When the Pentagon "Kill Machines" Came to an Okinawan Paradise

When I arrived at the small village of Takae in the northernmost part of the main island of Okinawa to spend 5 days at a sit-in protest there in mid-July, my first image of the place was the unusual municipal charter that greeted me as I got off the bus. Codified in 1996, the residents pledge to: “1. Love nature and strive to create a beautiful environment resplendent with flowers and water; 2. Value our traditional culture, while always striving to learn new things; and 3. Create a municipality in which people can interact in a spirit of vitality and joy.” The charter mentioned no human founding fathers of Takae, rather it followed with lavish descriptions of the village flower (azalea) and bird (sea woodpecker) in addition to details about the gorgeous waterfalls and the rare combination of seacoast and mountains that creates a strong impression of a tropical paradise; UNESCO has identified the ecological diversity of this area as among the richest in the world. The sense of paradise is what brought Ashimine Genji to Takae ten years ago. Ashimine, a native of Okinawa who moved to the Japanese mainland during the economic bubble period in the mid-1980s, moved back to Okinawa when he got tired of the frenetic Tokyo life and exhausting wage labor. With his lover he bought some land in the mountains amidst waterfalls, animals and birds and started raising their 3 kids, while constructing a small organic restaurant. During my interview with him he insisted that the family was committed to living as simply, slowly, and sustainably as possible, and they deliberately spent the first two years in Takae without electricity, reluctantly attaching to a grid only when their oldest kid’s complaints wouldn’t stop.

It’s hard to avoid the descriptive mantra of Okinawan life as “simple and slow” in Japanese lifestyle magazines (with, in the last two years, “sustainable” [saiseisan] commonly appended) and perusal of these magazines convinced Naoko and Kôji Morioka to relocate to Takae four years ago. Amateur organic farmers and part-time artists raised in Tokyo, they had lived in Africa, India and Nepal before relocating with their two small kids to Takae to start full-time organic rice farming. Also refusing electricity, they built a small house from scratch just 30 yards north of a gorgeous waterfall and 300 yards from the sea, determined both to pioneer a new path of zero growth against Japanese postmodern capitalism and to enjoy the close community of Takae, consisting of farmers, fisherfolk and several convivial story-tellers/drunks. While about a fourth of Takae’s 160 residents are eco-conscious transplants from Tokyo and their kids, several claim descendants going back a millennium who have enjoyed the fruits (mango) and vegetables that grow wild in the area. Right smack in the middle of this sustainable paradise is where a large part of the newest US military base is about to be built.

Takae residents were kept in the dark about the base until just before construction was to begin. Leaks, reported in the Okinawa Times in late 2006, forced the Japanese Defense Ministry to hold an information session in early 2007. It was only here that the Ashimines and Moriokas were informed that the main helicopter base for the US military in Japan was about to be built in their backyard, including facilities for 3 Osprey heli-planes. When the Defense Ministry showed the people of Takae a Power Point slide of the projected base area, they realized that two of their homes would be within 400 meters of the proposed new base. Ashimine recalled how he felt after the session. “One minute I was living a life of harmony with nature with my family and friends, and the next minute I was being told that these killing machines (kiru- mashin) were coming to within a few hundred meters of my house; the disconnect (iwakan) was overwhelming” (Ku-yon June 2010; 101). Within a few months, Takae locals obtained a fuller picture of what was going on: based on a secret agreement between the Japanese Foreign Ministry and the US Pentagon made in 1996—finally signed into a dubious kind of legality in February 2009—the large, but increasingly obsolete US military base Futenma in central Okinawa was to be relocated with completely new infrastructure to northern Okinawa. The plan was to transfer the infrastructure of Futenma to the smaller US base Camp Schwab located 20 miles from Takae. But airport and helicopter facilities were necessary to fill out Futenma’s capacity and this is where Takae and the equally pristine fishing village of Henoko, 30 minutes southeast of Takae, would come into play. The old airport at Futenma would be replaced with a new V-shaped one carved out of the beach in Henoko, while Takae would get all the CH-47 and CH-54 helicopters together with the behemoth Ospreys.

