A 24-member delegation from Japan is in Washington, D.C., this week opposing the presence and new construction of U.S. military bases in Okinawa. Participating are members of the Japanese House of Councilors, of the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly, and of city governments in Okinawa, as well as leading protest organizers and the heads of several important organizations opposed to the ongoing U.S. military occupation of Okinawa.
The famously stingy U.S. tax payer, frequently seen bitterly protesting outrageously wasteful spending of a few million dollars, is paying billions of dollars to maintain and expand some 90 military bases in Japan (and to make those who profit from such business filthy rich). Thirty-four of those bases, containing 74% of their total land area, are in Okinawa, which itself contains only 0.6% of Japanese land. Okinawa is dominated by U.S. military bases and has been for 67 years since the U.S. forcibly appropriated much of the best land.
The people of Okinawa tell pollsters year after year that they oppose the bases. Year after year they elect government officials who oppose the bases. Year after year they march, sit-in, protest, and demand to be heard. Year after year, the national Japanese government confronts the issue and fails to take any decisive steps to resolve it. Year after year, the people of the United States remain blissfully unaware that, as in so many other places around the world, our military occupation of Okinawa is ruining people’s lives.
Members of the delegation spoke at Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C., Monday night. Toshio Ikemiyagi thanked people who came to hear them and pointed out that we all looked healthy and alert. That, he said, is because you have all had sleep. You’ve been able to sleep at night without deafening jet noise, he said. Ikemiyagi is the lead attorney on a lawsuit challenging the Kadena Air Base’s noise pollution. He played us a video on Monday of what it is like. For the people who live there, he said, the war that ended 67 years ago has never ended.
Keiko Itokazu, a Member of the Japanese National Diet, depicted in this painting, said the Okinawan people had been heartbroken since having been unable to protect a 12-year-old girl from gang rape by U.S. troops in 1995. The Status of Forces Agreement between the United States and Japan gives U.S. troops immunity from Japanese prosecution. Between 1979 and 2008, U.S. forces in Okinawa caused 1,439 accidents (487 of them airplane related), and 5,584 criminal cases (559 of them involving violent crimes). The list includes fatal driving incidents, residential break-ins, taxi robberies, sexual violence, and other serious crimes against local citizens.
I spoke recently with Maria Allwine who describes herself as “a former Marine Corps spouse.” She said, “It is common practice for military personnel to use Japanese women as ‘mama-sans,’ exchanging house cleaning and sexual favors for money. Nothing new, but it’s given a wink and a nod by military brass. Those who don’t cheat are considered abnormal by their peers.”
The sex police are as absent as the skinflints from their usual place of prominence in U.S. political debate when it comes to occupying other people’s countries. Imagine, however, just for a moment, that even one Japanese military base existed in the United States, and imagine that even one Japanese soldier committed a single crime. Can you imagine some things that U.S. television talking heads might say?
Our military is trying to build yet more bases in Okinawa. Why, you ask? Word around town is that even the Pentagon thinks it serves no purpose, but the Marine Corps likes to hold onto anything it’s got. The Marines have even named one of their bases in Okinawa for Smedley Butler, the author of “War Is A Racket,” and a man whom the Marines once imprisoned at Quantico for having spoken badly of Benito Mussolini. Don’t look for logic. Look for petty rivalry and power, combined with unaccountability and we the people missing in action.
The least popular base in Okinawa is probably Futenma Air Base, which sits in the middle of a city, near schools, a hospital, and houses — houses which military helicopters have been known to crash into. The Marine Corps plans to bring the accident-prone MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft to Futenma in 2012. Overwhelmingly, the people of Okinawa want the base closed, and do not want it relocated to a less populated area, and do not want it combined with another existing base. For the past 16 years, residents of Henoko, a location under consideration for relocation of the base, have held a continuous sit-in protest without pause. They have also risked their lives hanging onto a floating platform in the ocean, surrounded by supportive fishing boats, successfully preventing the military from surveying the site for construction.
