Monday, April 5, 2010

Study Program Days 3 & 4

Study Program Day 3:

We left our guesthouse in Ginowan early in the morning and headed toward the Henoko region of Okinawa, where locals have been struggling for about 13 years to stop Futenma's Air Field from being transferred (along with a plethora of other new construction). A number of different plans have been proposed over the past decade, starting with the construction of an air field inside of Camp Schwab, which is located on a cape in Nago City next to Oura Bay, Henoko. However, this plan was overwhelmingly rejected because it would simply transfer the problems of noise pollution and safety risks from Ginowan City to Nago City. So the plan changed to a large airfield that would be built in a section of Oura Bay (right over its coral reefs!), but local people--mostly elderly men and women--resisted this plan so strongly (by holding daily sit-ins that continue even today, by occupying a platform in the bay that was erected to start planning the construction, and by paddling sea kayaks in the way of the motorized boats that came to carry out the construction) that it was finally scrapped. Then the plan changed to expanding the perimeters of Camp Schwab so that it would extend out into Oura Bay, and building the runway on this extension. Locals have fought this plan, too, and now the government is talking about building the runways inside Camp Schwab--the very same plan that was rejected more than 10 years ago!

In Henoko, our first stop was to Tent Village on the shoreline of Oura Bay, where locals were marking more than 2,100 days of consecutive sit-ins. One of their representatives, Onishi-san, used photos to tell us about the history of their non-violent struggle (which, incidentally, was inspired by the non-violent resistance of Martin Luther King Jr.). Then we walked over to a beach that is divided by a long stretch of curled razor wire that functions as a border to Camp Schwab. Peace lovers had covered just about every inch of the wire with colorful ribbons and banners calling for no war, no killing, no bases, protection of the dugong, and so on. Apparently, the U.S. military used to regularly remove these ribbons (once, even by setting fire to them all!), but people kept retying them with such persistence, that the military finally gave up trying to remove them. One funny aside: on the way to the beach, we passed by a municipal sign that said: "Keep this beach clean--please take your garbage home with you." To this sign, locals had pencilled in the word "base," so that it read: "Keep this beach clean--please take your base and your garbage home with you."!
At the beach, we were joined by three young Japanese people, two of whom are Okinawan university students. All of them are just starting to learn about the base issue themselves, and it was their first time to visit Henoko. We were inspired when Onishi-san said he wants the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty to be voided and replaced with a Japan-US Peace and Friendship Treaty, so before leaving Henoko, we decided that rather than waiting for our governments to do this, we would initiate such a treaty ourselves at the citizen level, and inaugurated this new symbolic treaty on the beach with the university students (see photos later).

From Henoko, we travelled to the Takae and Yambaru Forest area to see the U.S. military's Northern Training Area, which the U.S. military has used for jungle warfare training since 1956--initially to prepare for jungle warfare in Vietnam (to our shock, we learned that the U.S. military even forced local villagers to play the role of Vietnamese people in their jungle warfare trainings!). This training area occupies thousands of hectares, much of which wasn't being used, so the U.S. military finally agreed to give part of it back to Okinawa. However, the part they agreed to give back has seven aircraft landing pads, and the construction of 7 new landing pads elsewhere was made requisite for its return. Unbelievably, the area chosen for the new construction is rich in biodiversity, and home to endangered species such as the Okinawan woodpecker and Okinawan rail. Opposition to this plan finally led to it being discarded, and a new plan was drafted: this time the landing pads would be built around a small village of fewer than 150 people. However, this village is already surrounded by 15 other landing pads, and the people were opposed to more being built around them, because of the danger and noise problems that they pose. So they went to Henoko, and learned from the people of Henoko how to build a sit-in tent and carry out resistance activities. Again, unbelievably, the government sued 14 people for stopping the construction work from beginning (charges were later dropped against 12), and the case is now making its way through the court. In other words, instead of using civil law to protect citizens, the government is using civil law to prosecute them, and our local guide explained that this sets a very dangerous precedent around the nation, because if it gets established, people who protest against things the construction of nuclear power plants or big dam projects in their communitities can also be sued by the government.

What's worse, the villagers are being sued under the Hatoyama administration's government, which is an enormous betrayal for them (and for us!), because they had voted for him and his party after he promised to lighten the burden of the military bases on Okinawa. We asked them if they planned to countersue, but they said it's difficult because their numbers are so small, it's difficult to balance a livelihood and stay fully active at the same time, all expenses would have to come from their own pocket, and it takes them 3 hours just to get to Naha, where the district court is located. (So we want to hold a fundraiser for them this year!).

