As several large American Marine trucks drive beyond the gates of Camp Schwab on the Japanese island of Okinawa, they are met by demonstrators shouting and waving placards. Around two hundred protestors, encamped on the outskirts of the American base, have gathered in opposition to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s recent plans to begin construction of a new US airbase on the island in July of this year.
Okinawa is the largest island in the Ryukyu chain, located roughly 640 kilometres south of the Japanese mainland, and is also the home to 75 percent of the US military presence located on Japanese territory. The beginning of construction in the north of the island appears to signal the long-awaited implementation of an agreement to relocate the Futenma Airbase, an agreement signed two decades ago by the Japanese and United States governments. The construction had been stalled in the face of sizeable political opposition, with critics demanding that the base and personnel be removed from the island altogether.
The issue of this base’s relocation has been a contentious one for the local inhabitants. The failure to fulfill his election promise to relocate the base was cited as one of the reasons behind Yukio Hatoyama’s decision to step down from his position as Prime Minister in 2010. The controversial agreement between Tokyo and Washington would see the US Futenma Airbase moved from its current location in the middle of Ginowan in the island’s south, to Henoko Bay in the less populated north of the island. The Futenma base, along with five other American military installations, occupies 2,500 acres of land on the southern half of the island. US military bases in Okinawa occupy around 20 percent of the main island with more than 25,000 American military personnel stationed there. For the US government, the airbase must remain on Okinawa to ensure that its primary users, the Marine ground forces, are located nearby.
The progress towards construction comes as Prime Minister Abe attempts to strengthen Japan’s long-standing security relationship with the United States and confirm its role within the wider Asia-Pacific region. In the eyes of American policy makers and the military, Okinawa continues to play a crucial role in US military operations as the ‘keystone of the Pacific’. This military presence is seen as especially significant considering North Korea’s missile launches earlier in 2015 and the claims made by China over disputed islands in the East China Sea.
The renewed effort of the Abe government to ensure the relocation of the base goes ahead has however, been met with an outbreak of opposition from locals. Concerned Okinawans have previously raised several issues including the impact of the current military facilities on the environment, as well as noise pollution, expropriation of land, and increased crime associated with hosting the American military. Abe’s apparent lack of acknowledgement of such concerns reaffirms the view of the Okinawans that, for far too long, the island has being carrying the burden of the US-Japan security relationship, without consultation or any significant benefits for the local community.
All this begs the question of how this small island has come to host some of America’s largest and strategically important military facilities. The use of Okinawa by the US began before the end of the Asia Pacific war, when the US military expropriated Japanese Imperial Army bases on the island. Okinawa remained under the control of the US until 1972 despite US occupation of mainland Japan ending in 1951. The island was returned to Japanese administration, but the US continues to use the island as a military base today.
The long history of military occupation has not been entirely smooth sailing. The demonstrations of the last few months are only the most recent example of public opposition towards the continued use of Okinawan land for military purposes. The resistance in the past has been typified by nonviolent protests, pacifist movements (often led and dominated by women) and claims against the expropriation of land. Most notable was the opposition which erupted after the rape of a twelve year old girl by three US marines in September 1995. This event shocked the people of Okinawa, and demonstrated both nationally and internationally the price of hosting US military bases and personnel, as well as the high crime associated with the bases. From 1972 to 1995 there were 4,790 criminal charges brought against the US personnel in Okinawa. Among these figures are 12 cases of murder, 355 of robbery and 111 of rape.
For those protesting the relocation of the airbase, the movement has become a means of expressing the rights and hopes of the Okinawans. Under the guidance and leadership of the new governor of Okinawa, Takeshi Onaga, the demonstrations have evoked ideas of self-determination and ethnic identity. At a recent protest rally in April against the military bases, in front of a crowd of 35,000, Governor Onaga issued a warning to Prime Minister Abe in his native Okinawan language: ‘Don’t mess with Okinawa.’ The use of the traditional language of the island is a shrewd jab at the Japanese and their colonial policies of the past. In 1897, Okinawa, then known as the Independent Kingdom of the Ryukyus, was forcibly annexed by Imperial Japan. Subsequently, the Japanese government introduced a series of assimilation polices and shunned the Okinawan culture, banning the use of the native language in public. The baton of colonial rule later passed into hands of the US military.
The rising opposition to the US military presence can be better understood in the light of resistance against a history of double colonisation. This sentiment is intensified by the disproportionate share of American military installations hosted by the island, and the disparity between the intentions of Prime Minister Abe and the wishes of the island residents. These sentiments were present in an interview with the head of the 200 protesters gathered outside Camp Schwab, Masaru Shiroma, in a recent New York Times article. ‘This is our way of exercising our right of self-determination. Both the Japanese and the Americans are alien occupiers here.’
The Okinawan demonstrators are unlikely to disappear quietly, whether the plans to relocate the airbase go ahead or not. It’s hard to imagine the protest grinding to a halt until the US military and its personnel are gone. This seems unlikely in the foreseeable future. Instead the Japanese and American governments are on collision course with the island and its residents, itching for a political voice and independence.