Okinawa Protests Intensify as Futenma Relocation Construction Begins

A group of protesters block the gate to Camp Schwab, Okinawa, following the arrest of a protester for assaulting Japanese police. Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes
A group of protesters block the gate to Camp Schwab, Okinawa, following the arrest of a protester for assaulting Japanese police. Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa -- For more than a decade, the protest movement over the relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Camp Schwab was largely characterized by smiling elderly Okinawans holding sit-ins.

The most provocative action of these Western-friendly protesters was perhaps temporarily blocking a gate or tying colored ribbons on the chain-link fences surrounding the seaside Marine Corps base.

But 2014 brought a new development: Local politicians who spoke against the construction of a controversial runway at Oura Bay on the northern part of the island were swept into power. And when those politicians were unable to fulfill campaign promises to put the brakes on the project -- their demands largely ignored by Tokyo's central government -- the protests took a more desperate and vitriolic turn.

Buoyed in numbers by foreigners and non-islanders, the protesters began to verbally attack American families and their children. They egged the cars of Americans and locals who work on base and tried to intimidate reporters and Japanese security guards. They phoned in bomb threats.

On Tuesday, after the arrest of a 35-year-old protester for allegedly assaulting two Japanese police officers, protesters blocked the main gate at Camp Schwab, where the new runway is to be built. Young Marines entering and exiting the base on foot and by car were forced to wade through about 100 shouting protesters who held signs calling them murderers.

It was just the latest in a string of incidents by protesters who seem intent on escalating the conflict.

The old guard of the protest movement has expressed concern over the turn of events.

"We are antagonizing Americans and Yamato (mainland Japanese). We are Okinawans, a different race from Yamato," an angry protester said as he blocked Stars and Stripes reporters from approaching the protest group sitting on the roadside. "You are not wanted here!"

He was quickly intercepted by a more passive demonstrator.

"Our struggle is nonviolent," Yasukuni Enokawa, 81, said in a warm and inviting tone. "The activities today are well under control, but I am concerned about a possible sudden onset (of violence) with mounting frustrations. People's stresses are being built up."

Like Enokawa, Tomoyuki Kobashigawa, 72, does not condone violence, but he could not rule out the possibility that it might break out in the future.

"With a large number of people engaging in the protest activities, there will always be someone who derails it," he said.

Kobashigawa acknowledged the protesters have been intensifying their activities recently, including the harassment of military personnel driving vehicles near Futenma. He said the targets were the troops and not their children, although he admitted children might be subjected to insults and scorn if they were in a car with a servicemember parent.

"We want the U.S. military to leave Okinawa," Kobashigawa said.

He acknowledged attempts by the protesters to provoke Japanese security guards and police, as well as coast guard officials, who are protecting the construction site. In the same breath, he deplored their treatment of the protesters when these confrontations occur.

"The coast guard is becoming more and more aggressive," Enokawa said. "They grab women around the neck and intimidate. Should a canoe go beyond the construction boundary, they approach from behind, jumping onto the canoe and overturn it."

"There are people who have suffered from a sprained neck or broken ribs," Kobashigawa added.

Unfair burden

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa and the end of the war between the U.S. and Japan. While wounds have largely healed and friendships forged on the mainland, many Okinawans still hold a strong resentment toward Tokyo and the U.S.

Enokawa and Kobashigawa have long memories that fuel their struggle, they said.

"When Okinawa was under the military control (after the end of World War II and until reversion in 1972), the presence of the U.S. military was the sources of all evils to Okinawa," Enokawa said. "Troops committed crimes off base, such as murders, rapes, thefts, tormenting residents."

He offered a detailed laundry list of offenses stretching back to the 1950s.

"It is our ocean that we want to protect," he continued. "Too many military bases are concentrated on Okinawa. We are against U.S. and Japanese governments. Why do they keep forcing us to bear a disproportionate burden? If the military presence is so crucially needed, why don't they take their share on the mainland? For us, it is nothing but discrimination against Okinawa."

Okinawa is home to more than half of the U.S. troops stationed in Japan, although it accounts for less than 1 percent of its total land mass.

Further complicating matters is the increased frequency with which a resurgent China, which has publicly challenged Japanese sovereignty, has encroached on the island in recent years.

The genesis of the relocation can be traced back to 1995, when two Marines and a Navy Corpsman kidnapped and brutally raped a 12-year-old girl. During the mass protests that followed, Ginowan residents called for relocation of Futenma's air operations.

The move was agreed upon during bilateral negotiations a year later. However, much to the chagrin of many locals, it was decided that the operations would be kept within the island prefecture.

In the two decades that followed, the effort seemed to stall as the U.S. and Japanese governments weighed different options. The two allied governments settled on Camp Schwab in 1997. However, it would be years before a tangible plan was presented.

Japanese government relocation efforts intensified after a CH-53D Sea Stallion crashed into Okinawa International University in 2004.

Construction begins

A bilateral agreement in 2006 set a 2014 deadline to build the runway into the bay and move Futenma. It was met with consternation, and the fledgling protest movement began to grow. Budgetary issues provided a further complication, but construction finally began in August.

In November, Takeshi Onaga was overwhelmingly elected governor. He ran on an anti-base platform that included putting a stop to the project.

Marine Corps officials have maintained that they remain committed to the relocation. They referred requests for comment on its progress to the Japanese government.

Japanese government officials have pledged to ease Okinawa's burden while vowing to complete the project. Last week, they suspended demands from Onaga to cease and desist. At the same time, they coordinated the reversion of a U.S. base housing area in Ginowan. Its announcement did little to quell the unrest and small but passionate protests continue across the island.

The battle between Onaga and Tokyo is expected to spill into the Japanese courts.

Scholars believe the division between Tokyo and Okinawa is widening and becoming unbridgeable.

Masaaki Gabe, professor of international relations at University of the Ryukyus, said that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has to show that Japan is a nation that honors its commitments so he must push forward on the project. However, this hard stance, despite the will of the Okinawan people, will likely continue to be mirrored by the protest movement.

"This is the voice of the Okinawan people," he said. "The aggressiveness invites aggressiveness of the protest activities, amplifying behaviors of both sides."

For now, the U.S. and its 30,000 troops and their families on Okinawa are stuck between a protest and a hard place.

"Give us back peace," one of their leaders shouted into a bullhorn Tuesday. "Give us back our land. The Okinawan people are angry."

Then they turned their attention to the Japanese security guards and policemen.

"Riot police, step back. Don't attack us, attack the Japanese government. Attack the U.S. military."

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