Reweaving Humanity in the Fabric of a Militarized Postcolonial Okinawa



On April 23, 2018, Suzuyo Takazato, the co-chair of Okinawa: Women Act Against Military Violence (OWAAMV), found herself being crushed at the bottom of a pyramid of protesters pushed back by riot police in front of U.S. Marine Base Camp Schwab. Beneath the chaos of falling protesters, Takazato heard her ribs and neck bones cracking one after another, followed by unbearable pain. She was taken to a nearby hospital in an ambulance.

This was the first day of a three-day anniversary, protesting the first landfill pouring to construct the new state-of-art U.S. Marine Air Base at Oura Bay in the Henoko District. Reportedly 500 protesters had formed a ten-row-deep sit-in that day. Takazato was among the many elders persistently leading the sit-in protests for the last two decades. The U.S. and Japanese government designated Camp Schwab as the relocation site for the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station (MCAS Futenma), which, according to the then-US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld himself, is “the world’s most dangerous base” because it is located next to a populated city. However, since the relocation plan was publicly announced in 2004, local citizens, joined by other allies have continued to protest its relocation to Henoko. They argue that moving one dangerous base to a less populated location does not reduce the burden on Okinawans, nor does it protect Okinawan lives. Whose rights and safety are the Japanese State protecting in the violation of Okinawans rights to self-determination and sovereignty at peaceful protests? The Japanese nation-state sovereignty is predicted on its faithful commitment to completing a modern fortified U.S. military base that symbolizes Japan’s dedication to its endorser of sovereignty.

In many ways, Okinawa represents a geopolitical periphery of the U.S. and Japanese nation-states. As an archipelago state with little sustainable natural resources, Japan has built an alliance with the U.S. at the cost of Okinawa. In 1879, the Empire of Japan militarily overthrew then-self-sustained Ryukyu Kingdom and renamed it Okinawa in tandem with the colonization of another indigenous people of Ainu. Ryukyuan language was banned and assimilation policies were institutionalized. Japan designated Okinawa as the battle ground against the Allied Forces which sacrificed one fourth to one third of Okinawan lives. Furthermore, Emperor Hirohito declared in 1947 that: “The Emperor hope[d] that the United States [would] continue the military occupation of Okinawa and other islands of the Ryukyus. In the Emperor’s opinion, such occupation would benefit the United States and also provide protection for Japan.”

It has been 46 years since the reversion of the prefecture to the Japanese sovereignty and the end of the U.S. military occupation of Okinawa. While the U.S. military occupation of Japan ended in 1952, the United States Civil Administration of the Ryukyu Islands lasted until 1972. Today, Okinawa is burdened with 73% of the total U.S. military bases in all of Japan today: it is the most militarized prefecture in Japan.

Many scholars argue that the twenty years of delay in implementing national standard of living, including welfare in Okinawa, has resulted in the structural inequality of people living there: the poverty rate is 34.8% (the national average,18.3%), the child poverty is 29.9% (twice as high as the national average), the working poor represent 25.9% of Okinawans (the national average, 9.7%), non-full time or part-time employment in Okinawa is at a rate of 40.4%, and the average annual income per person which is only 2,363,000 yen (approximately $21,000). The militarized postcolonialism perpetuates the systematic structural inequality in Okinawa.

Against this backdrop, the citizens of Nago were asked to choose between the incumbent Mayor Susumu Inamine and a new candidate, Taketoyo Toguchi on February 4, 2018 at the Nago mayoral election. While Inamine had tirelessly sought to halt the base construction in Henoko for the two terms he served, then a Nago City Assembly member Toguchi, backed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Komeito strategically remained ambivalent regarding base subjects but promised to create jobs if elected as mayor. The major media outlets framed the closely watched election as if the choices were either demilitarized peace or job security. The result of which would likely influence the election and the process of the base construction in Henoko.

It was pouring in the morning of the election day. As citizens of Nago, my parents and I drove to a voting station. The parking lot was already full of smaller size yellow-licensed cars — they are more affordable than the white-licensed cars due to a 75% less vehicle tax. Okinawa Prefecture is ranked top on the percentage of the vehicle. Several journalists from Japanese news organizations interviewed the voters, including my mother. She appealed her enduring wishes for demilitarized islands for our future generations and accountability of the Japanese citizens.

Despite the decades of democratic and peaceful demilitarization movement, the Cold and Hot War national security rhetoric overrides us as subaltern. Nago citizens’ accumulated frustration and fatigue likely contributed to the election result that night: Toguchi’s victory.

A few months later, newly-elected Nago City Mayor, Toguchi, stated that he wished the land reclamation work at Henoko could continue. He stated: “the construction which has been deemed legal is not something that can be stopped by the authority of Nago City.” A week later, on June 22, 2018, a Nago resident found two of his barn’s windows broken, and a 5-centimeter-long bullet laying on the floor. The Nago police determined it was from Camp Schwab’s Range 10, a shooting range only 250 meters away from the busy highway 56. The potentially life-threatening accident reminded us that the very law Toguchi defended would not protect Nago citizens.

This incident recalled another that took place near my daughter’s elementary school in Ginowan City which hosts the MCAS Futenma. Around 10am on December 13, 2017, a part of U.S. military aircraft CH53E that took off from Futenma dropped its window, which crashed on the playground of the Futenma Daini Elementary School while 54 children were in a Physical Education class. Fortunately, no one was hurt. In the close vicinity of the Futenma Air Base are over thirty schools, ranging from preschools to colleges.

Upon the election results and the continued threat to islanders’ safety, Okinawan youth leaders, headed by Jinshiro Motoyama, a graduate student in Tokyo, began collecting signatures to hold a prefecture-wide referendum to voice Okinawans’ will about the base construction. The effort has served to generate intergenerational conversations, about base issues including their future, economy, environment, and human rights. These are layered and difficult conversations, because U.S. base are now a part of the fabric in the lives of Okinawans — some of them are employed on U.S. bases, others are partners of U.S. soldiers.

April 23, 2018 happened to be Takazato’s 78th birthday. Moments before her injury, she was one of the protesters that Japanese riot police randomly plucked out and took to a temporary retention cage. Takazato’s arms were each held tightly by the riot police officers. It was not the first time for her to be confronted in this manner. Knowing the best course to avoid injury was not to resist, Takazato told the officers she could walk by herself, and not be forcibly dragged. As they walked, she told them it was her birthday. One ignored but the younger one took a silent glance at her. As the older officer left, the younger one murmured to her: “happy birthday.”

Considering that most of the riot police deployed at Henoko are from the Okinawan Police, he probably was an Okinawan. Takazato understood that the young riot police officer may have a family to support, children to feed, or bills to pay. The decades of our elders’ non-violent feminist protest applied here are weaving broken pieces of militarized humanity.

I conclude this essay with a poem, “Ikiru” (Live) delivered by Rinko Sagara, 9th grade at a local school in Okinawa, at the ceremony held on Mabuni Hill at the Peace Memorial Park on June 23, 2018 as the entire islands respected a moment of silence remembering the atrocities and wishing for peace:

“Let us send out true peace from our beautiful homeland, surrounded by blue.
Let each one of us stand up and walk together toward the future.
Embraced by the wind on Mabuni Hill,
My life cries out.
Resonating with the past, present and future.
Let this requiem reach the sorrowful past.
Let the sounds of the living reverberate to the future.
I will live out this moment.”