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Okinawa: Notes From the “Evil Island”
It is all about barbed wire, warnings and checkpoints. And to make it worse, Futenma air force base is right in the middle of an extremely densely populated urban area.
Several middle-aged Japanese citizens are besieging the sedans and SUV’s driven by the US military personnel who are leaving their barracks for an outing. As cars are waiting at the intersection to join the traffic flow on the main road, elderly men and women, clench their fists, shouting slogans and waving their posters. There is a lone Japanese cop making sure that nothing goes wrong. But everything is orderly, a routine.
“Close down the base!” Scream the demonstrators. “US army – out of Okinawa!”
American GI’s and military pilots avert their eyes. It is all somehow embarrassing. It is not like these American bombers and top guns are facing some stone-throwing body builders or aces from the local karate club. These ageing people, vocal adversaries of the Empire, can do no harm to the soldiers or to their vehicles; they could probably not even be able to kill a fly.
I approach one of the leaders of this small group of protesters. The lady puts down her placard and listens to my questions, attentively. It is all so Japanese! I hand her my name card, with both hands; she, with both hands, accepts it. We bow to each other.
“Miyoko-san”, I begin. “What is it exactly that irks you about this base?”
“It is so noisy and so dangerous”, she replies. “There are all sorts of terribly treacherous airplanes flying from Futenma. We are never consulted. We are not informed.”
I drive a bit further from Naha, to the tall Matsuki Building. It hosts several nightclubs on its premises; probably whorehouses, too, that come to life at night. However, during the day this entire structure is quiet and empty. And, by Japanese standards, it is very dingy. I take the elevator to the top floor, and climb onto the roof, stopping next to an enormous Canon security camera. All of a sudden, the Futenma base is in front of me.
This place feels insane: nobody really cares what I am doing. No guards, no deterrence. I just take out my video and still cameras and begin working.
It is all so easy, so uneventful, that one feels almost ‘disappointed’. There is no security drama, no charade.
I hear the engines, and look up towards the sky. A four-engine Hercules turns abruptly towards the runway, then literally drops from the sky, levels up at the last moment, then touches down, rolls for a few seconds down the runway, then takes off again: ‘touch and go’ maneuver. I film it. Then I film another airplane, and then another.
I call my film editor in Tokyo.
“It all looks and feels weird”, I tell him.
“Like some Third World country?” he volunteers.
“Yes”, I confirm. “But that’s not all. It is all totally spooky. With this new administration and the passionate love boleros it sings to US… All this can of course, easily trigger WWIII. These bases are actually here, most likely, to trigger a conflict… to provoke China or North Korea, or both. Yet it is all so quiet and serene and in open.“
“That’s Okinawa”, my editor confirms.
In his recent article, which appeared in the Australian magazine Arena, a leading Australian historian and Professor Emeritus at ANU, Gavan McCormack, calls Japan “The Servile State” and The US Marine Corps based in Okinawa “a force designed for attack deep within enemy territory.” He mentions one of the best-selling books in Japan- The Truth of Postwar History–written by Magosaki Ukeru, a former head of the Intelligence and Analysis Bureau of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs:
…Magosaki and I also agree in seeing Okinawa, the island prefecture off the China coast where US occupation has been unbroken for sixty-seven years and where three-quarters of US military installations in Japan are concentrated, as crucial. Nowhere else can be found such a concentrated expression of the US-Japan relationship. There, the fact that the Japanese national government is determinedly servile, and that all Okinawa policy is predicated on priority to US military interests, is the inescapable reality of everyday life. Required to serve as the arch upon which the Asia-Pacific security system as a whole can rest, Okinawa became something of an Achilles heel, because it is denied the very values the alliance is supposed to uphold. Its people feel threatened, not protected, by it, and discrimination against them in the name of ‘East Asian security’ has reached the point of being no longer tolerable.
* * *
While filming the Futenma Base from the roof of the Matsuki Building is somehow tolerated, to film the Kadena Base, a monster that brought so much grief to the rest of Northeast Asia during the Korean War, is something that is considered as thoroughly ordinary, even encouraged. The area is equipped with an open viewing terrace, which faces the runway, and comes complete with powerful coin-consuming binoculars, a coffee shop and spotless public bathrooms.
After working in India where one could not even film military ships openly docked at the Mumbai shore, Okinawa feels like other extreme: US military might here is converted into some violent tourist attraction. It draws entire groups of schoolchildren, as well as camera people and photographers, both amateur and those working for the various Japanese media outlets.
Ms. Kato is selling coffee and refreshments on the terrace. I point at the impenetrable bunkers protecting US fighter jets of the latest generation, from who knows whom, and ask her about what she thinks about all that, a horror show turned into entertainment. She replies with a pragmatic grin: “Business is great! But then, of course, as Okinawan, I despise the base.”
