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Okinawa’s Anti-Base Movement Faces Crisis

SNA (Tokyo) — In mid-2018, Okinawa’s anti-base movement faces a crisis. The struggle to resist construction of a US military base in Nago city’s Henoko district has never been easy. It confronts two governments, Japan and the United States, that deploy all instruments of state power—police, propaganda, intervening in local elections—to get their way.

Japanese courts, unlike those in the United States that have played a prominent role in addressing social injustice, routinely defer to the state on national security matters and show little sympathy for Okinawa’s claims. Outside Okinawa, much media coverage has a pro-government slant. In the country for which the base would be built, there is hardly any mainstream media coverage.

To such long-standing challenges, however, new ones have been added. In April 2017, the Defense Ministry began building seawalls in Henoko’s Oura Bay, creating a sense of fait accompli. Upon finishing the seawalls this summer, it is expected to launch into actual reclamation of the bay.

Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga, elected in 2014 promising to do everything in his power to stop the base, has shown signs of wavering, granting permission for vessels transporting seawall construction materials via Oku Port. Due in part to voters’ growing sense of futility, government-backed candidates won mayoral elections in several Okinawan cities.

The situation looks almost hopeless. Other movements, though, have faced even longer odds: consider the South African anti-Apartheid movement, subjected to massacres, its organizations banned, its leadership imprisoned, driven underground, or into exile.

To understand where the anti-base movement stands now, I solicited views from six activists and writers: Sumiyo Heianna, US correspondent for the Okinawa Times; Satoko Oka Norimatsu, director of the Peace Philosophy Centre and co-author of Resistant Islands: Okinawa Confronts Japan and the United States; Etsuko Urashima, Nago civic activist and author; Hiroji Yamashiro, chairman of the Okinawa Peace Action Center and leader of protests at the Camp Schwab gate; Tomohiro Yara, freelance journalist based in Naha, and Hideki Yoshikawa, anthropologist and director of the Okinawa Environmental Justice Project.

Sumiyo Heianna

I began by asking about morale. Urashima reports that since anti-base Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine’s failure to win reelection in February, “the number of people in the sit-in in front of the gate has gradually declined, and there is definitely a sense of crisis at the daily advancing, albeit delayed, seawall construction.” Still, she insists, “the conviction that ‘construction will be checked without fail’ is shared, and there is no pessimistic mood.”

Yoshikawa too was upbeat: “There’s a sense of history among activists that we are heading toward a watershed in Okinawa’s struggle against the overwhelming presence of US military bases in Okinawa. Along with this comes a sense of responsibility and integrity. Morale is holding up well.”

If so, Yamashiro deserves much of the credit, but even he acknowledges that “sustaining the morale of enthusiastic activists has started to become difficult.”

One reason is Governor Onaga’s delay in revoking his predecessor’s approval for the reclamation of Oura Bay. According to Heianna, Onaga should have revoked it “on his first day in office.”

Norimatsu concurs, and reports that “some people doubt his real will to go against the government to truly stop this base.”

Still, most consider the step a top priority now, with Urashima declaring that activists “call on Governor Onaga to revoke the reclamation approval by July when the seawalls are closed and the initial infilling of sand and earth is expected.” For revocation to take effect in time, Onaga must initiate it immediately.

But in a further blow to morale, the governor is battling pancreatic cancer, and should he decide not to run for reelection this fall, it’s unclear who could take his place. Consequently, impatience with Onaga is mixed with a sense that the movement needs him. As Yamashiro puts it, “I hope the governor will be resolved and take drastic measures, but now a serious illness has again befallen him… At this point, I seem to have no choice but to implore him, ‘Mr. Onaga, please face the disease first without worrying about anything and recover your health.’”

Should the movement change in response to this crisis?

Yamashiro was defiant: “The side that should change is the government that strengthens only oppression, and we ask the national electorate supporting that government to change.”

Norimatsu and Yamashiro

Others interpreted my question to refer to strategy (as I intended) more than to goals. Yoshikawa observes that “having most of our negotiation with US counterparts mediated by the Japanese government is a colonial-like situation producing no meaningful resolution for Okinawa.” Thus, Okinawa “must find a way to directly negotiate with the United States.”

Norimatsu believes that in resisting a base supposedly justified by foreign threats, “the Okinawan movement should try to go beyond the Japanese mainstream media’s propaganda against China and North Korea.”

Urashima affirms that “change is an inevitable aspect of a movement,” and it happens best spontaneously. “A movement is a living thing; it’s born, it grows, sometimes it gets sick, it grows old, it dies, and it’s born anew—I feel this happens repeatedly.”

Responding to the question, “what gives you hope?,” Norimatsu revealed a commitment to resistance no matter what the circumstances: “We are such a minority in a society largely motivated by greed and indifference, but I’m hoping that history will remember that there were people who tried to make a difference.”

Similarly, Urashima cites the Henoko struggle’s motto: “the secret to winning is not to give up.” But she also insists that “seeds of hope are everywhere,” pointing, for example, to a new national organization of people opposing the extraction from their localities of earth and sand for the reclamation, thus “linking the desire to protect their hometown’s nature and to protect Henoko’s nature.”

Could the recent deployment of Osprey aircraft to Yokota airbase in Tokyo provide opportunities for joint resistance? Might mainlanders’ skepticism of the scandal-ridden Shinzo Abe administration extend to its mind-numbingly repeated claim that Henoko is “the only solution”?

Yara flatly dismisses such possibilities: “Mainlanders have no interest in Okinawa’s problems.”

Yoshikawa even worries that, as in the past, mainland protests could end up only adding to Okinawa’s burden. But, given Okinawa’s political weakness, hopes of stopping the base indeed rest to some extent on mainland solidarity.

In Heianna’s view, that would require that mainlanders face some hard truths: “It is often said that it’s ‘Okinawa’s problem,’ but in fact it’s Japan’s problem—forcing inappropriate burdens and sacrifices on Okinawans while they enjoy the privilege of a peaceful life where few US military bases are located.”

Respondents mentioned concrete reasons for hope, such as a lawsuit in US federal court and indications that Oura Bay’s sea floor can’t support an airfield without additional reinforcement, requiring a new permit from the governor.

Hope, though, is a spur to action, not slumber. In the case of the anti-Apartheid movement, international solidarity was crucial to ultimate victory. Understandably then, Yamashiro declares, “Japanese mainland domestic public opinion and spreading understanding in the United States about US bases in Okinawa—I’d like to place great hopes in that.” If his hopes are not misplaced, supporters everywhere will raise their voices louder than ever.

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