A few weeks ago my friend Ayumi Imagawa, a Japanese activist, gathered donations for the people of Takae, Okinawa, who have been desperately resisting the build-up of the US military base on their land. The tiny island prefecture of Okinawa once was a heavy battle ground during WW2, enduring the devastating loss of 1/4 of its people. Today Okinawa is forced to host 74% of the US military facilities in Japan on its land. 1/5 of the land in Okinawa is designated for US military use. A group of Takae residents have been conducting a sit-in protest for years. You can read about it here (1) and here (2). The area, Yanbaru, which is being used for military purposes, can be described as follows:
“The forest is bisected by two main rivers and dozens of smaller streams and is dotted with clear mountain springs, forming a watershed that provides some 60 percent of Okinawa’s fresh water and nourishes wildlife downstream. Endemic birds, fruit bats, fish and crabs live in the forest and mangrove swamps that feed into Okinawa’s rich marine environments.
Yanbaru is composed primarily of forests of itajii (a kind of beech tree) that cover rolling hills and mountains like a sea of broccoli beneath which grow 30-foot tree ferns, fantastical mushrooms, wild gingers and many of Okinawa’s 1,900 native plant species. This dense jungle provides habitat for wild boar, freshwater goby, dragonflies, black newts, green land snails, black-breasted leaf turtles, crickets, the infamous Okinawan habu snake and 39 species of frogs, 10 of which live nowhere else.
For Okinawans, the Yanbaru Forest is revered as a place to be protected and celebrated for its wild creatures”(3).
That is how journalist Jon Letman, who writes about the Asia-Pacific region, sees the area.
In response to the donations and messages of support for their courageous efforts, Ayumi received a heartfelt thank you letter from Ikuko Isa, one of the organizers of the sit-in protest who lives right next to the US militarized zone.
With Ikuko’s permission, I’d like to share the letter with you, hoping that she will get much needed support for her organization and hoping to raise awareness of people’s struggle against militarism, corporatism and colonialism across the globe. The letter reflects how two different cultures meet in an unusual yet hopeful way. It shows us a glimpse of potential that is hidden in sincere and desperate activism by the people.
Any error in translation is mine. I apologize in advance.
A Letter from Takae, Okinawa
by Ikuko Isa
Thank you very much. I am Ikuko Isa of Takae Jyuuminn No Kai (Group for Takae Residents). I would like to express my sincere gratitude for your message and your donation. Finally, the construction workers are taking an Obon holiday (traditional holiday to welcome ancestry spirits) and we are taking an Obon break as well. I apologize for the delay in response.
People can’t kill people. This military base will make it possible. War turns humans into non-humans. Okinawan grand dads and grand moms, who witnessed the battle field, have been saying these things.
Last year, even before the two helipads, which were constructed in February, were officially turned over to the US, the US military vehicles blatantly drove through the prefecture road to gather around the helipads for a four day long round-the-clock jungle warfare exercise. We put up a tent by the gate to protest and watch during the day.
The soldiers in front of the gate took turns surveilling us round-the-clock, day and night. There were soldiers proudly standing by the gate watching and ones resting in a military vehicle by the gate. I saw a young blond lady in the vehicle enjoying her personal devise. She reminded me of my daughter but she was in her military fatigues. A lady, who still has a youthful innocence, would look very pretty in a red dress instead. After a few days, we started to recognize their faces. One morning, when I brought some bread and coffee to the tent, there was some leftover. I thought of taking it to our neighbors. I asked a visiting exchange student to be a translator, and we went to the gate with the leftover.
Did you have breakfast yet? Here is some bread and coffee if you’d like.
They were there with someone who seemed to be their superior; they obeyed him and they told us “no”. I figured that for the US soldiers what we bring to them might be suspicious, potentially poisoned, you know? So I asked the exchange student to translate the following: “You are watching us round-the-clock, thinking that we are your enemies. But we are just watching you so that you won’t go to the battle fields from here. We are not your enemies”. We left the bread and coffee there and we went back to our tent.
A little while later, we saw the gate open so we went to get the food plate back, thinking that they might get into trouble. But there wasn’t any bread left on the plate. The next day, we brought some rice cakes, which we broiled on the portable stove in our tent, flavored with soy sauce and wrapped with seaweed, to the next door, again with our translator. As I described what the food was, one of them ate it but the other one seemed too shy, so, like the previous day, we left the food on a plate and went back to our tent. When we went back to get the plate, the rice cakes were gone, and in return, one of them had given us his portable ration. The people in the tent also told me that they also exchanged some food. Next morning, they seemed very busy. There were no guards at the gate, and when it opened, we saw 30 military vehicles streaming out of it. We saw the lady return a pretty smile from one of the vehicles as I turned my camera to her. I pray for her so that she can go home safely.
But, at the same time, no matter how well we were connected, they would kill us if they are ordered to do so by their superiors. To kill or to get killed, that is their option. I feel that no matter how hard we try, nothing will change. I feel the same helplessness and the height of the wall between the US and us, which I felt when I visited the US. Right now, the military base construction in Takae goes forward without a legal or Constitutional authorization by our country. I scream out loud — where this place is, it is not Japan, nor is it Okinawa. We wish that what is happening in Okinawa is the first and the last. It should never be. That’s how we appeal non-violently, to change society and to change people. Because we live here and because we are with you, we can keep going.
Also, we are very much encouraged by the resolution adopted by the Veterans for Peace to stop the construction of the helipads in Takae (4).
Thank you very much. I apologize for the lengthy note. I look forward to continuing to work with you.