Okinawa: Militarised Islands


By Dr. Masami Kawamura

Okinawa, the southernmost prefecture of Japan, consisting of some 160 islands with a population of approximately 1.4 million, is known as kichi no shima or military base islands. While Okinawa consists of only 0.6% of all the Japanese landmass, 74% of US military bases in Japan are concentrated in the prefecture. At present, further militarisation of Okinawa is taking place and Okinawan people are putting up a stern opposition to it. With a brief background of the militarisation of Okinawa, I would like to highlight two recent developments: the construction of a US military airport in the Henoko/Oura Bay area and the construction of six helipads at Takae in Yanbaru Forest.


During the final phase of World War II, Okinawa became a fierce battleground. The Battle of Okinawa killed thousands of Okinawans and destroyed the environment upon which people’s livelihoods had depended. After the war, Okinawa was placed under US military occupational government for the following 27 years. In the 1950s, when the Cold War in Asia escalated, US military base construction began in Okinawa. With “bayonets and bulldozers”, the US military government took away Okinawan people’s land and converted it into military bases and training areas. Since then, US military training and operations have been threatening and violating the safety and the human rights of the Okinawan people, and degrading the environment of Okinawa, even after the reversion of Okinawa to Japan in 1972.

In 1995, the raping of an Okinawan girl by US servicemen outraged the Okinawan public, and Okinawa appeared to be heading towards demilitarisation. Throughout Okinawa, protest rallies were held against the US military bases and a prefectural referendum was passed to call for a reduction of the US military presence on Okinawa. Reacting to the exploding situation, the Japanese and US governments established the Special Action Committee on Okinawa (SACO) to “reduce the burden”.

The SACO proposed several plans, including the return of the US Futenma Marine Air Station in the populated area of Ginowan City and the return of a major proportion of the Northern Training Area in the Yanbaru forest. These plans, however, contained conditions that would in effect lead to further militarisation and environmental destruction of Okinawa.

Construction of US Military Base at Henoko/Oura Bay- Habitat of Endangered Dugong
In 1996, SACO Final Report proposed the relocation of the US Futenma Marine Air Station from the populated area of Ginowan City to the northern part of Okinawa Island. In 1997, Henoko in Nago City was announced as the relocation site.

Henoko and its adjacent Oura Bay are one of the most biodiversity-rich areas in Okinawa. The endangered Okinawa dugong, rare blue corals, and many other rare species, inhabit the area. Furthermore the livelihood of the local communities is closely connected to the environment. The construction and use of the base would have tremendous impact on the environment and as communities.

The construction plan thus immediately met with strong local opposition. Ever since, the Okinawan people have been vehemently opposing the plan, engaging in protest rallies, petitions, and sit-ins. At present, Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima and the mayors of all the municipalities in Okinawa oppose the plan, including any plan in which the relocation site would be within the prefecture.

Okinawa’s opposition to the construction plan has gained international support as well. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Recommendations and Resolution have requested the Japanese and US governments to work together to complete an Environmental Impact Assessment, and to setup appropriate action plans for dugong conservation. In the “dugong lawsuit” of 2008, the US federal court ruled that the US Department of Defense (DoD) violated the US National Historical Preservation Act, which protects indigenous people’s culture and life.

The US and Japanese governments are still forcibly pushing forward with their plan, and the construction plan is now at both a crucial and final stage. In March this year, the Japanese government submitted to Okinawa’s Governor Hirokazu Nakaima its application for reclamation of waters of Henoko and Oura Bay for the base construction. Placed under tremendous pressure from the national government, Governor Nakaima is expected to make his decision regarding the application sometime in December this year or January of next year.

The Okinawan people are engaging in campaigns to help support Governor Nakaima to keep his current stance on the base construction plan and to say “No” to the reclamation application (see Jon Mitchell’s article on the postcard campaign Campaign to prevent the next Battle of Okinawa In addition, during public viewing of the government’s application documents, the Okinawan prefectural government received 3576 letters, including some from overseas, expressing opposition to the construction plan.

Construction of US Military Helipads at Takae

The 1996 SACO Final Report also proposed the return of a major portion of the Northern Training Area of Okinawa Island, with the construction of new helipads in the remaining Northern Training Area, as a condition for its return. However, in 1999 the Takae area, a small community of 160 people, was declared as the construction site.

Local people, NGOs, scientists, experts, and international organisations including the IUCN, have been requesting the Japanese government to reconsider the construction plan.

The Yanbaru Forest is one of the richest areas of biodiversity in Japan. It is home to over 1,000 species of higher plants and 5,000 species of animals, including numerous indigenous and endemic species such as the endangered Okinawa Woodpecker and Okinawa Rail. Thirty percent of the forest is however used as a US military training area and 22 US military helipads already exist in this training area. The construction and use of the new helipads would certainly create considerable danger to, and have additional impact on the Yanbaru Forest and the Takae community.

It should be emphasised that the Japanese government is also violating the human rights of Takae residents and their supporters. The government filed SLAPP lawsuits (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) against those who were carrying out peaceful protests. The Naha district court ordered, on 14 March, 2012, one of the plaintiffs to stop sit-in protests, thereby approving parts of the Japanese government’s argument. “No Helipad Takae Residents’ Society”, a Takae residents' group, and their lawyers, appealed to a higher court on 27 March, 2012.

The appeal was rejected on 25 June, 2013. Despite the unfair judicial decision, Takae residents and their supporters keep fighting, and appealed to the Supreme Court on 5 July, demanding justice for their right to live in peace and exercise freedom of expression.

Concluding Note

The Okinawan peoples’ actions to save Henoko and Takae are not just about opposing US bases and protecting the environment. The Okinawans have been calling on the US and Japanese governments not to deprive them of their rights to pass on what they call The Island of Peace with its treasured biodiversity to future generations, rather than bequeathing them as militarised islands.

Masami Kawamura is Director, Environmental Policy and Justice, Citizens' Network for Biodiversity in Okinawa

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