OURA BAY, OKINAWA – One morning in March, kayaks and fishing boats converged to protest in the water outside a U.S. military base on the coast of Okinawa. Security guards tried to drown out the cries of the demonstrators with megaphones, demanding they leave the area. Groups of Okinawans have been protesting the U.S. military’s plan to expand Camp Schwab Marine base into Oura Bay on the northeast coast of the island. Protesters claim the plan to fill in part of the bay and build runways will harm wildlife, disrupt the tides, and ruin the natural beauty of the nearby beaches. “Please don’t destroy our precious sea,” shouted the protesters, pleading with the unfazed guards in boats on the other side of the security perimeter. “You should stand on our side.” The U.S. military has a very different message about the protests. One day later and about 30 miles to the south at the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Commanding Officer Col. Peter Lee casually dismissed the ideologies of some protesters, calling them radical peace activists, communists, or unstable. “Some are not right in the head, straight up not right in the head,” Lee said. “They’re just a little off.” For decades, the U.S. military has been fighting a war of words with Okinawans opposed to the Americans’ presence on the island. The two sides battle with slogans and posters on social media, in print media, and on radio waves. The U.S. military says the protesters are fringe groups who are backed by a biased media. Protesters claim to represent all of Okinawa, speaking out against the harmful impacts of the American bases. At the center of the protests these days is the expansion of Camp Schwab, part of a 1997 plan to relocate Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from the densely populated Ginowan in southern Okinawa to Henoko in the rural north. The plan dominates the wider debate about bases on the island. America occupied Okinawa during a bloody battle with Japan during World War II. After the war, a treaty allowed the U.S. to stay and use military installations all over Japan. Most of that presence is on Okinawa. The island 300 miles to the south of the mainland occupies 0.6 percent of Japan’s landmass yet houses 75 percent of all U.S. bases in the country. [gallery size="medium" link="none" ids="https://www.diplomaticourier.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/DanielSMetz_Okinawa3.jpg|,https://www.diplomaticourier.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/DanielSMetz_Okinawa2.jpg|,https://www.diplomaticourier.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/DanielSMetz_Okinawa1.jpg|"] Protesters hold brightly colored signs showing slogans like “Henoko No,” “No Bases” and “Stop Construction” on roads near military installations. They hang posters on base fences. “Pres. Trump, no base in Okinawa,” reads one sign attached to the fence on the south side of Camp Schwab. Okinawa’s two major newspapers, the Okinawa Times and the Ryukyu Shimpo, both have a circulation of more than 150,000 each and strongly support the protesters. Takashi Abe has written for the Okinawa Times for 20 years and said his paper is proud to be on the Okinawans’ side. “Our job is to amplify the small voice of the people against the big voice of government,” he said. “If we were not here, [the protesters] would be more brutally suppressed.” Abe covers the northern district of the island, including Camp Schwab, and about 50 percent of his stories are about base issues. “We do want to be fair, so we ask for comments from the military,” he said. But he claimed that the U.S. military ignores about 70 percent of his requests for comment. On the other side of the fence, U.S. officials paint a different picture of local media. Second Lt. Edward Pingel, a U.S. marine spokesperson, acknowledged a rocky relationship with local media and said the military can bar biased journalists from the bases. “If they are reporting false news, putting out propaganda, then we’re not going to deal with that,” he said. “But it’s in our right to do so.” The U.S. military also distributes several publications printed in English and Japanese to both service members and locals. On the winter issue of Big Circle, an American serviceman helps an Okinawan child make mocha—traditional Japanese rice cakes. The magazine is full of content that paints a picture of a warm relationship between the U.S military and local communities. Featured stories in the magazine describe a communal Thanksgiving celebration, Marines from Camp Kinser collecting toys and clothes to give to children for Christmas, and a Japanese employee at Camp Foster receiving an award after 30 years of service. Radicals or peaceful demonstrators? On a Thursday in March, protesters gathered in front of two entrances to Camp Schwab: the main entrance and the construction entrance. A lookout perched on a nearby hill signaled to demonstrators, who rushed to block a line of trucks from carrying construction equipment and materials into the base. Security guards pulled the protesters from the road, surrounded them and removed the gate’s barrier, allowing the trucks to enter. An elderly protester helplessly watching truck after truck pass through the gate looked to the other side of the fence and called out to a group of Americans observing from inside the base. “Go home, Yankee!” Back