One has to wonder which the leading part of the sentence is.
As she speaks, a deafening thunderous sound erupts from somewhere inside the base. In anticipation of a tremendous flying monster ready to take to the air, I intuitively grab my cameras, ready to run towards the railings. But, Ms. Kato overpowers the roar, by her well-trained voice, as she shouts at me: “Relax, nothing is moving! They are just testing an engine.”
Do they do this every day? They do, as everyone in Okinawa tells me. Airplane engines are tested almost every day, sometimes until ten at night, until the eardrums of the people are ready to burst.
Driving through Okinawa, one has to be ready for truly Kafkaesque images. There are endless perimeters consisting of barbed wire and concrete pillars. Division lines are everywhere. Little wonder, as the US bases cover some 18% of the territory of the main island.
There are literally hundreds of protected gates separating the civilian world from the universe of militarized zones. There are playgrounds for American children only, right behind the gridirons, there are small arcades with Baskin Robins and Subway’s, as if those fast food joints cannot be found on the Japanese mainland territory.
There are Japanese public buses converted into vehicles designated for bussing American children to, and back from their schools. And there are Japanese fire stations, as well as US fire stations built on Japanese territory, with North American trucks and emergency phone numbers.
And there are ‘American Villages’ – depressing theme parks with the lowest grade of architecture and yet more Red Lobster’s, KFC’s, seedy bars, and some of the tackiest souvenir shops on earth. These are actually not for GI’s, but for the Japanese tourists trying to catch the glimpse of enormous flesh-and-blood American soldiers.
Influenced by the occupation forces, Okinawa has the worst food in Japan – the country famed for the finest gastronomy in the world.
Apart of one monorail line, Okinawa has no mass public transportation, yet another anomaly in a country that relies on the most intensive and efficient train network on Earth. In and outside Naha, everything moves by roads, and overwhelmingly by private vehicles. As a result, roads in the cities are often congested, and the entire Main Island has the feel of an ethnic Asian suburb somewhere in the United States.
Countless advertisements for real estate agencies seduce those who are ready to do business with the devil: “If you want to buy or sell land for military purposes, please let us know.”
Sadly, all this bad taste and militarism can be found in the middle of what once was the great Ryukyu Kingdom, known for its glorious history of five hundred years, spanning between 12th and 17th centuries. UNESCO designated several ruins of the castles and sites as world heritage. Okinawa was famous all over Asia for its advanced social structure, for its economic structure and its culture.
David McNeill, professor at Sophia University in Tokyo and the coordinator of the academic Asia-Pacific Journal, explained for this report:
“Like many places that have become dependent on external largesse, Okinawa can seem schizophrenic. Polls consistently show that most people on the island oppose the presence of US bases, but thousands of people, including civilian base workers, bar and shop owners, depend on the bases for part or most of their income. US popular culture has filtered down over the last 60+ years giving the island a look, feel and even a diet closer to contemporary America than the Japanese mainland.”
The fate of Okinawa and Okinawans seems to be tightly linked to US-Japan relations, I asked Ms. Satoko Norimatsu, a Japan Focus Coordinator and Director of the Peace Philosophy Centre, what changes could be expected in Japan’s foreign policy, particularly in its relations with the United States, as it is expected that Japan will now move even ‘closer to US’?
“There won’t be much change, as the previous DPJ (Democratic Party of Japan) Governments under Kan and Noda had already made concessions in the original DPJ agenda and the Party and the Government looked no different from the administrations led by LDP (Liberal Democratic Party). Those who attempted to initiate the change, namely Hatoyama and Ozawa, lost power and withdrew”.
Then Ms. Satoko Norimatsu summarized:
“The new LDP government will be as much US-leaning and US-subservient as the last-stage DPJ government was, if not more. One significant change will be their serious attempt to change Japan’s post-war pacifist constitution either nominally, or virtually, so that Japan can exercise its “right to collective self-defense,” i.e. to engage in aggressive wars in conjunction with the US. That was Abe’s unfinished business and long-sought after goal, from his previous term in 2006/2007.”
* * *
In modern history, Okinawans were made to suffer immensely.
In 1945 a quarter of the civilian population died during the Battle of Okinawa. 200,000 tons of bombs, according to NHK, were dropped on the island by the US army, in total disregard for lives of the local people.
Then this stunning archipelago consisting of hundreds of Ryukyu Islands fell under US occupation. During the 27-year colonial reign, called ’the trustee-ship rule’, the United States Air Force established numerous military bases all over the archipelago. From here, mainly using the Kadena Base, during the Korean War, B-29 Super Fortresses flew bombing missions, ravaging both Korea and China.
Thousands of Okinawan women were brutally raped, by the US army, after the Battle of Okinawa, and sexual violence continues until now.
