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Bulldozed Villages and Good Neighbors in Okinawa

SNA (Naha) — On May 4, US Marine Corps Commandant General Robert B. Neller’s words spoken at a press conference the day before became front-page news in Okinawa. The general’s statements were mostly the same PR talking points that Okinawans hear repeatedly: we are in Okinawa to defend Japan; we care about the local people’s safety; the great majority of the Okinawans are glad we’re there; the “great, great” majority of us are good neighbors; and—more recently—however much Okinawans may protest, the plan to move Futenma Marine Corps Air Station to a new site in northern Okinawa is not going to change.

In 1996, the US and Japanese governments announced that Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, nicknamed “the most dangerous airstrip in the world,” was to be closed on the condition that it would be moved to Henoko, in northern Okinawa. Since then, protests have delayed the project. More than twenty years after the announcement, while some peripheral construction is going on, construction of the actual airstrip, which was supposed to be completed by 2014, has not yet begun. Even its most optimistic supporters estimate it will take another 15-20 years.

In the meantime, what should be done with Futenma’s 1st Marine Aircraft Wing? Located smack in the middle of crowded Ginowan city, the base remains dangerous as ever. Its clear zones—areas just beyond each end of the airstrip that aircraft pass over before landing and after takeoff—are not clear at all, but crowded with buildings (including residences, schools, clinics, and shops) violating both US Federal Aviation Administration and US Department of the Navy regulations. The majority of Okinawans want Futenma base closed down immediately. The US and Japanese governments declare repeatedly that the base will stay put until the new base at Henoko is completed. This is a gamble using human lives as chips.

It was in this context that General Neller made the statement that got his photo on Okinawa’s front pages: “If you look at pictures, Futenma, when it was built, there were no people living within several kilometers. Now the cities around Futenma are right up to the fence.” His implication was clear: the danger is their own fault.

In a literal sense, his statement was accurate. Photographs taken in 1945, just before base construction began, show the area unoccupied: no structure, no plant life, level, empty. It looks like a plowed field. That’s because it was a plowed field. Most of what had been there before the Battle of Okinawa was destroyed in the bombardment; and remaining buildings and crops were plowed into the ground by US military bulldozers. And yes, no people were living there. More than a quarter of the Okinawan people were no longer living at all. Of the survivors, some were hiding in the northern mountains, and the remainder were in internment camps under US military guard.

It is also true that before the war the area had not been a crowded city. It was a rural landscape, the location of nine villages: Nakahara village, Nodake village, Kiyuna village, Isa village, Samashita village, Oyama village, Aragusuku village, Kamiyama village, and Ginowan village (in the last, there was a city office and a school). The Naha-Nago railroad ran through the area, with three stations just outside the space now occupied by the base. When the people were released from the internment camps, they naturally set up households as close as possible to their former homes and ancestral grave sites. If you drive people off their land, outside the fence the population density will, of course, rise.

These facts are burned into the historical memory of the Okinawan people. It is jaw-dropping that Commandant Neller could speak publicly (and “authoritatively”) in utter ignorance of this history, which is also the history of a base under his command.

As a former Marine I would expect the Commandant to understand that while propaganda and fake history may be useful to politicians, in the military you need stone cold accurate information about your situation. In Okinawa, the situation is that the “good neighbor” illusion is fading, a process helped along by blandly ignorant statements like this one.

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