Hiroshi Ashitomi has been a leader of the nonviolent resistance in Henoko for 16 years. “We use our own bodies,” he said on Monday, “to resist aggressive actions by the Japanese government.” Pointing to the picture of Gandhi in the collage on the wall at Busboys, Ashitomi said, “We follow the example of Gandhi. It is not easy. We receive threats from the police. But we are determined to use nonviolent resistance, and we get a lot of support from all over Japan. We are trying to protect the environment, so many young people from all over Japan come to our tent and participate in our resistance.”
In fact, the environment and the rights of certain endangered species have come to dominate the anti-base movement in Okinawa. Apparently the rights of humans are far less interesting than the rights of the black naped tern, the blue coral, or above all the dugong. The dugong is the manatee-like creature in this photo. Osamu Makishi of the Citizens’ Network for Okinawan Biodiversity spoke movingly about these species and their ecosystem on Monday, which he said are protected by treaty.
The Japanese delegation is meeting with Congress Members, including Senator Jim Webb on Wednesday, urging them to close and consolidate bases. I once accompanied a group of Italians on almost identical visits to Congress. The people of Vicenza, Italy, oppose the bases the U.S. military and the national Italian government impose on them, just as the people of Okinawa do. The congress members and staffers we met with at that time gave not the slightest damn for human rights or the environment or popular opinion. I don’t think any of the Japanese delegates expect to encounter such humanity this week either. Their hope is to highlight the financial costs to the United States of the occupation of Japan. My hope is that we can help them by telling our misrepresentatives that we agree with the members of the delegation. If you’re inclined to help, please call your rep and two senators with that message.
Specifically, the delegation is asking for the closure of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station; cancellation of plans to construct a new Marine Corps air base at Cape Henoko; reduction of unbearable noise caused by air operations at Kadena Air Base; withdrawal of any proposal to integrate Futenma’s helicopter squadrons into Kadena’s operations; an end to the construction of six new helipads in the Yanbaru forest in northern Okinawa; and revision of the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement to allow fair prosecutions of crimes.
Ultimately, however, the members of the delegation want the bases all to be closed. And they do not want them relocated to Guam or Australia or anywhere else, except perhaps to the United States. Itokazu suggested that the U.S. government could save money and produce jobs by bringing bases home. But, of course, we don’t want a military occupation any more than Japan does, and the same money would produce more jobs if spent on a non-military industry.
Base opponents in Okinawa work with others in Korea, Guam, and Hawaii, and with former residents of Diego Garcia, as well as others around the world. An international conference called “Dialogue Under Occupation” was held in Okinawa last summer. In fact, people are working extremely hard in cities around the world to shut down or prevent the construction of giant military bases that we in the United States pay for and are endangered by but have very little awareness of.
John Feffer of the Institute for Policy Studies (see http://closethebase.org ) believes Futenma can be closed and can serve as a model for closing more. It is very difficult, however, Feffer says, to accomplish base closings cleanly without some sort of asterisk attached. When a base was closed in Seoul, Korea, a new one was opened outside it. When bases were closed in the Philippines, a Visiting Forces Agreement was drawn up. Yet, the Navy left Vieques, and the President of Ecuador seems to have found the magic formula in his proposal that any U.S. base in Ecuador be matched by an Ecuadorean base in Florida.
Here is another proposal: bring in the IAEA for inspections. No independent organization has verified U.S. claims to no longer be storing nuclear weapons in Japan. On the model of Iran, if full inspections are not permitted by, say, Thursday, or even if they are, we should seriously consider launching preemptive strikes against ourselves. The Constitution that the United States imposed on Japan 65 years ago forbids war preparation, yet the United States trains its forces in Japan to fight wars elsewhere in the world. Are we spreading democracy or hypocrisy? Are we building trust or animosity?
Ikemiyagi says democracy requires U.S. withdrawal from Okinawa. As with the location of nuclear power plants in Japan, he says, the Japanese government wants the military bases out of sight. If Tokyo wants bases, he says, then put them in Tokyo. The people of Okinawa have had enough.
Haven’t we all?