Sunday, June 06, 2010

At Henoko

I was born in San Antonio, Texas, and when I was little I used to swim in the Gulf of Mexico. I have good memories of many days jumping waves, eating PB&Js, getting sand in my shorts, and taking home a bottle of salt water every time to put on cuts and scrapes because we thought the salt water was good for healing ills. It was beautiful there.
We are such bad stewards of the planet.

A few days ago a dead dolphin washed up on the coast of Louisiana. It's now being tested to see if its death is related to the spill. What do you think?
I was in Okinawa during the 県民大会, the huge anti-base rally that attracted more than 90,000 people in Yomitan village. I was astounded by the number of normal, everyday seeming residents that came out for this issue. There were gaggles of seniors, so many people in their sixties, seventies, and beyond. There seemed to be more oldsters than young people, and certainly more average-looking people than activists. Yet. They all showed up to register that they don't want this new base on their island. They are fighting for their quality of life, a life that has been disrupted by noise pollution, violence, hamburgers, and helicopters crashing into the university (prompting some professors, students, and other locals to form a protest group called No Fly Zone). An oft-cited poll from a few years ago in the Okinawa Times puts the percentage of residents against the bases at 85% opposed.
Okinawa is the poorest prefecture in the country, and the last prefecture (formerly the Ryukyu Kingdom) to join the nation. Its total landmass is less than 1% of Japan, yet this area has half of the U.S. military population, and the bases take up almost 20% of the prefecture. Does that sound like a lot? It comes into clear relief when you drive around the island and are constantly confronted with barbed wire and beige, areas that, though your family may have lived here for many generations, you are not allowed to enter. It's a stark contrast, all that razor wire and heavy machinery, when set against the backdrop of blue skies, sand, palm trees, and hibiscus flowers. 
Some Okinawans don't identify as Japanese, but only as Okinawans. It struck me, looking at the protest signs, that most of them were demanding both the US and the mainland to get OUT.

Now a prime minister has lost his job over his inability to resolve this situation. He campaigned on getting the base out of there and then backtracked on that promise, enraging people who have done their damnedest to mobilize a tiny island community. The people that I met said they would NEVER allow new base construction. They will not back down easily.
The activists at Henoko have been sitting in for a very long time. They have been keeping watch on the shore and have also done sit ins at sea, in boats. They are not going to stop any time soon. The existing artillery depot and proposed site for the new base is on top of a coral reef and also serves as the northern boundary for a dugong habitat. Dugongs are classified as vulnerable to extinction.
At the border of Camp Schwab, at Henoko.
I recognize that it's naive to say that we can just instantly do away with all military and go straight for diplomacy. I come from a military family and I know that many of the people in the military are intent on protecting and serving. And I know that North Korea is just a skip and a jump away and have done lots of crazy, scary shit, including sinking a South Korean boat only just recently.
Former base site, now being used to grow sugar cane.
But these people are making an argument for their quality of life, for the environment, for animals, for peace, and for anti-colonialism. I think it's best we listen. I am not at all confident but I hope that the new PM can bring about a solution that respects people, place, and potential threats.

I want to go hug a tree.


  1. Really interesting post... especially nice to have someone talking that's actually been there to experience it first hand. Well - as much as a "visitor" can experience it that is.

    A difficult problem that won't be solved easily I suspect.

    As for the dolphins... I suspect that this is just the beginning - unfortunately.

  2. Man I don't see it getting any better from here. I wouldn't be surprised if the whole island chain gets paved over in the US/China buildup.

  3. Hey Ben, thanks for your comments. I know I'm an outsider to Okinawa, but I am Japanese, American, and from a military family and I think it's important that people other than those directly affected take notice without trying to take their voices. I dislike the not-my-problem attitude that is so common not only in Japan but in so many other issues as well.

  4. Hey Don! You have a blogger profile, hey? Where's your blog? Don't hide your light, my friend.

  5. Very old profile. That picture is from when I was 19! If I do have something to blog now, I do it at but I don't often have anything to say. Someday though I'll be good enough at something that I will ;)

  6. Don, thanks for the link! Are you still bodybuilding? You should write more!