Henoko’s proximity to Camp Schwab has created a palpable anti-base sentiment there, and local activists started mobilizing opposition to the proposed airport construction in 2004. With help from the all-women anti-base group Naha Broccoli, situated in the Okinawan capital of Naha, activist information sessions and bus tours of the proposed base areas began in June 2007 which jumpstarted regular contact among Takae, Henoko and Naha. Encouraged by activist friends in Tokyo to go Okinawa to look around, in July 2007, with about 40 others, I participated in the second Broccoli bus tour and was stunned—but I should have known better. The lack of transparency on the side of the Pentagon and the deafness to local Japanese concerns were standard neocolonial postures of US base presence in Asia going back to just after World War II. But witnessing the sustained protest in Henoko by anti-war activists spanning 3 generations inspired all of us on the tour. The required environmental assessment for new base construction had been underway for over a year and Henoko activists were doing their best to disrupt it, including a blockade of Japanese Navy vessels with cordons of local fishing boats and, with air tanks and wet suits, conducting underwater direction action against young Japanese Navy divers trying to complete the seabed assessment. In November 2007 a Henoko activist almost died when the breathing line to his airtank was severed.

Just after our bus tour, protest signs and colorful anti-base paintings started to show up around the two main gates to the newly fenced-in Takae helicopter facility. By August 2007, Rie Ishihara, a Takae mother of two started daily sit-ins in front of the main entrance by herself; soon she was joined by other locals and then by Naha activists. Quickly, anti-base Japanese started coming from the mainland, often devoting one day of their Okinawa vacation week sitting in at Takae. The mushrooming anti-base movement in Takae caught the Japanese Defense Ministry in Okinawa off-guard and when the environment assessment group started its two-year survey at the Takae site a year later, the Okinawan office of the Japanese Defense Ministry—the local defender of the US bases— preemptively took the whole town to court, serving 15 Takae residents a summons for “disrupting traffic” on Dec. 16, 2008. Ishihara told me that when she got the summons she thought it was a practical joke as everyone knows there is no traffic in Takae and a few local residents even refuse to drive cars because of the impact on the environment. But this was no joke, as the drawn-out legal hearings lasted a year and forced the Takae farmers to spend money on lawyers and court fees. On December 11, the provincial court in Naha ruled in favor of 13 defendants, although it ruled against Ashimine and the head of the Takae residents anti-base group Toshio Isa. Isa and Ashimine can now be forced to stand trial in Tokyo at any point the Japanese government decides.

While the events were unfolding in Okinawa, politics on Japan’s mainland were revealing similar anti-US patterns. During the campaigning for the crucial Lower House elections in July 2009, the upstart Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) promised in their manifesto to establish a “different policy with respect to the US-Japan alliance,” one central aspect of which would be a “significant re-thinking (minaoshi) of the US military in Japan including the situation of all the US bases”.  Soon to be Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama refined his critique of the US-Japan security framework by focusing on the unfair “burden” placed on Okinawa by having some 24,000 US troops stationed there, including 18,000 Marines—65% of the US military presence in Japan installed on a land mass less than 1% of Japan’s total. The party in power for all but one year since the end of the US Occupation of Japan, the right-wing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had been losing support since it ordered Japanese soldiers to deploy to war-zones in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2002-03 in the face of Japanese public opposition polling at 80-90%.

