Okinawa, an island with a population of 1.4 million, enjoys the dubious honour of being considered to have strategic importance to the United States military. Since 1945, this group of islands in the southernmost region of Japan, has been under American military occupation. This occupation takes the form of large military bases which Okinawans are barred from entering. Okinawa was only officially given back to Japan in 1972, ending 27 years of direct military control.
Four and a half decades later, Nanae Nakajima, a 2nd year in International Development Studies at Trent University, travelled to Okinawa. There she witnessed the grassroots backlash against this military presence in the village of Takae. She decided to share her story at Sadlier House and offer a brief overview of this military presence in Okinawa.
Since 2010, villagers of Takae have been protesting the expansion in the American Northern Training Area, which came in the form of six new helipads planned for construction a mere stone’s throw from the village. Takae itself is a small community of 150 who are standing up to American military expansion sanctioned by the Japanese
government. At one point, 500 people not just from the island but also from the mainland gathered for a peaceful protest. The equivalent for a protest of this magnitude in Peterborough would involve close to 350,000 thousand people gathering.
Despite this proposed expansion being supported by the Japanese government, it runs in direct contradiction with a policy shift from 1996 in which Japan and America agreed to “reduce the burden” of American military presence in Okinawa. Trigger warning: sexual assault. This shift was sparked amid widespread outrage after an Okinawan was raped and killed by an American soldier. As it stands, the US spends approximately 5.5 billion dollars a year to maintain its military presence in Japan, a policy supported by 73% of Japanese citizens.
Not only are Okinawans being robbed of their past by being locked out of their ancestral land, they are also robbed of their future. The ecosystem in Okinawa is beautiful, diverse, and fragile. The Yanbaru Forest in the northern region is one of the last remaining tropical rainforests in Southeast Asia, and chopping it down to expand military presence is an effect that is not felt in a vacuum. Without the trees to maintain the structural integrity of the land, erosion causes soil to slide into the ocean. The effect of this is the degradation of coral reefs and the disappearance of fish. This is devastating for the people of Okinawa, who have traditionally relied on fishing as their primary source of livelihood.
Okinawa is advantageous as a training ground for simulating conflicts in tropical regions. This training includes air drops and military exercises that are not always contained within the bases. There have been many reports of Okinawans waking up to find soldiers in combat gear in their backyards. Considering the precedent of sexual attack that prompted the “reduction of burden” policy in the first place, this is not just an inconvenience for locals, it is potentially terrifying.
Okinawa saw the majority of combat that took place on Japanese soil during World War II. The loss of life was catastrophic, with 150,000 civilians perishing in comparison with 100,000 soldiers. A third of Okinawans lost their lives in just an 82 day period. The use of atomic weapons on major Japanese cities was partly justified at the time through the fierce Japanese resistance when confronted on their own lands and the subsequent bloodshed on either side.
Although Okinawa is a Japanese territory, it houses a culture distinct from mainstream Japan. Okinawans speak their own dialect known as Uchinaaguchi, classified by UNESCO as an endangered language. The Ryukyu Kingdom of the Okinawa Islands was independent
from the 15th century until its annexation by Japan in the 19th. The government’s
attempt to assimilate Okinawan language and culture resulted in large amounts of immigration from the rest of Japan.
This story of protests, land ownership, and colonization should hit close to home for Canadians who, over a much longer period of time, have worked to dispossess Indigenous peoples of their land, language, and culture. It should be a reminder of our history as one that is built upon stolen resources from those who lived here before us, and Indigenous movements that seek to preserve land when their ownership rights are not respected by the government in power.
That being said, the situation looks grim for protestors on the ground. On July 22nd, 500 riot police were sent from mainland Japan to break up a Takae protest of just over 100. Since then, construction of the helipads has actually sped up. Despite, or perhaps because of efforts by protesters, the expansion of American military presence in Okinawa is actually going ahead of schedule.
The tragedy of Takae is exactly that. People have been robbed of their agency over their own environment. America and Japan reneging on their promise to reduce military presence in Japan should be viewed in a global context. Japan is a country that, since the end of World War II, has shied from developing meaningful military capacity. In recent years, this has changed. Annual training for military personnel for the Japan Self Defence Forces has skyrocketed from 3 weeks a year to 6 months.
This may be explained by territorial disputes between America and China in the South China Sea ratcheting tensions in East Asia. Both China and America have competing claims to the region, which is estimated to have oil reserves of up to 17 billion tons (Kuwait has 13). This has resulted in sabre rattling from both countries in an attempt to intimidate
one another to give up their claim.
Okinawa’s neighbour to the west, Taiwan, has lived since 1954 with the knowledge that China has thousands of missiles aimed at them.
China’s economic rise to power has been rapid, and has benefited the world immeasurably. China was there to lend money to America in the housing market crash of 2008. China has also forgiven billions worth of debt from countries in Africa. China makes everyday
household items available to those from a lower income bracket. However, this wave of development within China has happened in a relatively short period of time, and it hasn’t erased history.
China has not forgotten the massacre at Nanjing in WWII, which saw 300,000 civilians killed by Japanese soldiers. Although the diplomatic relationship between China and Japan in our era is more or less civil, many Chinese people hold a deep resentment of Japan. So naturally, signs of Chinese expansion into the South China Sea cause deep anxiety for the Japanese.
This is context to why 73% of Japanese approve of the American military presence in their country. This is the context in which Japan is becoming increasingly militarized. And as this
situation develops, America is building six helipads outside the village of Takae.