On Okinawa, celebrating a tradition of protest

Signs adorned the barbed-wire fence leading to Camp Schwab Saturday, the 10-year anniversary of the start of a sit-in protest seeking to block the expansion of the base. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)
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Signs adorned the barbed-wire fence leading to Camp Schwab Saturday, the 10-year anniversary of the start of a sit-in protest seeking to block the expansion of the base. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

On Okinawa, celebrating a tradition of protest

by: Matthew M. Burke and Chiyomi Sumida | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: April 23, 2014

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — It seems as though a lifetime has passed since Takekiyo Toguchi and his wife, Chikako, began protesting the move of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Camp Schwab in Okinawa’s north.

It began shortly after the isolated Marine Corps base was named a candidate site for a new military runway that would replace Futenma air operations in 1996.

At the time, Takekiyo was in his early 40s; Chikako, her mid-30s.

In the time that has passed, they have counted the years by shouting slogans, collecting signatures and sitting in at the Henoko fishing port to protest construction of the V-shaped airfield that will one day extend into Oura Bay, located on the coast just north of Henoko. They also raised three children in nearby Sedake.

The protests have taken on a sense of urgency as of late after Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima approved landfill permits for the airfield in December. The protesters say the bay is home to a diverse marine ecosystem.

The Toguchis joined approximately 300 other protesters from all across Japan on Saturday as they commemorated the 10-year anniversary of the first sit-in, with a flotilla of boats and kayaks that passed the base at sea holding signs, chanting and playing anti-war music from the 1960’s. Their 16-year-old son, Takeryu, 16, was by their side.

“We decided at the time that we would to do everything we could to protect the sea and the rich natural environment for our son because this is the place where he will grow up and possibly live all his life,” Takekiyo, now 57, said while the protesters faced the sea, chanting, fists raised in the air. “The idea to build a new military airfield comes from those who have never seen the ocean here. We are not demanding to close the existing base (Camp Schwab). We are asking not to add new military facilities.”

The Council Against Off-shore Military Base sit-in was started by a group of local elders in 2004. The protest featured 70-80 people per day in the early days but waned to about 25 in recent years, according to organizers. However, after Nakaima approved the landfill work, it has grown back to 50 people per day and shows no signs of slowing.

There is a new generation, like Takeryu, whose early lives have been defined by the small but substantial movement. There were countless days when he wanted to play with friends or watch television, but his parents brought him to protest events instead.

“When I was younger, I was sometimes reluctant to join a rally with my parents,” he said. “I am proud of them and now I feel a responsibility to protect the natural environment here because this is where I was born and where I will be.”

He said his friends now understand and support him the more the issue becomes public.

“People here, like our parents, have continued their nonviolent struggles for the past 17 years to stop the runway construction,” he said. “People on the other side of the fence are not our target at all. The individual servicemembers are human beings just like us. Where we stand separates us. What causes this is the power, power that attempts to build a military base. We are fighting against this power.”

The protest movement in Japan has latched on to various issues over the years, from attempting to block the deployment of the MV-22 Osprey to closing MCAS Futenma, both because of safety concerns, and also blocking the move of Futenma air operations to the remote Schwab, owing to environmental concerns. The citizenry has also been very vocal in criticizing misbehavior perpetrated by U.S. servicemembers, which has led to strict curfews and alcohol consumption restrictions.

The protesters said that all of these concerns are rooted in a desire to see a smaller U.S. presence on the island.

“Seeing troops having been deployed to Iraq from Camp Schwab made me realize that military bases are connected to war,” said protest organizer Takako Shinohara, 50, as she presided over the protest tent that overlooks the waters where the new runway is planned. “We will never give up because we know that it is the only way to win the fight.”

Shinohara said at the protest activities have spread over the years to the mainland, from Hokkaido to Kyushu, including those who stage regular rallies in front of the national Diet in Tokyo, Osaka, Niigata and Saitama prefectures.

Marine Corps officials said they value their relationships with members of the community but expect Japanese law-enforcement officials to uphold the law and not allow protesters to go too far.

“Our most valuable relationships are with our community neighbors — we consistently do our utmost to keep our community safe, and we will continue to do so as the Marine Corps operates and conducts routine training in Okinawa,” Marine Corps officials said in a statement. “While we support individual freedom of speech and peaceful public assembly, we look to the Government of Japan law enforcement officials to take necessary measures should anyone interfere with installation access or violate the laws of Japan.”

As little children played in the sand next to Schwab’s fence topped with barbed wire, Takeryu vowed to carry the protest torch for the next generation.

“I hope our fight is over soon so that I don’t have to take after [my parents], but if I have to, I will follow their footsteps and continue to fight,” he said. “When I grow up, I will certainly tell this to my kids.”