The Island Idyll and the US Occupation ; for Six Decades, the Inhabitants of Okinawa Have Lived Alongside Thousands of US Troops. but New Plans for Military Expansion Have Provoked Furious Resistance. David McNeill Reports
McNeill, David, The Independent (London, England)
Natsume Taira is a mild-mannered, bespectacled parson and pacifist in the Martin Luther King mode, but he warns he will not be pushed too far. "If the authorities come back with more people we'll be waiting for them," he says. "I'm not a violent man but they're not going to get through."
It is a baking hot day in Henoko, a tiny fishing village in Okinawa, Japan's southernmost prefecture. For 110 days, the reverend and 8,000 supporters have been coming to this sun-bleached beach to fight off government engineers trying to begin drilling surveys for a proposed offshore helicopter base for the US military.
As the protest has dragged on, engineers and protesters, many in their sixties, have scuffled. White-haired pensioners have gone toe- to-toe with security guards and taken to canoes and wetsuits to block the invaders. "I'm full of anger," 64-year-old Sakai Toyama says. "How can they do this to this place? We already put up with so much."
Okinawans live in one of the most beautiful places on earth, a string of pristine islands dosed with ecological Viagra, anointed in tropical sun, bathed in the azure-blue waters of the Pacific, and coated with a lush carpet of green, spiked with palm trees.
The region has two claims to fame: the world's longest life-span and one of the world's largest concentrations of US military bases. The Americans invaded in 1945, mounting a savage attack that wiped out a third of the local population and left 50,000 US troops killed or injured. They never left.
In 1972, the islands reverted to Japanese rule but most of the bases stayed. The bases already occupy a fifth of the main island and include Kadena, the biggest and most active US Air Force base in east Asia, and Futenma, which occupies 25 per cent of the second- largest city, Ginowan.
Now, after years of promises by Tokyo and Washington to scale down the military presence, the plan to build the Marine base, 1,500m by 600m, over a coral reef off Henoko to replace an older base in Futenma has enraged the people. Takuma Higashionna, a fisherman, says: "They're going to steal our livelihood and destroy the local environment, and we're not going to stand for it."
Mr Higashionna has just returned from San Francisco where he filed a suit against the US Defence Department, claiming the base threatens the habitat of the imperiled dugong, a gentle sea mammal classed as a "natural monument".
More than 50,000 US military personnel and dependants, including 17,600 Marines, are on Okinawa, which has a population of 1.3 million; the US military controls much of the land, sea and air, including all air traffic up to 6,000m. Over the years, Okinawa has sent off troops to wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, and if war with China or North Korea comes, US troops from Okinawa will fight it, whether the Okinawans like it or not.
Chalmers Johnson, a former CIA consultant and author of Okinawa: Cold War Island, says: "It is simply unimaginable that an ally would do this sort of thing. It's just an accident waiting to happen. When [US Secretary of Defence] Donald Rumsfeld visited Okinawa last November, he was told by the island's governor, `You people are on the active volcano and when it explodes it is going to bring down your entire strategy in Asia in much the way the fall of the Berlin Wall did for the USSR'. Building a 39th military base in Okinawa is absurd."
The past four weeks or so have been typical, the people say, just low- level stuff: On 8 July, a Marine major charged with the rape of a Filipina base worker was convicted of molestation. On 16 July, an Okinawan was hurt in a hit-and-run accident traced to a soldier at Camp Hansen. On 23 July, a drunken off-duty Marine hit a policeman. On 8 August, another Marine attacked a taxi driver. The day before, the US Air Force had admitted that a 2.5kg piece of metal embedded in the garden of a house had fallen from an F18C fighter in June. …