One of Japan’s biggest but underreported stories – both in Japan and abroad – is the decision to relocate the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from the central part of Okinawa Island to Henoko, about 50 kilometers to the north.
The decision to relocate Futenma to Henoko has generated large-scale protests both on land and on the sea over the summer. Some commentators are calling the events at Henoko Japan’s Ferguson, referring to the fatal shooting of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri by police in August, which provoked protests and riots.
As video hosted on the local Ryuku Shimpo shows, as of mid-September 2014, protesters who venture near the construction are being swiftly apprehended and detained by a large force of Coast Guard personnel for violating a court order (令状主義違反) to stay away from the area.
Meanwhile on land, protests against the Henoko base are drawing crowds of 10,000 people.
Okinawa is both the southernmost of Japan’s 47 prefectures and the country’s poorest prefecture in Japan.
Despite its small size (Okinawa covers just 0.6 percent of Japan's land area) Okinawa hosts at least 28 American military installations and three quarters of American service personnel stationed in Japan. About 20 percent of Okinawa is devoted to military installations, a legacy of Okiniwa’s postwar status as an American “trustee” territory that was only returned to Japan in 1972.
Many of the 28 military American installations are located within densely populated neighbourhoods – Marine Air Corps Futenma is located in the heart of Ginowan City.
For many years there have been attempts to relocate American forces. Then, at the end of 2013 Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Governor of Okinawa Hirokazu Nakaima signed an agreement to build a new US marine base at Henoko, a relatively pristine site about an hour by car from Ginowan.
Despite talk of relocating the Marines to Guam, and pre-election promises by local politicians to resist building at Henoko, US forces will not be leaving Okinawa any time soon. Okinawa residents feel betrayed.
The new American military base at Henoko in Okinawa will be construction on a coral reef and seagrass beds which is inhabited by the dugong, an endangered marine mammal protected under Japanese and US law.
Keiko Tsuyama, a New York-based Japanese journalist interviewed by GV recently, says, “If this sort of project were planned for the East Coast or the West Coast of the United States, it would never be tolerated by Americans. Why Henoko?”
Peaceful Protest, Disproportionate Response
Local resentment over the decision to build a base at Henoko quickly grew following the agreement in late 2014. Over the summer, the road in front of construction site at Henoko had become a large protest camp.
Some protesters have been camped out here since 1996, when plans were first made to locate the base at Henoko:
Over this past summer, some protestors took to the ocean in kayaks and canoes, in an attempt to protest a seabed study in Oura Bay, off Henoko, prior to construction taking place.
While there has been television coverage of the protests, the footage generally captures a low-intensity cat-and-mouse game occurring between authorities and protesters.
For example, a local news report from September 3, 2014, showed security forces chasing off a protester who has draped a net over a platform used to drill boreholes for a seismic study. (Update: Since the publication of this story, this video has been deleted.)
Local newspaper Ryuku Shimpo has uploaded some YouTube footage of Japan Coast Guard officers enforcing the court order:
The Twitter hashtag #henoko also provides regular updates about the Henoko protests.
Throughout the summer and now into September, many Twitter users are capturing a government response of surprising intensity:
— The daily olive news (@olivenews) September 15, 2014
Dozens of canoes have been confiscated, (according to the Okinawa Times). In the next prefectural gubernatorial election we must prevail and overturn this despotic regime.
The Coast Guard is using aggressive tactics and intimidation to asset control over the sea off Henoko. To get a sense of the tactics, watch the video below. We have received video taken by local residents of Nago of officers boarding protest vessels off the planned base site – this is the first time these images have been posted online for the public to see.
It's unlikely aggressive tactics will be enough to deter an Okinawan population that first survived the Battle of Okinawa at the end of the war, then 30 years of American occupation, and now years of pressuring government to reduce the number of American bases in the prefecture.
One Twitter user sums up the spirit of the protesters:
— 平和への道＠彡トシピコ彡 (@toshipiko1) September 15, 2014
“We Will Never Give Up” – posted on the fence of the planned Henoko base.