In July, the leaders of the world's major powers will assemble in Nago, a small city on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa, for the first rich-country 'G8' summit of the new millennium. As they discuss the future of the world they will look out at the spectacular turquoise sea which washes over the coral reefs surrounding the main Okinawan island. Meanwhile, the Japanese and US Governments will be doing their utmost to discourage conference participants and the accompanying media from turning their attention to the fate of another, even more spectacular, stretch of coastline a few miles away on the other side of Nago City, offshore from the little community of Henoko. For it is here that the two Governments plan to construct what is euphemistically referred to as a 'joint-use military-civilian marine heliport'.
This may sound innocuous. However, the Henoko 'heliport' will likely feature a runway over a mile in length and will be built slap on top of one of Okinawa's more beautiful coral reefs. It is frequented by Japan's only, and endangered, colony of dugong (manatee or sea cow) and is also believed to be visited by other highly endangered species such as the hawksbill turtle. In the process of heliport construction several coral-rock outcrops which now dot the coastline will be flattened and ploughed into the seabed. From the resulting airbase the next generation of military helicopters - the massive MV-22 Ospreys, combining the capacities of helicopter and airplane - will take off at regular intervals, thundering over the seaside villages to the north of Henoko on their way to another base to be carved out of the forests of northern Okinawa.
Not surprisingly, the local community is up in arms. Even though the economy of Henoko relies heavily on the presence of the neighboring US marine training base of Camp Schwab, the great majority of its population and that of the surrounding villages is backing a desperate struggle to prevent the airbase's construction. The struggle is not simply about the environment. Henoko represents a much wider conflict between two radically different visions of the future. One is about international military strategy, power balances and large-scale construction projects. The other is about the role of local people in determining their own destiny.
With this conflict the people of Okinawa are very familiar. Okinawa is the smallest and poorest of Japan's prefectures (local-government regions). Originally an independent kingdom which thrived on trade between Southeast Asia, China and Japan, it was formally incorporated into the Japanese nation in the 1870s. During the Pacific War in the 1940s the Okinawan archipelago became a major strategic focus in the fight for control of the western Pacific, and much farm land on the main island was confiscated by the Japanese military for the construction of military bases. Its strategic position also meant that Okinawa became the only part of Japan to experience a land-based invasion and in the ferocious fighting which followed over 100,000 islanders were killed.
After the postwar Allied occupation the rest of Japan regained its independence in 1952. But the US chose to retain control of Okinawa which remained in American hands until it was returned to Japan in 1972. The US military took over the Japanese bases and expanded into new areas, including Camp Schwab, next to Henoko.
Japan's conservative governments of the 1950s and 1960s signed a series of treaties which placed the country firmly under the US military umbrella. These treaties involved the maintenance of large US military bases throughout much of Japan. But in the new order which has emerged since the 1980s the military alliance with the US, and the place of Okinawa within that alliance, has changed dramatically. A new set of defence guidelines finalized last year now gives the Japanese military a much more active role in providing what is called 'rear support' to US forces. Meanwhile, after the end of the Vietnam War US military bases throughout the rest of Japan were drastically scaled-back, leaving Okinawa as home to most American bases. Today Okinawa has just 0.6 per cent of Japan's land area but contains 75 per cent of the area given over to US bases. A fifth of the land in the overcrowded main island of Okinawa is occupied by them.
As the US wound down its military presence in Japan and in other parts of Asia, Okinawa has come to play an increasingly central role. It provides training grounds for anti-terrorism exercises and jungle fighting, as well as crucial supply and training facilities for US military involved in conflicts as far away as Europe and the Persian Gulf. Its appeal is enhanced by the fact that over half the maintenance cost is paid for by the Japanese.
'Is Okinawa a prefecture of Japan or a state of the United States?' reads one of the placards which now adorn Henoko's main streets. The question is not an idle one. Many of the shops bear English signs and the menus in the restaurants quote prices in US dollars. Pinned to the wall behind the bars are arrays of inscribed US dollar bills: 'Sgt Coleman and L/cp Welch got very drunk here'; 'Kiss me Sayoko. Bill'. A protest placard propped outside one of Henoko's older wooden houses reads: 'Our lives are not up for sale.'
