The construction of a controversial new U.S. military base is sparking increased calls for Okinawa to regain its independence.

The construction is destroying a rare coral reef at a place called Henoko, located toward the northern part of Okinawa Island. The reef contains hundreds of rare and endangered species, and is being called the second-most biodiverse in the world, only behind the Great Barrier Reef. If the base is completed, the reef would be almost entirely destroyed.

The indigenous Okinawan people have long been against this base, but have continually had their voices ignored by both Japan and the United States. The Okinawan government has done everything in its power to stop the construction, including removing all permits for the construction to legally continue, though the U.S. and Japan have ignored these requirements.

Though the governor of Okinawa, Denny Tamaki, has requested meetings with U.S. government officials to discuss the matter, he has been repeatedly denied. The U.S. government maintains a stance that this is a domestic issue between Japan and Okinawa, and that the Japanese government is “committed to working with the people of Okinawa to find a solution,” a claim which Okinawans, as well as supporters from all over the world, find frustratingly ignorant and dismissive.

“We are past our boiling point,” said Gov. Tamaki in his first meeting with a new Okinawa area coordinator for the U.S. military.

Ospreys headed to Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Ginowan, Okinawa, in 2013. Flickr: Times Asi

A general feeling is that both the U.S. and Japan are tone-deaf when it comes to Okinawa. Because both Japan and the U.S. have repeatedly ignored and violated the will of the Okinawan people and their democratically elected government, calls are increasing for Okinawa to regain its independence.

Okinawa was an independent nation known as “Ryukyu” until 1879, when Japan annexed it. Though Japan would go on to annex many other nations before and during World War II, all of those nations received their independence back after the war; only Ryukyu did not. Instead, it has been used by both Japan and the United States for military bases.

During World War II, as Japan began to lose, it increased its defenses on Okinawa, planning to sacrifice it in order to protect the Japanese homeland. During the Battle of Okinawa, between 120,000-200,000 Okinawans were killed, which was one-quarter to one-third of the population. Thousands of Okinawan civilians were murdered by the Japanese military, who feared Okinawans would turn on them and join the Allies.

A Military Sacrifice?

Many believe that Japan is once again setting Okinawa up to be sacrificed in another potential attack by increasing Okinawa’s military burden. Though Okinawa makes up just 0.6 percent of Japan’s landmass, it contains 70 percent of its military. This inordinate amount of military causes numerous problems for the Okinawan people, including increased crime, pollution, noise, and safety hazards. It also creates a tremendous economic burden for Okinawans. The military contributes just around 5.6 percent to the Okinawan economic, but takes up 15.6 percent of its land, and around 30 percent of its arable land, creating a huge economic deficit.

Many Okinawans see independence — or at the very least greater autonomy — as the only way to reduce or eliminate their base burden.

A survey conducted by the Ryukyu Shimpo, the largest newspaper of the Ryukyu Islands, released in 2017 indicates that less than half of Ryukyuans are satisfied with the status quo of being a prefecture of Japan. In addition to the base issues, many are concerned with the low incomes that many Ryukyuans experience — two issues that are intricately intertwined. The large amount of quality land that the military occupies handicaps the Okinawan economy, preventing Okinawans from using it in more productive ways.

One of the most curious things about this base at Henoko is the question of why it is being built in the first place.

Teiko Tursi, a native of Nago, the city that Henoko is a part of, survived the Battle of Okinawa, and is today an advocate for Okinawan independence.

“Independence equals autonomy,” explains Tursi. “Autonomy leads to creativity, protection (emotionally and physically), escape from poverty, and better education. Independence is important to maintain your dignity. People don’t realize that they’re colonized — psychologically colonized, so you’re doing things that you don’t even realize you’re doing.” But under independence, she explains, Okinawans can achieve their own freedom and develop their own ways of doing things.

One of the most curious things about this base at Henoko is the question of why it is being built in the first place. Both the U.S. and Japan have previously stated that the base is not necessary for defense or security purposes. The project is billions of dollars over budget due to serious construction flaws and the softness of the ground at the proposed site. (The sand at the location has been described as “mayonnaise-like” in substance.) The area also happens to be over a major earthquake fault line.

But the base is being built at the urging of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Abe initially agreed that Japan would cover the costs for the base, though that was before the severe cost overruns, and in any case, the U.S. would still be required to pay for the troops and weapons.

“Even though the Obama administration was well aware of the conflicts created in Okinawa, both political and environmental, through the expansion of U.S. military bases they were consistent in implementing the projection-of-power militarization aspects of Obama’s Pivot to Asia whose cornerstone purpose was to maintain U.S. hegemonic interests while containing a rising China,” said peace activist Jan R. Weinberg.

“In my opinion the naivety of Congress has been exposed through their recent ratification of the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act of 2018(ARIA) which builds on Obama’s Asia Pivot.”

An independent Ryukyu could determine for itself whether or not to allow U.S. or other foreign military bases in its territory, and if so, to what extent. But in all likelihood Ryukyu will demand a gradual removal of all U.S. bases, due to the sheer unpopularity of the U.S. military in Ryukyu.

The current attitude of the U.S. government deferring entirely to the Japanese government, while ignoring the will of Okinawans, certainly isn’t helping America’s reputation. The longer the construction at Henoko continues, the more resentment there will be toward the U.S. This resentment, just like the damage being done to Okinawa’s environment, is likely to be permanent.

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