Life on the Island at the Center of Tensions Between the US and China
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Life on the Island at the Center of Tensions Between the US and China

The efforts to expand a US Marine Corps base on the island of Okinawa has drawn ongoing protests from wary locals, while a potential conflict with China looms in the future.
February 12, 2016, 3:45pm

They gather at the gate by the dozens and wait in the dim predawn light for a convoy of trucks to rumble toward them. After daybreak, others take to the sea in kayaks to face off against wet-suited gangs of security personnel in speedboats.

Somehow this has become a normal daily routine: groups of protesters milling about along a stretch of coast on a remote Japanese island, hoping to throw a wrench into the US military's plans to "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific region.


Many of the demonstrators are silver-haired retirees who have made the early-morning drive from nearby towns. But a few are university students from major Japanese cities hundreds of miles away who are spending their year-end vacations this way.

Japanese protestors at the Camp Schwab US military gate in Okinawa. All photos by the author

On land, they pass the time singing songs, giving speeches, or holding protest signs for the occasional vehicle that passes along the quiet country road where the gate stands. On the water, the kayakers bob quietly in the waves and wait for their chance to breach a construction zone that juts hundreds of feet from shore.

The demonstrators are determined to halt work to vastly expand Camp Schwab, a US Marine Corps base that stands halfway up the east coast of Okinawa Island in a sleepy village called Henoko. The project involves building port facilities, an ammunition storage depot, several helipads, and two runways, mostly on reclaimed land.

When the trucks arrive, the protesters are usually wrestled out of the way by busloads of riot police deployed from Tokyo. But each Wednesday, the demonstrators' ranks swell by the hundreds, according to Hiroshi Inaba, who says he's the longest-serving staff member at an encampment across the street that's manned around the clock.

The 65-year-old explained that the construction crews and their police backup can't get any big trucks through the gate when they're confronted by such a large crowd.

"They give up," said Inaba when I spoke with him. Or at least they give up for that particular day.

Once work at the base is completed it should be one of the most powerful in Asia. An aging US Marine air station called Futenma in the island's more densely populated south is then slated to close down, and its functions will be transferred to the state-of-the-art facilities at Camp Schwab. It's all part of a larger project by the Pentagon to consolidate its assets in Okinawa and "rebalance" its military resources in the region—with an eye on an increasingly powerful and assertive China.

While I was born and raised in Canada, I've lived in Tokyo since 2014, and I hopped on a flight to this part of Japan for the first time a year ago. It's a spellbinding place, where you can waste away your vacation days hopping from island to island, exploring mangrove forests, and sampling awamori, the local firewater.


But people here also find themselves caught up in worsening geopolitical tensions. The idea that China and the US could ever go to war seemed ridiculous to me until last fall, when a study at Harvard University changed my mind. It looked back at what happens "when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power." The lesson from history was harsh: It almost always leads to unthinkable bloodshed.

Okinawa would be on the front lines if World War III kicks off between Washington and Beijing, which is what seems to be at the root of the fight over Camp Schwab. So I wanted to see the place for myself. I hoped to learn more about the local anti-base movement.

Most Okinawans are against expanding the base in Henoko, saying instead that Futenma air station should be relocated to mainland Japan or somewhere even farther away. Opinion polls suggest between 70 and 80 percent of residents want the plan scrapped, posing a political headache for both Washington and Tokyo.

US military at the Futenma air station

"It destroys both nature and democracy, and infringes Okinawan people's rights," said Eiko Iguchi, a retired English teacher from the prefecture's capital, Naha, who makes the hour-long drive to protest at Camp Schwab at least once a month.

The new runways will be built partly on Oura Bay, near a coral reef that environmentalists fear will be destroyed by the project. Greenpeace says around 5,300 species can be found there and more than 250 of those are endangered, including loggerhead turtles and the Japanese dugong, a cousin of the manatee.


Okinawans have also been voicing their opposition at the ballot box, particularly since the election of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2012. He appears determined to make the new facilities at Camp Schwab a reality, and to fortify Japan's southern defenses, aiming to deter Beijing as it pursues vast territorial claims at sea.

A career conservative named Takeshi Onaga became governor of Okinawa Prefecture in the fall of 2014, after he vowed to stop the Henoko project. In a snap national election held weeks later at Abe's request, local voters mostly voted against his party's candidates, who were told to support the base plan.

Onaga has since revoked permission for the land reclamation work, leading to a court battle with Tokyo. The land minister is suing him, the prefectural government is countersuing the land ministry, and the construction continues.

While Okinawa is best known as a laid-back vacation spot with white sand beaches and aquamarine seas, its charms belie a tragic history that has fueled local opposition to the Henoko plan.

The island is the largest in the Ryukyu archipelago, which stretches 683 miles from the Japanese mainland to Taiwan, forming a natural barrier a couple hundred miles off China's coast. Once an independent kingdom, Japan annexed it in the late 1800s.

