‘Our land, our life’: Okinawans hold out against new U.S. base in coastal zone

  • Opponents of the planned relocation of a U.S. military base in Okinawa say they remain undeterred despite the defeat in elections last month of the opposition party that supported the cause.
  • Local activists plan to continue opposing the relocation of the Futenma Marine base, from the densely populated city of Ginowan to the less crowded Henoko Bay coastal area.
  • The proposed new facility and other military bases in Okinawa have been linked to toxic environmental pollution, military-linked sexual violence, and historical land conflicts between native Okinawans and the mainland Japan and U.S. governments.
  • The Okinawa prefecture government recently rejected central government plans to sink more than 70,000 compacting pillars into Henoko’s seabed for construction, which would impact coral and seagrass that host more than 5,000 species of marine life.

Defeat for Japan’s opposition party in last month’s national elections has dashed hopes for a quick resolution to the contentious relocation of a U.S. military base on the island of Okinawa — a move that the party had campaigned against.

The proposed shifting of the Futenma Marine air base within Okinawa, from a densely populated city to a less crowded coastal area, was agreed on between Tokyo and Washington in the 1990s. But local opposition has thwarted the move ever since, with critics pointing to its disastrous environmental impact, discrimination against Okinawans by mainland Japan, and the need for greater Indigenous autonomy and land rights.

Okinawan activists, some of whom have been protesting against the relocation to Henoko Bay for decades, plan to continue their dissent following the defeat of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP).

“It’s really good this issue was on the table before the elections,” Shinako Oyakawa, an Indigenous and land rights activist, told Mongabay. But at the same time, Okinawans “should not [rely] on Japanese centralized political parties and mainland Japan,” she added.

“We Okinawan people have to believe in ourselves and our Indigenous rights. It’s our land and our life. We have to take care of it. We can’t rely on the political policies of the Japanese government,” she said.

Landfill work underway at Henoko Bay, the proposed new site of the Futenma Marine base. Image courtesy of the Okinawa Drone Project.

‘This problem is like a cancer here’

Japan has the most overseas U.S. bases of any country in the world, most of them clustered in Okinawa. The prefecture accounts for about 0.6% of the nation’s land area, but hosts more than 70% of Japan’s U.S. military facilities. Nearly one-fifth of its land area is taken up by the bases, which date back to the end of World War II and which have been a recurring source of friction with their noise, toxic environmental pollution and military-linked sexual violence.

“This problem is like a cancer here,” said Daniel Iwama, a second-generation Canadian whose father is Okinawan. Where he lives in central Okinawa, the roar of Osprey helicopters circling routes directly overhead can be heard for hours. “If you live in Washington, you might hear a helicopter once in a while. But try living here and seeing how crazy it is to be this close to so many bases.

“It’s not as profound as me cursing the sky because my people have been wronged, but sit with that for an hour, and you feel you have to go for a jog to calm down because you just get so wound up.”

Okinawans protesting against the relocation of the Futenma Marine base in 2019. Image courtesy of Bambby Cheuk.

Locals tend not to see the Henoko relocation as a one-off issue, but a symptom of a deeper endemic problem with roots in Okinawa’s colonial and military history, according to Iwama, who is also a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he researches urban planning and Indigenous land rights in Okinawa.

Okinawa existed as an independent kingdom called Ryukyu until 1879, when it was forcefully annexed and dissolved by Japan to form a new prefecture. Under Japanese assimilation policies, Ryukyuans lost their Indigenous culture, language, and political institutions.

Adding to their resentment, Okinawa was chosen as Japan’s sacrificial pawn during WWII: the empire concentrated its military forces on the island in hopes of drawing U.S. forces there, away from the mainland.

It worked; the only WWII battle fought on Japanese soil was so ferocious it became known as the “typhoon of steel.” Japanese fighter pilots launched kamikaze, or air suicide, attacks as Allied ships and armored vehicles assaulted the island. Half of Okinawa’s pre-war population of 300,000 was wiped out, equivalent to the total military casualties on both sides.

After the Battle of Okinawa, the U.S. continued occupying the island until the 1970s, during which it established dozens of military bases. Oyakawa’s grandfather, who recently passed away, returned to his hometown in the late 1940s only to find his family land all fenced up as part of a training facility.

“He lost everything in the war and now his own land has been taken without asking, for another war,” Oyakawa said. “That was really hard for him. And we still don’t know when his land will be returned to our family.”

Reducing, not relocating, military bases

Futenma Marine Air Station has been called the “most dangerous air station in the world” due to its location in the crowded city of Ginowan. Some 3,000 people live in what should be a clear zone around the base. Schools, hospitals and residential buildings dot the surroundings.

The Futenma Marine base is located alongside hospitals, residential buildings and schools in the crowded city of Ginowan, Okinawa. Image courtesy of Google Earth.

Relocating Futenma to the less populated coastal area of Henoko Bay would give residents relief, but most Okinawans want the U.S. military presence reduced, not simply redistributed.