With heavy hearts, we left the Takae area and returned to the Henoko area just in time to participate in a peace candle night in front of Camp Schwab. Peace candle nights have been held in front of Camp Schwab every Saturday evening for the past 6 years, and were started by a base-protester who wanted to give young children and others who could not participate in physically risky resistance activities a way to get involved in the movement. The organizer explained that flames symbolized the soul, and that many souls have been lost because of the bases in Okinawa, given that they have been used to attack Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other areas. So he taught his three young children to hold the candles carefully, and to see them as souls that need caring and should be cherished. At this event, we held our US for OKINAWA banner on the sidewalk in front of the base, and waved to all the cars passing by, including those that were leaving the base carrying military members. A television cameraman was on hand and recorded us as we also made appeals such as "Base Free Okinawa!", "Save the Dugong, "Peace not War," "Americans for a base-free Okinawa," etc.

After participating in this action, we headed to the guesthouse we would be staying at that night--a haven next to the sea that was lovingly built by a longtime base resister named Mr. Teruya. He built it largely from recycled wood, and decorated it beautifully with driftwood and polished glass he had picked up from the coastline. In the garden area of the guesthouse, an underwater photographer set up a screen and gave us a slideshow presentation of all the rich, beautiful life that can be found in Oura Bay, as well as in the mangrove lined rivers feeding into Oura Bay. It's hard to believe that anyone could consider pouring dirt and concrete over such rich and rare biodiversity--and of course, those who are proposing to do so are far removed from it, in offices in Tokyo and Washington. After the presentation, Teruya-san prepared a delicious barbecue for us, and we cracked open some local Okinawan beer and spent the rest of the night talking, drinking, and celebrating Okinawa's baseball team victory at Koshien Stadium earlier that day.

Day 4 Morning:
On our final day, we headed to the Save the Dugong Center to meet with Takuma Higashionna, who has been working tirelessly to protect the dugong and other sea life in Oura Bay and to raise awareness of the issue inside and outside Japan. He told us about how U.S. and Japanese officials always shift the responsibility to one another when he presses them about protecting Oura's biodiversity from base construction. Japanese officials claim that the U.S. is ordering the construction in Henoko and that they have no choice to follow it, and U.S. officials claim it's Japan that insists on this site and wants the construction for its security--so much so, that they are even willing to pay for it. Higashionna-san led us to a beach across the bay from Camp Schwab, and told us how he and others have dived extensively in the bay in order to map out all its coral reefs and delicate points in order to gain a better understanding of how to conserve its ecosystem and vitality. He looked across the bay and pointed to Camp Schwab, noting where its barracks, ammunition storage area, and firing ranges are located, and said it was his dream for Japan and the U.S. to one day work together to covert the camp into a nature conservancy center for all to enjoy and learn from. He also invited us to dive with his members in the future, and we eagerly accepted that invitation (more on this to come!).

After this, we headed to Naha to catch our flights in the afternoon. We had a bit of time in the city, so we used it to record everyone's impression of the program and thoughts on the issues before heading off to munch on some Okinawan specialties, such as pig ears, taco rice, and salt cookie ice cream. After that, we dispersed to catch our flights, but with a strongly united feeling that we wanted to continue working together to share what we saw, learned and felt with others in order to not leave the people of Okinawa alone and unsupported. They are not the ones who created the enormous base problems that they have to face everyday, and they shouldn't be expected to try to undo them singlehandedly. Now, more than ever, it's time for U.S. citizens and mainland Japan citizens to get involved in the issue. As Dani Pierre said several times, citing a quote she once heard, "If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything." From this study program, we felt very keenly the need to stand up for justice, democracy, peace and environmental sustainability in Okinawa so that our entire world doesn't fall into greater darkness.

April 6th and 7th, we will hold meetings to discuss what we can do from here. In Okinawa, when we asked what we could do, everyone said the same: Please continue to tell people you know what is happening here in Okinawa, and please try to bring people here again to witness the conditions with their own eyes. We already have a number of ideas brewing about how we can help get the word out further, and we're already working with PangeaSeed to evelop a second study program to Okinawa in September. This second program will let people dive or snorkel in Oura Bay to experience its beautiful diversity and to see the dugong's habitat up close. It will also allow them the opportunity to participate in Save the Dugong Center's efforts to map the entire bay for conservation purposes.

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