in Naha, 79-year-old Yoshio Shimoji talked about the letters he has been frequently writing to U.S. officials and Japanese newspapers about the base issues on Okinawa since he retired almost 17 years ago. He claims U.S. officials don’t care about the problems Okinawans face and they misrepresent the anti-base movement. “[U.S. officials] report that the protesters are fringe groups and not the opinion of the majority,” he said. “I disagree with that.” Shimoji cited polls that suggest most Okinawans oppose the U.S. military presence on the island as evidence that most locals support the ideology of the protesters. A Ryukyu Shimpo and Okinawa Television poll in mid-2016 showed 83.8 percent of those surveyed opposed to the plan to relocate Futenma compared to 9.2 percent who fully supported it. Satoko Norimatsu, director of the Peace Philosophy Centre in Vancouver, has been researching and participating in protests since 2009. She said three or four local organizations led by retired teachers or public officials work together to lead the protests. “Some of these groups are pretty spontaneous,” she said. “But others are more organizational, supported by labor unions and women’s groups.” The leaders of the protest groups are often retired teachers or public officials, Norimatsu said, many of whom lived through the World War II battle that took place on Okinawa. Between truth and exaggeration This contrast between the messages the military and the protest movement relay is especially evident in reactions to the issue of violent crimes committed by American military personnel in Okinawa. In April 2016, former base employee Kenneth Franklin Gadson drove around rural roads in central Okinawa for two or three hours before coming across a woman named Rina Shimabukuro on the street. Police accused Gadson of abducting, raping, and stabbing her before hiding her body in a nearby forest. One of the most infamous of these crimes occurred in 1995, when three U.S. service men abducted and raped a 12-year-old girl. All three were convicted and served jail time, and the incident made international headlines and spawned massive protests throughout Okinawa. Daniel Broudy, a professor at Okinawa Christian University who researches the anti-base movement, said anymore Americans’ violent crimes against Okinawans are sources of some of the largest protests. “After the murder of a woman last year, the anger spread to other bases,” he said. “The Air Force base, Kadena, saw a great deal of outrage at the front gates.” The Okinawa Peace Network of Los Angeles said U.S. service members have committed about 4,700 crimes against Okinawans since Japan regained authority from the United States in 1972. Some say official estimates are low because victims are afraid to speak out, but other say the number is relatively low and that Okinawan media blows incidents involving American service members way out of proportion. Robert Eldridge first came to Okinawa in 1997 as a visiting fellow at Ryukyu University where he first encountered the U.S. base issues. He said the number of crimes committed by Americans is low compared to the overall crime rate in Okinawa. “Anything that’s done by the U.S. gets exploded in the news, even if the severity is minimal,” Eldridge said. “You think there’s this huge problem in Okinawa, but there really isn’t.” While sympathetic at first, he grew to be critical of the anti-base movement. “There’s a tendency in the media to portray them as the peace-loving Ghandis of Okinawa, but they’re not,” Eldridge said. “There are very dirty tactics that are being deployed. There’s a lot of violence perpetrated by the protesters against the military, against the police and against the government.” U.S. military officials are also eager to say Americans don’t commit as many violent crimes against Okinawans as local media suggests. “There is very, very, very little violent crime against Okinawans by Marines,” said Lee, the commanding officer at Futenma. According to statistics reported by Stars and Stripes, a military newspaper that the U.S. Department of Defense oversees, the Okinawan prefectural crime rate in 2016 was much higher than those committed by American military personnel, 69.7 crimes per 10,000 people compared to 27.4, respectively. Despite these claims, Lee said the U.S. military has at various times taken further, aggressive steps to curb the violent crime rate by forbidding service members from drinking alcohol, imposing curfews, and restricting new recruits’ ability to buy and drive cars. The 1995 rape incident was one of the catalysts that triggered the U.S. military’s negotiation of the Henoko relocation plan and set in motion the gradual closing of Futenma. Late Wednesday afternoon when the demonstrations have finished and the shouting matches have petered out, kayakers paddled back to shore, fishing boats turned back to a nearby marina and security personnel retreated to base. In a week’s time, they will all be back to the same spot, and the struggle will continue. Some see these weekly protests as futile, but others, like Shimoji, say they must carry on. “The U.S. authority is very adamant,” Shimoji said. “They won’t listen to the people of Okinawa. But I think Okinawa shouldn’t lose hope. There will be lots of difficulty, but we shouldn’t be despaired.”
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.