Magazine article New Internationalist

Under the Umbrella: Co-Existence with the Military Is Not So Peaceful for the People and the Environment of Okinawa, Japan

Magazine article New Internationalist

Under the Umbrella: Co-Existence with the Military Is Not So Peaceful for the People and the Environment of Okinawa, Japan

Article excerpt

In July, the leaders of the world's major powers will assemble in Nago, a small city on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa, for the first rich-country 'G8' summit of the new millennium. As they discuss the future of the world they will look out at the spectacular turquoise sea which washes over the coral reefs surrounding the main Okinawan island. Meanwhile, the Japanese and US Governments will be doing their utmost to discourage conference participants and the accompanying media from turning their attention to the fate of another, even more spectacular, stretch of coastline a few miles away on the other side of Nago City, offshore from the little community of Henoko. For it is here that the two Governments plan to construct what is euphemistically referred to as a 'joint-use military-civilian marine heliport'.

This may sound innocuous. However, the Henoko 'heliport' will likely feature a runway over a mile in length and will be built slap on top of one of Okinawa's more beautiful coral reefs. It is frequented by Japan's only, and endangered, colony of dugong (manatee or sea cow) and is also believed to be visited by other highly endangered species such as the hawksbill turtle. In the process of heliport construction several coral-rock outcrops which now dot the coastline will be flattened and ploughed into the seabed. From the resulting airbase the next generation of military helicopters -- the massive MV-22 Ospreys, combining the capacities of helicopter and airplane -- will take off at regular intervals, thundering over the seaside villages to the north of Henoko on their way to another base to be carved out of the forests of northern Okinawa.

Not surprisingly, the local community is up in arms. Even though the economy of Henoko relies heavily on the presence of the neighboring US marine training base of Camp Schwab, the great majority of its population and that of the surrounding villages is backing a desperate struggle to prevent the airbase's construction. The struggle is not simply about the environment. Henoko represents a much wider conflict between two radically different visions of the future. One is about international military strategy, power balances and large-scale construction projects. The other is about the role of local people in determining their own destiny.

With this conflict the people of Okinawa are very familiar. Okinawa is the smallest and poorest of Japan's prefectures (local-government regions). Originally an independent kingdom which thrived on trade between Southeast Asia, China and Japan, it was formally incorporated into the Japanese nation in the 1870s. During the Pacific War in the 1940s the Okinawan archipelago became a major strategic focus in the fight for control of the western Pacific, and much farm land on the main island was confiscated by the Japanese military for the construction of military bases. Its strategic position also meant that Okinawa became the only part of Japan to experience a land-based invasion and in the ferocious fighting which followed over 100,000 islanders were killed.

After the postwar Allied occupation the rest of Japan regained its independence in 1952. But the US chose to retain control of Okinawa which remained in American hands until it was returned to Japan in 1972. The US military took over the Japanese bases and expanded into new areas, including Camp Schwab, next to Henoko.

Japan's conservative governments of the 1950s and 1960s signed a series of treaties which placed the country firmly under the US military umbrella. These treaties involved the maintenance of large US military bases throughout much of Japan. But in the new order which has emerged since the 1980s the military alliance with the US, and the place of Okinawa within that alliance, has changed dramatically. A new set of defence guidelines finalized last year now gives the Japanese military a much more active role in providing what is called 'rear support' to US forces. …

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