Okinawa was later the site of one of the deadliest World War II battles, nicknamed the "Typhoon of Steel," which claimed the lives of more than 100,000 civilians. The US occupied the archipelago until 1972, during which it built a network of military bases that today covers about a fifth of Okinawa Island, staffed by more than 25,000 military personnel.


Prefectural government officials want to shrink that footprint, arguing the decades-old Japan-US security treaty imposes a heavy burden. The island chain accounts for only 0.6 percent of Japan's land mass, they point out, but hosts three-quarters of American military bases in the country.

Art depicting an American flag at a Futenma museum

The push to reduce the US military presence dates back at least 20 years, when around 100,000 people rallied in Naha to protest the abduction and rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl by three US servicemen.

An agreement reached a year later outlined plans for the Pentagon to return about a fifth of the land it controls on the island, including Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. It also raised the possibility of expanding Camp Schwab in Henoko. The fight over that scheme has been raging in fits and starts ever since.

But it's still business as usual at Futenma, where squat buildings and well-kept lawns call to mind postwar suburbia. About 3,000 people work on the nearly two square miles of land it occupies at the center of Ginowan City, which has grown around the base.

Military officials here seem understandably reluctant to weigh in on the political fight being waged over Futenma, and they dispute the idea that moving its operations north to Henoko is unpopular among Okinawans.

They point out that their operations include humanitarian and disaster-relief missions as well as security-related ones, that the base contributes a lot of money to the local economy, and that they've voluntarily put in place policies to limit noise pollution.

"Regardless of what's in the press, regardless of the six protesters at the back gate, and 12 at the front gate, what might be perceived as 'America go home' will never, ever manifest itself when you walk 100 meters outside," Col. Peter Lee, the base commander, told me.

"We've had some hiccups, but we've been great neighbors, we've been great allies, we've been great partners for 70 years."


Still, a monument on a nearby university campus testifies to the persisting safety concerns felt by many Ginowan residents. It stands at the site of a 2004 helicopter crash that injured three Marines and blackened an administrative building.

Tilt-rotor aircraft called Osprey that take off and land like helicopters but fly like planes have since been stationed at Futenma. US military officials argue that they're safe, but critics say the Osprey are prone to mishaps and have seen a string of crashes.

The central government in Tokyo plans to buy several Osprey choppers as part of a record $42 billion defense budget. Japan's growing military spending is one of many changes that is transforming its defense forces. Parliament passed unpopular legislation in September that loosened restraints imposed by war-renouncing Article 9 of the country's constitution. And the Abe administration has been forging closer defense ties with countries that are caught up in territorial disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea.

In Okinawa Prefecture, Tokyo plans to deploy missile batteries across 200 islands, and to boost the number of Japanese troops there to around 10,000, Reuters reported in December.

"The aim is, I think, to form the capacity to seal China up within its first line of defense," said Gavan McCormack, an emeritus professor at Australian National University and co-author of Resistant Islands: Okinawa Confronts Japan and the United States.


"Ultimately, if something goes wrong, the first place to suffer will be those islands," he added, "because the Chinese missile target list will have them at the top of it, as places to eliminate in the event of any clash."

Beijing has been sending warning signs that it's unhappy about all of this, dispatching armed Chinese coast guard frigates near the Senkaku Islands for the first time. The Senkakus are administered from the Okinawan isle of Ishigaki and are the subject of a long-running territorial dispute with China, where they're known as Diaoyu.

The Henoko protesters seem keenly aware of the risk that war will revisit their island, making it unlikely they'll yield despite a number of reported injuries.

Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, sees that fight playing out in one of two ways: Construction could end if something tragic happens, such as a protester being accidentally killed by security personnel. Or the expanded base will indeed be built, but with unintended consequences that could also affect security in the region.

"Okinawan sentiment against all of the bases, not just the new one, might get to such a degree that it can become something comparable to the Scottish independence movement," Nakano told VICE. "Discrimination, independence, that kind of idea has become much more widely circulated than in the past."

The elderly proprietors of one small cafe on a rural road in the island's northeast say they feel alienated by the way Tokyo has been treating Okinawans.

Kuniko Maeda

"People are angry inside at the government. We want all the bases to go, if possible," Kuniko Maeda told VICE. "But if we look at the world situation and the ties between Japan and America, it isn't going to happen anytime soon."

The cafe is located near Camp Gonsalves, a US Marine jungle warfare training area that spans 27 square miles of mountains draped in subtropical forest. The US has agreed to return about half of the land, but residents are angry about plans to build new helipads and to station Osprey on the remainder.

Like Henoko, a protest group here says the central government has been ignoring local opposition, leading to demonstrations that have lasted for more than eight years and have spurred a separate court fight.

"To tell, you the truth, we Okinawans don't know if we're Japanese or not. That's our true feeling," Kuniko's husband, Yoshiaki, said. "They don't listen to what we say or think."

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