Few Seattleites have been to Japan’s southernmost prefecture of Okinawa.
But when “kayaktivists” took to Elliot Bay last year in the “Shell No” campaign against Arctic drilling, they were employing a tactic pioneered by Okinawans blocking the construction of a U.S. military airbase in the town of Henoko. The construction could destroy a marine habitat second in biodiversity only to the Great Barrier Reef.
Without knowing of one another’s activities, a shared commitment to protecting the environment took Okinawans and Seattleites along parallel paths.
The environment is just one of many reasons why Okinawans oppose the base. Without their permission, the United States has established 32 military bases on the main island of Okinawa.
Crime, including rape, is a persistent problem around these bases. Military aircraft bring sleep-disrupting noise and the ever-present risk of accidents. The bases endanger public health with PCB and dioxin contamination.
And in few parts of the world are memories of World War II as searing. Okinawans don’t buy assurances that U.S. bases are there to protect them. On the contrary, their well-grounded fear is of those bases inviting a repeat of the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, in which one fourth of the population perished.
Worst, perhaps, is the way this base presence perpetuates Okinawans’ longstanding structural discrimination. In the past, this took such forms as severe punishment for speaking their own language, or having their homeland ceded to the United States in 1952 as what Japan likely regarded a cheap price for regaining its own sovereignty — Okinawa finally reverted to Japanese authority twenty years later.
Today, Okinawa’s subordinate status is evident in the grossly disproportionate concentration of our bases there — 74% of those in Japan on a prefecture that makes up less than one per cent of Japan’s area.
Of course, American officials and their friends in Japan’s right-wing government swear that the new airbase — marketed as a “relocation” — is essential to counter threats from China and North Korea, and can be located nowhere else.
Such claims should never be taken at face value, and this case merits particular skepticism. In an unguarded moment, a former Japanese Defense Minister admitted that “from a military perspective, the relocation does not have to be in Okinawa.” Another crack in the facade appeared when Michael Armacost, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan, denied that the base is essential. As analyst Peter Ennis observes, the airbase “is convenient for training and Marine down time, but has no strategic function.”
In refusing to prioritize what’s essential over what isn’t, the Pentagon risks turning an Okinawan movement targeted at one base into something much broader.
Americans are beginning to challenge the injustice of forcing military bases on an unwilling population. Last year, the city councils of Berkeley, California and Cambridge, Massachusetts passed resolutions supporting Okinawa in its fight against the base.
Now it’s Seattle’s turn.
But with all the just causes in the world, why should our city take up this one? For one thing, it can be won. People like anime director Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, The Wind Rises) and climate activist Naomi Klein are supporting Okinawa, as are organizations like Greenpeace and Veterans for Peace. The award-winning documentary “Okinawa: The Afterburn” will soon be screening around the U.S.
The Okinawan resistance is nonviolent, even in the face of harassment by riot police and the Japan Coast Guard. These people deserve our support.
As when we passed resolutions calling for an end to South African apartheid in the early nineties, we would not be acting in isolation. If Seattle becomes the third city to stand with Okinawa, another city will follow. Sometimes, the best way to make Washington, D.C. officials abandon wrongheaded policies is to build support locally, gradually forcing the issue onto the national stage. This is such a time.
Like Berkeley and Cambridge, Seattle is a progressive city, with a progressive City Council. With two texts readily available, council members need not write a resolution from scratch.
But if we want them to take this step, we must show them that Seattle residents support it. You can do so now by signing this petition.
Update 5/20/16: A retired U.S. marine employed as a civilian at the Kadena Air Base was arrested today for the murder of a 20-year-old Japanese woman, adding to anger over American military presence on Okinawa. More details here.