Behind the Okinawa Summit

By Stockton, Jim | Earth Island Journal, Autumn 2000 | Go to article overview

Behind the Okinawa Summit


Stockton, Jim, Earth Island Journal


At the end of July, the globalized economic elite that brought you the World Trade Organization (WTO) plan to reconvene in Okinawa, Japan's poorest and most militarized prefecture. It is Tokyo's turn to host the biannual Economic Summit of the Group of Eight (G8). While their agenda is yet to be announced, one can safely assume that the global economizers will be discussing the impending entry of China into the WTO and perhaps such issues as cyber-terrorism and nuclear weapon proliferation.

The stage is set for an Asian version of last November's "Battle in Seattle." Given the demonstrations against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund that rocked Washington DC in April, one might expect Japan to host the G8 Summit in a high-security venue such as the Osaka castle. Instead, the G8 decision-makers are holding Economic Summit 2000 on the humid, tropical island of Okinawa.

Okinawa, a small island midway between Japan and Taiwan, is embroiled in one of the world's longest series of popular protests over US military presence. Massive anti-US protests have raged since 1995, when three US Marines raped a 12-year-old girl.

Keystone of the Pacific

After the Allied victory in WW2, large portions of Okinawa were occupied by US military. The former Kingdom of the Ryukyu Islands offered the deep ports needed for battleships and nuclear submarines. Okinawa's prime location -- astride sea-lanes carrying oil from the Middle East and cargo from the Northeast Asian economic powerhouses -- explains why the US Pacific Command calls the region "the keystone of the Pacific."

The loss of Clark Air Force Base and Subic Naval Base in the Philippines forced the Pentagon to search for new strongholds in the region. Today, 75 percent of the US military presence in Japan is deployed on Okinawa.

In addition to suffering a constant barrage of air traffic from military helicopters, jet fighters, and bombers, Okinawans also play reluctant hosts to US Marine Low-Intensity Conflict training facilities and bombing ranges (where US forces recently admitted to the "mistake" of testing artillery shells tipped with depleted uranium).

In recent years, Okinawa's anti-US protests have grown to include the Land Owners' Movement, teachers' unions, women's groups, students, politicians, intellectuals and the religious community. In a 1995 plebiscite, a majority of islanders voted to reduce the US military presence. Much of the anger has focused on the US-controlled Futenma Air Base, located in central Okinawa, close to some 20 schools. The base includes a golf course for military officers built atop a centuries-old burial ground. The US promised to return this land to the Okinawans but subsequently added the condition that no land would be returned until a replacement facility was built.

Tokyo planners, blind to the environmental consequences, announced plans to relocate the Futenma helicopter base to a new facility to be constructed offshore on a coral reef in a protected bay in the coastal district of Henoko. In 1998, this region was declared a top-priority area whose "natural environment should be strictly protected."

The Henoko coast's subtropical Yambaru forests are home to the rare Okinawa Rail, Pryer's Woodpecker, yamagame (mountain turtle, a designated National Treasure), the karasubato (crow pigeon) and the near-extinct kinobori-tokage (tree-climbing lizard).

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