Saturday, March 16, 2013

Okinawa Independence #7: Island of Protests

Okinawa is well known around the world as a site of protest. Its history has been marked with numerous protests regarding the many US military bases that is "hosts" as well as its colonial and neo-colonial treatment by the Japanese central government. Just last year over 100,000 people gathered for a demonstration.

Okinawa is an island of protests, some big and some small. All protests are not equal. There is a logic to how they are perceived by the public. Some will appear to be more important than others. Some sites of protest will appear to be more essential than others. People will be more easily drawn to them. They will see those who stand along the fence, along the road, holding signs as being heroic. They will see places beside them where others should stand, where they could themselves stand. They will see this protest as representing important things, even if it violates laws and social norms. Other protests will be seen as less important. There will be an ever greater negative stigma attached to those who embody the protest, their messages and their presence. Even if there may be a clear ideal they are fighting for, the inessential nature of their protest will make their fight seem crazy or ridiculous. People will associate them with insanity and "maladjusted" ideas in order to make what they stand for seem foreign.

Okinawa, although known as an island of protest is not spared from this. Some protests are more important than others. Some locations are considered to be more valuable than others. Some ideas are more valuable than others. The way that a certain object of protest relates to the present moment can mean the difference between having widespread relevance or being ignored by most.

For example if nuclear testing was conducted off the coast of New York City, Washington D.C. or any other major metropolitan or financial area then there would no doubt be a huge outcry. People of all political affiliations would see it as being something to speak out against, an injustice, a terrible disgusting decision. They would see every essential aspect of life possibly being threatened by this.

If however you held the nuclear testing on a remote island in the Pacific, or a wasteland somewhere in the desert, the amount of protests you'd see would be minimal, as they have been for decades. Yes there are some very determined activists out there who have protested the testing, but all in all, the imagined distance, the geographic distance, the cultural and political distances all add up to basically create the impression that nothing much is being lost by the testing taking place there, since not that much or not that many people could really be hurt. Henry Kissinger's notorious line about how no one should give a shit about what happens in Micronesia and what Micronesians say since there are so few people there may offend many. But they accept that principle all the time, albeit in less crass ways. Those who appear as less, who appear to have less, who appear to be less essential can be sacrificed or be damaged in ways that others should not.

In Okinawa for example, the burden of most US military bases is something they have to shoulder. If the area around Tokyo hosted all those bases the relationship would be very different. Okinawa is ideal because it is far away from the center of the imagined Japanese nation and its political and financial hearts. The distance was also supposed to provide the US with more leverage since it would be further away from majority of Japanese and therefore be something less likely to be protested or removed. I am always amazed at how many on Guam, and in the US know nothing about Okinawa and its recent history. The type of political relationship that Guam had with the US from 1898-1950 is the same type that Okinawa had to the US from 1945 - 1972. Both were placed under the US military and against all supposed arguments about human rights and democracy, were subjected to modern military rule.

But even within Okinawa there is a hierarchy to what protests matter most. Something that happens in an outer island in the Ryukyu chain is less than something that happens in Okinawa itself. Something that happens in northern Okinawa is less than something that happens in central or southern. Something that is proposed to take place is easier to mobilize around than something that already exists and may be difficult to get rid of.

Takae where there has been a protest camp since 2007, blocking the gates to the Yambaru Forest in the north where the US has been constructing helipads. The building of these helipads happens in dense forest away from the eyes of the public. They happen in the northern part of Okinawa where very few people live and it can take a couple hours to reach from the densely populated south. The protest there is quite small, albeit determined. Although it has been taking place for 6 years now, there are still some people in Okinawa who don't know about it.

This can be contrasted with the protest in Henoko, where a camp has been set up for 20 years now. The protest there was regarding the expansion of an existing base into Henoko Bay in northern Okinawa. This expansion would have led to the destruction of beautiful coral reefs and the habitat for endangered animals such as the Dugong. When construction began activists sailed out into the bay and chained themselves to equipment in order to prevent the destruction of the bay. After two decades Henoko is a buzzword for demilitarization activists around the world. A site of beautiful local resistance.

Henoko may be a word that inspires others, but Futenma is a word that stirs up a great deal more emotions. It is considered to be the most dangerous US base in the world, primarily because flights take off from it throughout the day and sometimes into the night, but this base is not located on some distant isolated part of Okinawa. It is surrounded on all sides by Ginowan City. Maps of Futenma in Okinawa don't just show the land strips and fences, but also mark the numerous homes, hospitals, schools and colleges that are found around it, some of which are directly in the danger zones that are supposed to be kept clear in case of crashes. The base operates despite the fact that the flights there violates the Marine Corps own rules for public safety.

Futenma is a word that unites most Okinawans in terms of their passive or active resistance to the US military. It has a way of bringing together so many of the small things that people fear or loathe about military bases, but aren't generally taken as real arguments. There is a feeling that the military takes up too much space. That it is dangerous. That the military doesn't care about the things that people feel. That it causes traffic. That it is noisy. That the US mistreats the Japanese.

Futenma is a signifier for so much Okinawan discontent, but it also presents strong ideological problems for the US and Japanese governments. Futenma is something that they have to find a way to "solve." Of course the US doesn't want to give anything up, and will only do so if it is receiving something in return. The building of helipads in Yambaru and the expansion of Camp Schwab at Henoko are both results of attempts to resolve the Futenma issues. Futenma had led to such widespread protest and anger that something had to be done about it. The problems of militarization that it presented were to be passed on to other sites, that were further north, less populated and places not considered to be essential to the island.

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