Protests mire Marines in Okinawa base relocation fight

by Michael Cochrane
Posted 2/24/14, 01:50 pm

For 10 years, Hiroshi Ashitomi has been coming to the beach near his Okinawa home every day to sit in protest. Like many Okinawans, Ashitomi opposes a plan to move a controversial U.S. Marine base to a less crowded part of the southern Japanese island. The proposed location for the new airstrip—Ashitomi’s favorite beach—is the epicenter of the opposition.

The United States and Japan reached agreement two months ago to relocate Marine Corps Air Station Futenma after nearly two decades of talks and protests. Ironically, it was partially intended to placate Okinawan anger over the huge U.S. military presence near urban areas.

The Futenma Marine base was built in 1945 when Okinawa was under U.S. jurisdiction. At the time, it was surrounded by sugar cane fields and the ruins of war. Now it is surrounded on all sides by dense urban growth. It became symbolic of the deep resentment and anger among Okinawans, who feel that their safety and quality of life have been sacrificed to U.S. military objectives.

The decision to shut down Futenma came amid a massive uproar over the 1995 rape of a schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen, another major sore spot between the military and its neighbors. Though initially seen as a breakthrough for Okinawans who oppose the military presence, it came with the condition that a replacement facility be constructed.

That touched off a nearly 20-year standoff. Okinawan leaders demanded the new facility be built somewhere else. Tokyo balked, because no other Japanese communities—whose votes are more important to national leaders—wanted to take it on.

Okinawan public opinion is strongly against increases in the U.S. military presence. The Pentagon plans to eventually move some troops away, but many Okinawans see the relocation plan as one of many signs that Tokyo and Washington do not respect their desire to reduce the U.S. military’s footprint on the island.

“We Okinawans are not particularly anti-American,” said Ashitomi from inside a weather-beaten tent covered with protest banners and anti-base posters. “But we can’t allow the politicians to betray us like they have.”

Col. James Flynn, Futenma’s commanding officer, said Okinawa is crucial to American military planners. Marines there were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Flynn said over the past decade they have been involved in 15 major operations, including the relief effort after the recent typhoon in the Philippines.

“The importance of this capability on Okinawa is that it is really a central point in the Pacific area,” he said.

Many Okinawans understand—and some even support—that position, but they want their voices to be heard.

“If it goes forward, the construction will dramatically change our sea,” said Ashitomi. “Our position has gotten a lot harder, but we can’t let that happen. We can’t let this beautiful sea that we have inherited from our ancestors … die. We want our island to be a beacon of peace.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Michael Cochrane

Michael is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD correspondent. 

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