In 1972, the islands were returned to Japan under the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, but the United States Forces Japan (USFJ) has maintained a large military presence.
According to John Chan, since 1960, Japan has been honoring an agreement that “allows the U.S. to secretly bring nuclear weapons into Japanese ports, and there is speculation that some nuclear weapons may be located in Okinawa. Both tactical and strategic weapons have been maintained in Okinawa.”
The Sakima Art Museum sits right on the perimeter of the Futenma Base. It even offers a view of it, from the roof.
The Museum houses some of the most politically charged paintings found on the archipelago, most notably some 50 works by husband and wife, Iri and Toshi Maruki, who are now both in their 90’s. On the walls, hang their famous “The Battle of Okinawa”.
Here, through art, the tragedy of the past is revealed, in all its brutality and force. The bodies are shown floating on the ocean surface, there are terrified faces of women, and mass suicide.
Kiyoko Sakima, Director of the Sakima Art Museum may often sound bitter, but she is also very active, full of determination to resist and struggle against injustice:
“We fought a legal battle to get this place back from the base and we won, but only 3 years ago. 800 farms and homes were taken away from the local people; taken by force, when the bases were being constructed. There was no compensation – something like what goes on in Palestine until now. Some people were forced to leave for Brazil, because they lost all that they had.”
Ms. Sakima continues: “They see us as the ‘Evil Island’; all over Asia, because everything that is dangerous and flies takes off from here. Only 1% of the population of Japan lives in Okinawa, but we have 75% of the US military bases on our territory.”
I recall the words of a veteran professor from Beijing, who educated hundreds of members of the Chinese diplomatic corps. He explained to me several years ago: “If China was attacked by the United States from its bases on Japanese territory, China would not hit back at the US, it will retaliate against Japan, as the attack would be coming from its soil.”
That would not be a very attractive prospect for Okinawa.
* * *
Ms Satoko Norimatsu and other leading experts on Japan believe that the new Japanese administration will now try to ‘maximize the perception of fear of China, while also maximizing the profits of the military-industrial complex’. The military ‘cooperation’ between the US and Japan will accelerate, including so called ‘co-basing’.
Bad news for Okinawa once again! In pre-election speeches, local politicians were making promises to scale down some military activities here, and move the bases, or at least part of their operations, to Guam, an ‘unincorporated territory of the United States’, located in the western Pacific Ocean, which is basically a colony.
But Ms. Sakima does not think that would be fair either: “These bases should be shut down, not to move anywhere. Poor Guam: Japan used to occupy it, now the US does. Why should they inherit what we want to get rid of?”
One of the plans both the US and Japan are pushing for, is eventual closure of the Futenma Base and opening a new, and enormous one – Henoko.
Gavan McCormack argues in his Servile State Japan, “The designated area is one classified by Okinawa as requiring the highest level of protection because of its unique and precious marine and forest environment, and the idea that a large military base could be imposed on it was inherently as impossible as if someone had suggested the same for the United States’ Grand Canyon or Australia’s Kakadu.”
* * *
“Okinawans are united, from left to right, in opposing the construction of a new base in Henoko, and the four newly elected LDP Lower House members of Okinawa, clarified that point too, after the recent elections”, said Ms Norimatsu. “The Okinawan political climate remains the same: resisting the construction of the Henoko base, closure of the Futenma air base, as well as the deployment of the Osprey aircraft.”
But it has been made clear to the people of Okinawa that even if they win; if any of the bases closed down, the Japanese Government and the US will pay absolutely nothing in compensation; the locals will have to rely on their own resources.
It is paradoxical, but the new Japanese ‘Nationalist’ Government is actually pro-American, as much as it is anti-Chinese. Is it a contradiction in terms? Most definitely, but in Japan, anything goes – nobody seems to care much about foreign policy.
Which may prove to be one tremendous blunder. Japan is betting on the most dangerous, aggressive and destabilizing force in the world. It is hosting the army and the air force of the country that is seen, all over the world, as the main threat; the army from which it suffered itself, in the past, immensely.
As my plane is ready to depart for Nagoya, I observe Japanese military jets ready for takeoff, jets landing; jets all over the sky. The US air force uses the Funtenma and Kadena; Japan’s air force shares the Naha International Airport with ANA, JAL and other civilian carriers.
Of course, ‘Japan does not have its own army or air force’. To have them would still be unconstitutional. Those latest and fully armed jets are nothing, just an illusion. And the US does not have any aggressive imperialist plans in this part of the world.
Let’s all keep pretending. Until it is too late!
Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. His book on Western imperialism in the South Pacific – Oceania – is published by Lulu. His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and market-fundamentalist model is called “Indonesia – The Archipelago of Fear” (Pluto). After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website.All photos by Andre Vltchek.