Protests Growing in Okinawa Over U.S. Military Presence

04/03/2015 03:21 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2015

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Photo by Ojo de Cineasta via Flickr

If you live in Hawaii, you probably have more exposure to things Okinawan than most Americans. According to the University of Hawaii Center for Okinawan Studies, an estimated 45,000-50,000 Hawaii residents, including Gov. David Ige, have Okinawan roots. Local festivals and community events provide the chance to experience the culture of this once independent kingdom formerly known as Ryukyu.

Before it was annexed by Japan in 1879, Ryukyu played a unique role between its powerful and almost equally distant neighbors, China and Japan.

Today Okinawa prefecture includes dozens of inhabited and many more smaller uninhabited islands, yet in total it occupies only about one-seventh the area of the Hawaiian Islands. Okinawa island (by far the largest), is about 20 percent smaller (466 sq. miles) than Kauai but has a population over 20 times greater (1.4 million).

Add to this dense population U.S. military bases. By official counts (that invariably vary), Okinawa has more than 32 U.S. military bases or installations and nearly 50 restricted air and marine sites designated for military training. Japan's poorest and smallest prefecture shoulders 75 percent of all the U.S. bases in the country. Almost 20 percent of the islands of Okinawa is held by the U.S. military.

Okinawa, which makes up less than 1 percent of Japan, is home to around 24,000 U.S. military personnel -- about half of all those in Japan. That might not sound like much if you live in Hawaii but remember, those are foreign soldiers whom Okinawans understandably see as an outside occupiers.

Most people in Okinawa have long been opposed to the high concentration of military bases for many reasons, chief among them: crime (especially rape and sexual assault), robberies, traffic accidents, military crashes, noise, widespread severe environmental contamination, and a general opposition to being used by Tokyo to bear the burden of Japan's military pursuits. Many Okinawans, especially older generations, also resent the role their home is forced to play as a launching point for U.S. wars.

For anyone who lives in Hawaii and recognizes the negative environmental impacts of militarism (think Makua and Waikane valleys, Pohakuloa, Kahoolawe, Red Hill and Ke Awa Lau o Puuloa to name a few), Okinawan's objections to 70 years of being used as an "unsinkable aircraft carrier" should come as no surprise.

But most objectionable of all may be the subjugation and long-term occupation by foreign powers. Ask Okinawans and they will tell you they are not Japanese, they are Uchinanchu (the people of Ryukyu). So when Tokyo and Washington agree to more bases in Okinawa, that's an agreement made by two outside powers who are using Okinawa for their own purposes.

This month marks 70 years since the battle of Okinawa in which over 120,000 people -- between a quarter and one-third of the population at the time, perished in enormous bloodshed that killed many Japanese and Americans, as well. Okinawans, especially the older people, know all too well the cost of war -- particularly when it is someone else's war fought on your land.

Now, after decades of protests and a sense that they've become second-class citizens in their own islands, Okinawans are standing firm, brave and strong, in the face of overwhelming military and police force. The governments in Tokyo and Washington are largely in agreement about relocating the long-disputed U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the densely populated city of Ginowan to a less crowded area at Cape Henoko near Nago city in the northeast of the island.

But opposition to Henoko (and other sites) grows as local citizens, many in their 70s and 80s, try to disrupt construction of the new base. Protesters have been buoyed by Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga who was elected last November promising to oppose Henoko base construction. In March, Gov. Onaga called for construction work to stop at Henoko. Onaga's move was quickly countered by Japan's Fisheries Ministry, sparking what may become a protracted legal battle.

Meanwhile base protesters continue a 24/7 presence outside the construction site and in tiny boats on the waters of Oura Bay which they say is gravely threatened by a new base. One only need look at photos of the 10-45 ton concrete blocks being placed on the seafloor to appreciate the concern for the area's biodiverse coral, seagrass and other marine habitats which are recognized as among the most pristine in the world.

Henoko is not the only hotspot of anti-base demonstrations in Okinawa, but it is arguably the hottest. To the north of Henoko is the subtropical Yambaru forest. This is also the site of U.S. Marine Corps Jungle Warfare Training Center. The U.S. military plans to expand its helipad landing sites in the remote area which locals say will bring danger, noise and militarism to a forest recognized for its biodiversity. Okinawa's Ryukyu Shimpo newspaper reports the U.S. plans to conduct over 2,500 annual flight training exercises for the MV-22 Osprey, bringing the hybrid aircraft well-known for its checkered safety record and exceptional noise levels to Yambaru.

On April 29 Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will become the first Japanese head of state to address a joint session of Congress. Presumably he will speak glowingly of the controversial Trans Pacific Partnership and increased militarism (both Japanese and American) in northeast Asia. But what Prime Minister Abe should explain to his American audience is how ignoring the overwhelming will of Okinawan people who reject the militarization of their islands is consistent with Japan's "peace constitution" and the Democratic ideals both Japan and the U.S. claim to hold so dear. Don't hold your breath.

Instead, watch for a more meaningful exchange when Gov. Onaga visits Hawaii this July and next October when Gov. Ige reciprocates. The visits come on the 30th anniversary of establishing the "sister state/prefecture" relationship between Hawaii and Okinawa.

Meanwhile, as Americans, and especially as residents of Hawaii, the very least we can do is to recognize how our military presence impacts Okinawa's people and environment. If we truly are a nation that respects basic human rights and Democratic principles, we need to acknowledge that our seven-decade military occupation is a tremendous burden imposed unjustly and unendingly on the people of Okinawa.