The historic victory of the DPJ over the LDP in August 2009 should be seen as the culmination of multiple forms of opposition to the LDP’s blind allegiance to the US, together with a pragmatic understanding that Japan’s economic future lies more closely entwined with China. In addition to pledging to reform aspects of Japan’s military-security framework with the US, the DPJ Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa promised to enhance ties to China beyond the economic sphere, where China is now Japan’s largest trading partner. The double whammy of a confirmation that closer ties with China are beneficial together with a groundswell of resistance to the US military swept the DPJ into power. Right away, new Prime Minister Hatoyama went to work on his party’s campaign promise and started exploring ways to reform the US-Japan alliance; in a flush of post-victory confidence he wondered out loud what a future security framework would look like with “zero US troops stationed in Japan” (chûryû naki ampô). Several months earlier, Ozawa insisted that, “the [US Navy] 7th Fleet alone is sufficient,” meaning that as far as the DPJ leaders were concerned, the remaining 35,000 US troops should begin packing up their things to leave Japan permanently.

Although the US media underplayed this challenge, the Pentagon understood exactly what was at stake and wasn’t liking it. Despite President Obama’s cautious wait and see approach to the democratic regime change in Japan, the Pentagon immediately starting sparring with the Japanese Ambassador to the US Ichiro Fujisaki in Washington over issues like the Guam Treaty signed by the weakened LDP in early 2009, which dictated the terms of the new base construction in Henoko/Takae and the planned move of somewhere between 3000 to 9000 of the 18,000 Marines in Okinawa to new facilities in Guam—with Japanese taxpayers forced to pay 65-70% of the costs for both the move and the new base in Guam. During the July 2009 campaign several DPJ candidates echoed the argument made by Okinawan critics that the Guam Treaty was clearly unequal because it obliged the Japanese to construct one new base in Okinawa and to contribute most of the money toward building another in Guam, while the American side merely offered an ambiguous pledge to withdraw some troops while reserving the right to change its commitments when it wanted. Furthermore, critics argued that the Guam Treaty was illegal as it violated Article 95 of Japan’s constitution, which stipulates that any law applicable only to one locale requires the consent of the majority of the voters of that province, and support for the construction of the new base among Okinawans had been almost completely absent. Defense Secretary Robert Gates traveled to Tokyo for two days of meetings in late October 2009 clearly intending to muzzle the critiques of the US presence in Japan and to remind the new DPJ leaders of the post-WW II status quo, where senior (US) and junior (Japan) partners would continue to work together to contain China and North Korea. “It is time to move on,” Gates scolded the new Japanese leaders on October 22, calling DPJ proposals to reopen the base issues “counterproductive.” Then, deliberately insulting the DPJ in the eyes of almost all Japanese commentators Gates refused to attend the welcoming ceremony and formal dinner organized for him at the Defense Ministry in Tokyo on October 23. In enumerating the insults and behind the scenes threats made by Gates in Tokyo a few days after his departure, the Okinawan newspaper the Ryukyu Shimpo lambasted the “diplomacy of intimidation” practiced by the US in its editorial of October 26.

By several accounts, Defense Secretary Gates’ intimidation in late October 2009 ended the honeymoon Hatoyama and the DPJ were enjoying with the Japanese public. From that point on, the Japanese media grew increasingly vocal in criticizing Hatoyama’s sudden lack of political focus as “cluelessly running all over the place” (meitô). With respect to the issue of the new US base in Okinawa, he actually was running all over Japan trying to find an alternative location to Henoko/Takae since he was informed by Gates that the US Pentagon was unwilling to give up its plans for a new base there in Henoko/Takae. For his part, the DPJ’s pro-China leader Ichiro Ozawa responded to the Pentagon’s intimidation with a little of his own, and in November arranged a high-level trip to Beijing bringing 140 DPJ politicians and 400 other supporters to meet his friends. But the US and it’s LDP allies in Japan held the trump card in this high-stakes game as just a few weeks after Ozawa’s return from China in December he was greeted with a deafening chorus of accusations of financial impropriety. Based on rumors that dogged Ozawa months before the DPJ victory, on January 16, 2010 three of his former secretaries were indicted on charges that Ozawa neglected to publicly report the dormitory he purchased for them in Tokyo. During the ensuing trial it turned out that he didn’t declare it the first year, but did so properly from the second year on. The prosecutors never had any evidence of Ozawa’s direct involvement and his main secretary testified that Ozawa himself knew nothing about the failure to report. It became clear during the trial in March that the prosecutors were trying to use this court case to uncover facts in a second, potentially more serious case involving kickbacks from Nishimatsu Construction. Ozawa has been cleared of the first charge and has yet to be indicted for the second.