Then there is the environmental impact of land reclamation for the new base: paving over acres of coral and seagrass that are home to more than 5,000 species of marine life, including the critically endangered dugong (Dugong dugong), which is listed as an object of national cultural significance under Japanese law and which has also been the subject of a 17-year legal battle between environmental groups and the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD).

The protracted lawsuit, which alleged the DOD failed to comply with the National Historic Preservation Act that requires the U.S. to avoid or mitigate harm to places or things of cultural significance to another country, finally came to an end last year in favor of the DOD. Though it failed, activists say it set an important precedent.

“It was the first time Okinawa civil society was able to file a lawsuit in U.S. courts under this act,” Hideki Yoshikawa, international director of Save the Dugong, a Japanese environmental NGO, told Mongabay. “Now we can use this law and apply it to other bases, not necessarily related to Henoko.”

Okinawan dugongs, which are listed as an object of national cultural significance under Japanese law, are critically endangered. Image by Julien Willem via Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

For instance, Yoshikawa said, the region of Yanbaru in northern Okinawa, which has some of the last and largest surviving tracts of subtropical rainforest in Asia, was recently listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Yanbaru is home to thousands of plant and animal species, as well as a 3,500-hectare (8,600-acre) U.S. jungle warfare training center whose aircraft emit loud noises, disturb the forest canopy, and otherwise contaminate the land with disposed materials.

Henoko and Yanbaru are just two examples of the burdensome and widespread U.S. military presence in Okinawa. After the 1995 rape of an Okinawan schoolgirl by U.S. servicemen, calls for “burden reduction” of bases on the island grew louder. Under local and global pressure, U.S. and Japanese governments proposed to return 11 sections of base land to the people.

But even as the “return” occurred, Iwama said, the two governments were constructing new defense infrastructure elsewhere, and scaling up activities on remaining base land.

“Militarization is like a cup of water, you have to look at it volumetrically,” he said. “The functions stay, the flights stay, the people stay. Just because the area of the base reduces, doesn’t mean much in terms of the effect on the daily environment. The remaining [activity] is just concentrated and densified on land that is leftover.”

Kadena air base, one of the U.S. military bases on Okinawa. Image courtesy of Shinako Oyakawa.

‘Soft as mayonnaise’ seabed could derail construction plans

Reclamation work began in Henoko at the end of 2018 and continues today. Fierce opposition in the form of a referendum and daily sit-ins failed to stop it, but a “soft as mayonnaise” seabed could.

Henoko’s fragile seafloor requires more than 70,000 compacting pillars to be sunk into the ocean for ground reinforcement even before construction. Projected overall costs for the base have soared to at least $8.4 billion, about 2.7 times the central government’s initial estimate, and experts are increasingly seeing the plan as unfeasible.

The changes to the original construction plan have also necessitated new approvals, which were recently denied by the Okinawa prefecture government. Now that the central government’s application has been rejected, “it cannot proceed with base construction, but it will likely file lawsuits,” Yoshikawa said.

A sign marking Day 1854 of a 24-hour monitoring sit-in protest against the relocation in 2019. Image courtesy of Bambby Cheuk.

‘The call is for a bit more autonomy’

If the Henoko relocation is so problematic, and if construction of a new base has met with so much opposition, why does the government insist on it?

Security specialists in Tokyo cite Okinawa’s strategic location and concerns about Beijing’s expansionist maritime policy, which they say make it vital to relocate Futenma instead of closing down the base and reducing the U.S. military presence on the island. But for locals, the concentration of bases is not only a daily disruption, but also a jarring reminder of the Battle of Okinawa and their past sacrifice.

Locals sing and cheer to keep their spirits up during a Henoko Bay protest in 2019. Image courtesy of Bambby Cheuk.

“We cannot use our land for ourselves,” Oyakawa said. “We always have to sacrifice our people, our land. We always have to face the risks of war and hosting military bases … I call it dual colonialism, by the Japanese and U.S. government.”

Though Okinawans have largely been assimilated into Japanese culture, and activists like Oyakawa who petition for complete independence are atypical, “whatever political stripe you are in Okinawa, the call is for a bit more autonomy,” Iwama said.

In a 2019 referendum, 72% of voters in Okinawa opposed the Henoko relocation. The central government overruled the results anyway.

Construction vessels along Oura Bay, the section of Henoko with a ‘soft as mayonnaise’ seafloor. Image courtesy of Hideki Yoshikawa.

“Even at a base level, there’s a refusal of democracy to Okinawans here organizing,” Iwama said. “On one hand, Japan [and the world] look at Okinawa as being just another prefectural member of the Japanese national family. But on the other hand, ironically, it’s like none of the same privileges are afforded to Okinawans.”


Banner image: Locals cheering and singing to keep their spirits up during a Henoko Bay protest. Image courtesy of Bambby Cheuk.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: A conversation with Victoria Tauli-Corpuz and Zack Romo about Indigenous rights and the future of biodiversity conservation. Listen here:

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