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From Okinawa to the UN, the Protest Against a US Military Base Continues

Categories: East Asia, Japan, Citizen Media, Elections, Ethnicity & Race, Governance, Human Rights, International Relations, Law, Politics, War & Conflict

Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga, Lt. Gen. John Wissler exchange greetings

Long-held American plans to build a new military base in a remote part of Japan are being fiercely resisted by the people of Okinawa and their governor Takeshi Onaga. On October 13, 2015, Onaga exercised his right as governor to revoke a permit the US military needs [1] to build the new base, effectively putting an end to base construction.

The move by the governor of Okinawa to block the base came after Onaga spoke at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva before a large number of Japanese journalists and observers on September 21 about Okinawans’ opposition to the plan.

It was the first time a Japanese prefectural governor had ever addressed that council, and happened shortly after a UN official had admonished Japan for human rights violations in Okinawa itself.

‘Sounding an alarm’ about human rights violations

Onaga attended the UN human right panel in Geneva to “sound an alarm” [2] about the relocation of the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma [3] in Okinawa to Henoko, an area further north within the prefecture, itself an archipelago located in Japan's far southwest.

Onaga said Okinawans’ right to self-determination has been ignored by Japan's central government in Tokyo, which had negotiated with the US Marine Corps to move the base.

There has been serious concern that construction of the new US military base would cause severe damage to this biologically invaluable area. Henoko Bay is known for its endangered species such as the dugong, a marine mammal found nowhere else in Japan, and rare blue coral (Heliopora coerulea).

The majority of residents oppose the plan, according to various polls throughout the years, but a small number of Okinawans do support the construction [4] of a new base. Despite accounting for just 0.6% of Japan’s territory, Okinawa is home to over 70% of American military installations based in Japan. US military bases occupy at least 18% of the main island of Okinawa.

20 years since the protest meeting against US solders’ rape case. Now 80% of Okinawan support Governor Onaga's protest against US base relocation to Henoko

Okinawans have resisted the relocation of the base for 17 years, since a 1996 defense policy review suggested the move [8], and the American presence is still widely resented in Okinawa. Following a 2013 decision to formally move ahead with the Henoko move, protests have occurred in front of military bases almost non-stop [3]. [7]

Military bases amount to ‘discrimination’ against Okinawans

Onaga's address to the UN Human Rights Council in September came after an August 2015 visit to Okinawa by Victoria Tauli Corpuz [9], a UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people. While in Okinawa Corpuz said that the presence of so many US military bases in the small, isolated prefecture amounts to discrimination [10] against the people of Okinawa.

Since being elected governor of Okinawa in November 2014, Onaga himself has made every effort to prevent the relocation of the base, currently located in the middle of Ginowan city on the southwestern end of Okinawa island. Realizing that neither the US nor the Japanese governments were willing to address the concerns of Okinawans, Onaga decided to reach out to the international community to raise awareness of the issue in September:

Okinawa Governor Onaga Screencap courtesy Sanae Fujita.

Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga address the UN in Geneva Switzerand on September 21, 2015. Screencap courtesy Sanae Fujita [11].

After World War Two, the US Military took our land by force and constructed military bases in Okinawa. We have never provided our land willingly. Okinawa covers only 0.6% of Japan, however, 73.8% of US exclusive bases in Japan exist in Okinawa […] […] Our right to self-determination and human rights have been neglected. Can a country share values such as freedom, equality, human rights, and democracy with other nations when that country cannot guarantee those values for its own people?

Onaga's entire address in English can be watched here [11].

Governor's speech lauded by activists back home

Onaga's speech to the UN human rights council received applause from activists back in Okinawa. Jinshiro Motoyama, an Okinawan student acting aligned with Japan's SEALDs student movement [12], said:

Mr. Onaga's speech was good. Thank you! Go Governor Onaga

SEALDs Ryuku [15], the local affiliate of the national student activist movement, also tweeted:

Oh wow, Governor Onaga is going to meet the foreign correspondents’ club tomorrow [in Tokyo, after his return to Japan from Geneva]. I want Onaga to keep communicating Okinawa's message to the international community.

“The existence of the US military bases is the biggest reason for neglect of human rights and right to self-determination. It is really disappointing to hear that the Japanese government says military bases have nothing to do with human rights.” – Governor Onaga as he continues to lobby the UN.

Seventy years of damage caused by US military presence

Speaking to reporters in Geneva [18], Onaga pointed out that during the 27 years that Okinawa was under the direct administration of the US military following the end of the Second World War, US soldiers were responsible for a number of problems, including the rape of young girls, a plane crashing into a primary school and hit-and-run incidents.

After administration of Okinawa was returned to Japan in 1971 [19] a large amount of toxic contaminants left behind by the US military [20] was discovered, but Okinawa was unable to do anything about it due to the Japan-US Status of Forces Agreement [21].

US aircraft still fly even after 10 pm, contrary to agreements reached between the two governments, Onaga said. After complaints about aircraft noise were made to the Japanese Ministry of Defense in Okinawa, as well as to other Japanese government offices, Onaga said he was only told that these would be conveyed to the US.

After Onaga's lastest move in October of canceling the permit the US military needs to build the new base at Henoko, representatives of the Japanese government are seeking to have Onaga's decision suspended [22] under the Administrative Appeal Act.

Sanae Fujita is an associate fellow of Human Rights Centre, University of Essex, UK [23]. Based in the UK, Fujita traveled to Geneva in September 2015 to report on Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga's address to the United Nations Human Rights Council. Fujita attended a press conference Onaga held following the address.