But the damage to the DPJ had been done. With Hatoyama unable to fulfill his campaign promise to prevent new base construction in Okinawa and reduce the US military’s footprint in Japan, the well-covered allegations of dirty money involving Ozawa and other DPJ leaders made the Japanese public think that the modus operandi of the corruption-prone LDP and the new DPJ were ultimately indistinguishable. The week after Ozawa’s secretaries were indicted, support for the DPJ dropped below 50%, and continued to plummet thereafter. Less than 9 months after their overwhelming victory, on May 25, 2010 Hatoyama announced that with all other options exhausted, construction on the new US base in Henoko/Takae would move forward. In dramatic contrast to their position of August 20009, Hatoyama spoke for the DPJ in saying that now, the US and Japan are in “complete agreement” on military-security matters. The DPJ’s coalition party, the leftist Social-Democratic Party, subsequently withdrew from the government; finally on June 2, Hatoyama himself was forced to resign. The Democratic Party, along with the democratic process, has been successfully undermined in Japan.

Japanese taxpayers continue to foot the bill for the US military presence in their own country. In Okinawa in recent decades, 80% of base costs are payed by Japan’s Foreign Ministry directly to the US who then pay “rent” to a few Okinawan landowners, a situation designed originally to camouflage the fact that the US military simply took at gunpoint the Okinawan land it wanted for new base construction. As the respected historian of post-WW II Okinawa Moriteru Arasaki has described in several books, the forced seizures (kyôsei sesshû) of Okinawan land by the US were largely of lush agricultural flatlands in the center of the main island, where the Futenma, Hanson and Kadena bases are located today. Arasaki explains that 44% of the pre-WW II rice farming area in Okinawa was stolen by the US, and these fields were filled in with sea water, sand and cement, a combination guaranteeing that they can never again be used as farmland. This situation transformed Okinawa from being an exporter of agricultural goods for 500 years into an importer overnight and made Okinawa dependent on shrinking development assistance from Tokyo. Moreover, the Marines have not proven to be the roles models for the new post-WW II democratic order that the US Occupation promised the Japanese people they would be. But in fairness to individual Marines, the legal structure of the Status of Forces (SOFA) agreement excuses outlaw behavior as soldiers are largely shielded from Japanese law. It took the gang rape of a 5th-grade Okinawan girl by 3 Marines in 1995 to slightly alter the situation of total extraterritoriality enjoyed until then. Furthermore, as Okinawa Times journalist Tomohiro Yara puts it in his 2009 book The US-Japan Alliance of Sand, the absurd fiction of owner (Japan) and renter (US military) encourages bad boy behavior in Okinawa. “What do you expect,” Yara quips, “when what has to be the most lenient landlord in the world pays 80% of the rent, doesn’t charge for any of the utilities, and then has to do the repairs himself when the renter decides to trash the place?”

But the last three years of anti-US sentiment in Okinawa has brought with it a renewed desire for independence—from the US military and from the Japanese government. The economic austerity facing Japan means that the old LDP mode of silencing Okinawan opposition through bribes and development assistance—what Okinawan leftists call “sweets (ame) to make us forget the whippings (muchi) handed out by the Marines”—is no longer feasible. Tokyo started being stingy about handing out sweet treats to Okinawa over a decade ago, leaving only the “whip” of the US military for Okinawans. The predictable outcome of the withdrawal of the sweets is the almost complete absence of Okinawan support for the new US base; a May 31, 2010 poll conducted by the Ryukyu Shimpo newspaper found only 6.3% of Okinawans supporting it.

MARK DRISCOLL is an Associate Professor of East Asian History at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He can be reached at: mdriscol@email.unc.edu