When word got out that the construction of helipads used by the U.S. Marines for jungle aviation training was to begin anew, hundreds of protesters gathered in the dead of night along Route 70 last month, a narrow, winding mountain road, with plans to block the construction. Before sunrise around 500 riot police began ejecting protesters who see the helipads as a direct threat to peace and safety in the remote Yanbaru Forest.
Anti-U.S. base protests are common in Okinawa (an estimated 65,000 demonstrators gathered in June calling for the closure of U.S. bases), but protesters say this time was different.
Okinawan author Shun Medoruma described the latest protests: “This time the police were violent. They were quick to use their power as they ignored the will of the people.”
Compared with a few years ago the situation has completely changed, Medoruma said, likening it to martial law.
According to local media reports, demonstrators were at times outnumbered by Japanese riot police by as much as five to one in the Takae district of Higashi village, about an hour drive north of Cape Henoko, the site of separate, more well-known protests along the coast.
Videos and live-streaming feeds posted on social media captured emotional clashes as protesters were forcibly removed from their sit-in attempting to block entry to where four new helipads 147 feet in diameter are slated to be completed by fall. The construction is part of a 1996 U.S.-Japan agreement that would include the U.S. return of 4,000 hectares of the 7,800 Yanbaru Forest it now controls.
The helipads (which will add to the existing 22 landing zone sites and two helipads completed in 2015) are vehemently opposed because they’re seen as an expansion of the U.S. military presence and will be used by MV22 Osprey, a tilt-rotor hybrid aircraft almost universally reviled in Okinawa for its noise and checkered safety record. The same kind of aircraft crashed in Waimanalo in May 2015, resulting in the death of two Marines and injury of 20 others.
The Okinawa Defense Bureau reported that nearly 400 Osprey night training flights were conducted in the Takae area in June, an eight-fold increase over 2014. Takae resident Rie Ishihara said some flights occur as late as 10:30 p.m., causing at least one family to relocate to another village.
Past demonstrations have been impassioned but largely free of violence. Now, however, protesters say they’re facing what they call heavy-handed tactics as new roads are cut into the forest to prepare for bulldozers needed for the helipads.
Nearly 40 percent of Yanbaru is occupied by the U.S. military’s Northern Training Area which includes a “survival of the fittest” Jungle Warfare Training Center first built to prepare to U.S. soldiers for war in Vietnam. The 37,000 acres of rugged terrain and dense foliage of the NTA and nearby Central Training Area are considered important assets for the U.S. military.
But Hiroji Yamashiro, chair of the Okinawa Peace Center asks, “Just what does America think Okinawa is? We’re being treated like a colony … America’s top military commanders have declared this is the most suitable training grounds for them and they have no qualms about demanding this from the Japanese government who kicks us out.”
At the heart of this dispute is a forest that can neither fight nor flee.
Today Japan has 20 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, four of which are natural assets. The Yanbaru Forest might well have been selected as a World Heritage Site too if it wasn’t so heavily militarized. That’s according to Yoshiyasu Iha, a 75-year-old Okinawan naturalist who has explored Yanbaru for most of his life.
Iha, a retired chemistry teacher, took a reporter on a trip to the forest last year. He explained that Yanbaru’s double-canopy shelters priceless biodiversity that includes an estimated 50 times more plants, animals and insects than anywhere else in Japan. Sometimes referred to as the “Galapagos of the Orient,” Iha called Yanbaru “a treasure for all the world.”
The forest is bisected by two main rivers and dozens of smaller streams and is dotted with clear mountain springs, forming a watershed that provides some 60 percent of Okinawa’s fresh water and nourishes wildlife downstream. Endemic birds, fruit bats, fish and crabs live in the forest and mangrove swamps that feed into Okinawa’s rich marine environments.
Yanbaru is composed primarily of forests of itajii (a kind of beech tree) that cover rolling hills and mountains like a sea of broccoli beneath which grow 30-foot tree ferns, fantastical mushrooms, wild gingers and many of Okinawa’s 1,900 native plant species. This dense jungle provides habitat for wild boar, freshwater goby, dragonflies, black newts, green land snails, black-breasted leaf turtles, crickets, the infamous Okinawan habu snake and 39 species of frogs, 10 of which live nowhere else.
For Okinawans, the Yanbaru Forest is revered as a place to be protected and celebrated for its wild creatures. The fight save this wilderness is, in some ways, reminiscent of protests to protect Hawaii’s Makua Valley, Kahoolawe and Pohakuloa from militarization.
In the view of most Okinawans, the helipads, like the 30 plus U.S. bases scattered across the island, are the result of decisions made by two foreign powers (Tokyo and Washington) and does not reflect the will of the people.
In the case of Yanbaru, Kauai’s native forests in Kokee make for a good comparison. There are striking similarities between the two although Okinawa island is roughly 20 percent smaller than Kauai and of that nearly 20 percent of the island is occupied by the U.S. military.
For their part, U.S. officials are reluctant to comment on the dispute, insisting the row is an internal matter between Okinawa and Tokyo. When asked about the Okinawa conflict in a public forum on Aug. 3, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard said that she expected the dispute between the governments in Okinawa and Japan to continue and added, “Of course, the U.S. government is not going to get involved.”
U.S. Forces Japan did not respond to a request for comment.
On July 27, speaking before the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation in Tokyo, U.S. Pacific Command’s Adm. Harry Harris said, “In my opinion, the U.S.-Japan alliance has never been stronger, and in a world crying out for leadership at the global level, the need for our alliance has never been stronger.”
He went on to say that the alliance had come to a fork in the road with three possible paths forward: retreat, maintain the status quo, or seek “cooperation among like-minded partners to uphold the rules-based order.”
Harris continued, saying, “Freedom of the seas matters. Freedom in the air and space matters.”
But for protesters in the Yanbaru Forest, questions of freedom are largely academic, just as the meaning of democracy, human rights and respect for the environment are blurred by this latest row. The protests in Okinawa are a sharp reminder that long-standing military alliances and bilateral security cooperation objectives do not guarantee civilian support.
In the case of Okinawa, the U.S.-Japanese alliance presents a public face of mutual respect and shared objectives, but for many Okinawans the reality is much more complicated and far less peaceful than the seas, skies and forest, they’re fighting to save.