The issue of bases in Okinawa came to a head in 1995 when a local 12-year-old girl, walking home from school along a quiet stretch of road, was abducted and raped by three US servicemen. The crime and the initially insensitive response from the military caused an international uproar and led to massive protests throughout Okinawa. The US and Japanese Governments were forced to take note and in November 1995 created the Japan-US Special Action Committee on Okinawa (SACO). The US military also embarked on an energetic attempt to improve relations with the local community. Nowadays, signs advertising forthcoming 'friendship fests' adorn the wire fences around US bases, alongside signs which read: 'Warning! These premises are patrolled by military working dogs.'
In December 1996, SACO published its plan for the 'reorganization and reduction' of the US military presence on Okinawa. However, as the practical implications of this plan became clear residents began to express concern. A central feature of the 'reorganization' is the transfer of the main US helicopter base from the densely populated urban area of Futenma to the new offshore heliport at Henoko. Initial reports suggested that the base might be constructed far from the coast, in the deep water beyond Henoko's reef. However, the seabed beyond the reef drops very sharply and the area is regularly visited by fierce typhoons. Moreover, the heliport has now been redesigned as a joint facility to serve as a civilian airport as well as military base. All of this makes it increasingly improbable that it could be constructed in deep water, and more and more inevitable that the Japanese and US Governments will revert to their 'Plan A' - construction of the runway on top of Henoko's reef.
Once details of the 'reorganization' became known, Henoko and the surrounding villages began to organize opposition. They called for a local referendum on the issue, which was held in December 1997. Their task was made more difficult by the fact that Nago City - of which Henoko is part - is essentially an administrative fiction formed by the amalgamation of several communities separated from one another by the range of rugged hills running down the spine of Okinawa. The great majority of Nago's population lives to the west side of the range where they will be relatively insulated from the presence of the heliport, but will benefit from the substantial sums of government funding promised as compensation for accepting the base. Despite this accident of geography over 80 per cent of all Nago voters took part in the referendum and a majority (53 per cent) voted against construction of the heliport. In response, the mayor of Nago promptly resigned, leaving the way open for the Government to ignore the referendum results and proceed with construction anyway. In December last year, in the teeth of local opposition, the new mayor announced his acceptance of the heliport plan.
As a sweetener to the deal, and despite Japan's current severe economic crisis, the Government is offering large sums of additional funding for 'development projects' to Nago and to local authorities throughout Okinawa. For the people of Henoko, an important part of the package will be the acquisition of their very own airport. But the east-coast villages of Nago City do not yet even have their own hospital. Those unfortunate enough to become seriously ill have to make the journey across the winding road to the west side of the city. In the circumstances, as one local resident remarked to me, an off-shore airport mainly designed to serve high-tech military helicopters is not high on the list of local priorities.
Besides, the people of Henoko know all about the economics of military bases. They experienced a military-led bonanza once before, during the Vietnam War years, when troops and money poured into Camp Schwab. The result was a booming local economy of discos, bars and nightclubs, many of which promptly went bankrupt once US military strategy changed direction. The fading legacy of the Vietnam era can be seen all along the city's streets, on shuttered and peeling buildings still adorned with fading appeals to long-departed customers. In front of one building, on which you can still just make out the words 'Pizzeria' and the faint outlines of an advertisement for Coca-Cola, stands an array of freshly painted placards opposing the Henoko heliport.
Military-led economic bonanzas come and go. But the environment of Henoko Bay and its adjacent forest could be a resource to sustain the community for generations. The majority of local people want to preserve that resource and use it as the basis for their development. Growing numbers of young Japanese are seeking an alternative to the monotonous tourist resorts which line much of the rest of Okinawa's coastline.
Residents of the relatively undeveloped area stretching north from Henoko have hopes for the potential of small-scale, eco-tourism projects centered on the region's unique plants and animals - which include several endangered species of birds, as well as dugong and turtle. They want to involve local people in joint research projects with scientists to learn more about the little-known ecosystems which sustain the region's wildlife. Above all, they want their voices to be heard and their opinions about their own futures to be respected.
Help us produce more like this
Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.