The only part of Japan invaded by US troops in 1945 still feels trapped between two powers, writes David McNeill

In March, Japanese police released a retired civil servant from five months in detention, during which he was relentlessly interrogated, denied access to his family and banned from receiving hundreds of letters from supporters. His initial arrest was for damaging a wire fence around an American military base.

For years, Hiroji Yamashiro, 65, was the jovial ringleader of protests against the heavy US military footprint on Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture. Day after day, he could be found rallying his colleagues outside US bases with songs, chants and poetry. His arrest was aimed at punishing him and silencing the movement he leads, say his friends.

A sub-tropical speck in the Pacific 1,000 miles from Tokyo, Okinawa shoulders the weight of Japan’s six-decade alliance with Washington. Local people live uneasily with 19,000 Marines and dozens of military installations, including the US Army’s only jungle warfare training unit, all on Okinawa’s tiny main island.Anger is focused on the Futenma air base, which occupies nearly two square miles of crowded Ginowan’s city centre.

Futenma has generated decades of complaints about noise and crime, but it took the abduction and rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl in 1995 by three American servicemen to trigger a solution.A year later, and under fierce public pressure, the two governments agreed to close the ageing facility and build a state-of-the-art replacement off the quiet fishing village of Henoko in Okinawa’s less populated north, but that deal has proved controversial.

Opponents want the base moved out of Okinawa altogether, part of a bigger demand that Japan’s mainland shares the burden of the military alliance. Local opinion polls consistently put opposition to building off Henoko at 80 percent. Takeshi Onaga, Okinawa’s governor, was elected in November 2014 essentially on a single issue: to end construction of the new base.

Onaga launched a series of legal challenges that climaxed with a loss in the Supreme Court last December. But it is activists like Yamashiro who most effectively slowed building at the 160-hectare site in Oura Bay. Day after day, he and his mainly elderly colleagues blocked trucks ferrying landfill and steered canoes into the path of construction workers and police boats.

The land-sea-air base, rising on reclaimed land out of the bay, will have a dock and two 1,800-metre runways, towering 10 metres above the ocean. The facility will serve through the 21st century as potentially the ‘largest concentration of land, sea, and air military power in East Asia’, says historian Gavan McCormack, who has written about Okinawa for decades.

Okinawa shoulders the weight of Japan’s six-decade alliance with Washington

While the base will host American Marines and warplanes, however, it is the Japanese government that is building it. Once bitter enemies, Tokyo and Washington now share a common concern: the rise of China. The base is supposed to help contain Beijing’s maritime expansion and maintain America’s military primacy in Asia.

Urged on by its US ally, Japan is pulling away from the pacifism that took root after the calamity of the Second World War. The government has passed a series of record military budgets. It is beefing up defences across roughly 200 islands in the Ryukyu chain that includes Okinawa. And it is training an amphibious assault force, modelled on the US Marines, to retake remote territory from enemy hands (presumably China) – all part of a strategic shift to the country’s south and south-west.

Okinawa was occupied by the US military after the Second World War until its reversion in the early 1970s. The savage battle to take the island in 1945 left up to 100,000 civilians dead, along with 100,000 Japanese soldiers and over 12,000 Americans. Many islanders were forced to commit suicide by the Japanese military. Okinawans, once part of an independent kingdom, believe they were sacrificed as a buffer between the invading Americans and the Japanese mainland. Generations have grown up since, pledging ‘never again’.

The protesters are angry at the planned base, and the prospect of 3.5 million truckloads of dirt being dumped over a coral reef in the pristine bay, home to hundreds of plant and animal species, many of them rare.But their greatest anger is reserved for Japan, which they see as a vassal state, in hock to US militarism. A tooled-up Okinawa makes conflict with China more likely, they say.

DISPROPORTIONATE: More than half of US troops deployed in Japan are based in the tiny prefecture of Okinawa
DISPROPORTIONATE: More than half of US troops deployed in Japan are based in the
tiny prefecture of Okinawa

Yamashiro was arrested last October in the Yambaru Forest, site of the Marines’ jungle warfare training area. About half, 4,000 hectares, of the area is slated for return to Japan, on condition that the Japanese government carve out of the jungle six new landing pads for helicopters. Dogged by protests, construction has dragged on for a decade. Yamashiro, who snipped a barbed-wire fence, has since been served with fresh arrest warrants, including one charging him with obstructing business in front of the Heneko base site.

Though legal under Japanese law, repeated rearrests are controversial and have been used before to silence political opponents, says Lawrence Repeta, alaw professor at Meiji University in Tokyo. He calls the tactics ‘a shocking display of raw government power’.

Politicians and the military brass in Japan and America have expressed impatience at the failure of the Okinawan authorities to finish building the bases. Police in Naha, Okinawa’s capital, declined to answer questions on the Yamashiro case. So did the district prosecutor’s office. Each side has accused the other of verbal and physical violence on protest lines.

Once bitter enemies, Tokyo and Washington now share a common concern: the rise of China

Amnesty International was among those demanding that Yamashiro be freed, noting that his health was deteriorating and he was denied all requests for bail.The arrest of such a ‘symbolic opposition figure’ has had a chilling effect on others exercising their rights to demonstrate peacefully, said Amnesty. ‘Some activists now hesitate to join the protest for fear of reprisals.’

That, says Isamu Nakasone, a retired judge turned Okinawa activist, is precisely the point.The purpose of detaining Yamashiro was to intimidate activists and stop the anti-base protests, he says. ‘He took a central role in opposing the military base. His detention is a warning to others, just as construction enters a key phase.’

The verbal stamp of approval to end the long stalemate on Okinawa came in February from the new US Defence Secretary, Jim Mattis, who said there was no alternative to the Henoko plan. With all legal hurdles cleared, Japan’s top spokesman said the government is ‘determined to move forward’. Workers have resumed dumping concrete blocks in Oura Bay, the first stage in the creation of a coastal embankment.

Little stands in their way. But Yamashiro’s trial this year will be a rallying point for activists.He was freed on ¥7m ($63,000) bail, despite opposition from prosecutors. He admits to the fence-cutting charge but denies others, including piling up blocks to stop construction trucks and ‘injuring the arm’ of a Defence Ministry employee near the helipad site last year.‘The charges against me…oppress the people of Okinawa and trample upon the feelings of the people,’ he said after his release. ‘Though it will be a long fight, I will continue to fight for my innocence and demand justice for Okinawa.’

A survey last year found that 84 per cent of Okinawans oppose Henoko – the highest share since Shinzo Abe’s government took power in 2012. The danger for Abe is that by sheer force of will he will win the battle for the base, but lose the hearts and minds of the islanders.

Dr David McNeill writes for The Economist, The Irish Times and other international publications, and isco-author of Strong in the Rain, survivors’ stories from Japan’s 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nucleardisaster. He teaches media and politics at Sophia University in Tokyo. Previously he taught at LiverpoolJohn Moores University.

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