, it’s really the cause of the problem,” Takazato said.
Since the construction of the first American base in April 1945, numerous issues have arisen in Okinawa about its adverse environmental impact. Sexual assault allegations involving military personnel have also set off alarm bells.
The bases have contaminated Okinawa’s drinking water with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). If exposed, the substance causes harm to the body’s immune system and hormones and increases risk of cancer and cholesterol levels. Three main sources have been linked back to the military bases- firefighter training, aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) leaks, and disposal of AFFF. There are traces of PFAS in Okinawa’s water supply, exposing many Okinawans to the substance.
To harden Okinawa’s naturally soft seabed, constructors have been filling Henoko Bay with sturdy sediment which is polluting the water and harming the ocean life, more notably the Dugongs, endangered Okinawan sea pigs, and coral reefs that were untouched prior to the construction.
Okinawa has also been historically used as a testing ground for harmful products such as Agent Orange, a chemical known to cause skin diseases, cancers, birth defects, and congenital malformations. American soldiers used the agent on the plants and grass to time how long it would take for effects to appear.
Along with environmental issues, residents in Futenma have reported debris falling from the sky and destroying their rooftops. Rowdy military drills disturb residents across the island. Loud noise regularly comes from planes and helicopters constantly flying. There have been instances of helicopter and plane crashes on campuses and an elementary school; one in 1959 where a jet crashed and killed 18 people. Another occurred in 2016 when an Osprey crashed off the coast of Abu, Nago City.
Many victims of sexual assault turn to Takazato for guidance and assistance. Takazato is exposed to many sexual violence stories and is working on the 13th edition of a sexual violence chronology. She shared some of her findings of American military men that have sexually assaulted local girls. She explained in the 1950s a U.S. soldier kidnapped and raped a 9-month-old baby with no repercussions. A few years later in 1955, another U.S. soldier kidnapped, raped, and murdered a 6-year-old child. He disposed of her body in a landfill area.
Initially the soldier was sentenced to the death penalty, but over time the court reduced his sentence, and eventually, he was freed.
“We feel how we are treated by the US government. How we are seen by the US government. Or by American people,” Takazato said.
Takazato and Okinawan people were outraged because they felt disrespected, and ignored, and the incident seemed forgotten.
“My concern, why I’m standing here, is to reduce any single base. To reduce the base means the number of soldiers, reduce the number of training. The new base really enforces all these incidents, the accidents, and the rape cases,” Takazato said.
A majority of the island is against the relocation and the existence of military bases, there are a handful of people in Henoko who are not opposed to the relocation. People see there are some merits the bases bring to the island.
Genya Tsue, an employee at a Henoko tattoo parlor in his early 20s, goes to a nearby college and has befriended military personnel. He works with an American tattoo artist and has much exposure to American soldiers.
“[The base] is breaking the environment, the purpose of bases is to invade other countries or to kill people and I don’t like that. But, there are many Okinawan employers working in bases, so it’s good for the economy.”
Tsue pointed out that many of the businesses, including the tattoo parlor, exist and attract more customers because of the bases and increased population it brings.
Some people in Naha — the capital of Okinawa — feel that Henoko is too far of a city for them to worry about. On the other hand, much of the younger generation seems to have no concrete opinion on the decision.
Jeff Kingston — an author and professor from Temple University who has researched much of Japan’s social issues— is critical of the presence of the base. However, he has also interviewed some who opposed the base. He writes in Global East Asia, “Okinawa has the highest unemployment and lowest per capita income in Japan, so the somewhat higher wages (two hundred to three hundred yen higher per hour) on the bases are appreciated.”
Two college students — Risa Shimoji and Saiya Taira — in Naha who volunteered at the 2022 Uchinanchu Festival have also expressed their perspective.
“For me, I think it’s fine if [the base] was relocated, but to be honest, I would be very content if things like runoff contamination in the water, objects falling, those types of things did not happen,” said Shimoji.
Building off of Shimoji, Taira went into more detail on how she thinks the relocation could be better for the Ginowan people, but not the island.
“I think that from the point of view of the people of Ginowan, the relocation of the base from Futenma to Henoko will reduce plane accidents, crashes, or any other dangerous noise. However, although those things may be an advantage, it is said if they try to move the base to Henoko, Dugongs and coral reefs will get dirtied, which is a disadvantage. There are both advantages and disadvantages but we need to think about whether we are going to give priority to the environment and human lives. I am thinking about it but I have not decided whether I think it is a good idea for the base to be relocated to Henoko,” said Taira.
70.6% of American military bases are located on Okinawa, which is 0.6% of Japan’s land. The number of bases and personnel only seems to be increasing. Okinawa holds much of the burden of harboring American bases and has been fighting against militarism for almost 50 years.
(Correction: An earlier version of this story may have given the incorrection impression that Jeff Kingston supports the presence of the US base. We regret the error.)
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