A U.S. base on Okinawa island has long protected Japan — despite recurring protests by residents upset over crime, crowding and environmental damage.
(Photographs by Carley Lanich)
By Carley Lanich
Under an early morning sun, four men wearing bulky wetsuits, bandanas and sunglasses set out on the water in yellow and orange kayaks. About a dozen others, split between two small fishing boats, follow closely behind.
Nearing a line of bobbing orange buoys, the activists raise signs marked with colorful Japanese characters. They toe the line set by the buoys, meant to separate public and military waters, and shout across the bay.
“Please don’t destroy our precious sea!”
This scene plays out every Wednesday on Oura Bay. Aging Okinawans surround the U.S. Marine Corps’ Camp Schwab on land and water to protest the offshore construction of two military airstrips — a project activists fear will destroy the diverse marine life in the bay.
“I see it in their eyes,” protester Tomiko Suzuki says of Japanese defense officers assigned to protect the construction project. “They know in their hearts it’s wrong.”
Anti-base activists like Suzuki have increasingly embraced such environmental protests as a part of their latest efforts to block further military presence on Okinawa.
“There’s no place in the country with an environment like Oura Bay.”
At first glance, the area surrounding Oura Bay is serene. Leafy trees and mountainous terrain around the village of Henoko open up to the bay, where local biologists say more than 4,000 species live.
Diver Shin Nishihira has spent 15 years studying the bay. He said its combination of shallow water, sea grass and mangrove currents make it the ideal environment for rare fish, shrimp and blue coral unseen on other parts of the island.
“There’s no place in the whole country with an environment like Oura Bay,” he said.
Henoko became a focus of anti-U.S. protests two decades ago when the Americans, under pressure to reduce military presence on Okinawa, agreed to close the unpopular Marine Air Corps Station Futenma, roughly 30 miles away.
The agreement, however, required the Japanese to build the Marines airstrips on Oura Bay to take over Futenma’s functions.
Environmental concerns are at the center of the conflict.
The United States has maintained a steady presence on the island since the World War Two defeat of Japan in 1945. Today, Okinawa, about 1,000 miles south of Tokyo, hosts 25,000 troops on more than a dozen bases.
Okinawans have long protested the heavy military presence, blaming the troops for crime and crowding. Pollution at the bases has been a grievance, and fresh construction at Oura Bay has put environmental concerns at the center of the conflict.
Okinawans’ opposition stalled construction for years. The latest turning point came in 2016 when Japanese courts overturned the Okinawa governor’s revocation of landfill permits, leading to full-fledged resumption of construction.
Crews are now pouring hundreds of 15-ton concrete blocks into the bay to create a perimeter for the two airstrips that will extend outward from Camp Schwab’s shore. Crews will then landfill the rest of the designated area to build the 2,500-meter-long airstrips.
To ease local fears, a Japanese defense bureau conducted environmental surveys before construction, but activist Chieko Matsui said these surveys fail to fully appreciate the bay’s rich marine life.
“The Japanese assessment is just a joke,” Matsui said.
“They ate them all.”
Nishihira said human forces have played an unforeseen role in disrupting the natural water circulations that make Oura Bay habitable for its many unusual species.
One such species, the dugong, is said to be endangered and has become the object of many local protests. However, with no more than four confirmed dugong sightings in the last eight years, U.S. officials often make light of activists’ “Save the Dugong” campaigns, citing Okinawans’ hunting of the rare mammal throughout history.
“They ate them all,” quipped Uriel Hill, an anti-terrorism expert at Camp Schwab.
Hill said he’s often confronted by the activists. Protesters regularly block Camp Schwab’s two gates, preventing military vehicles from entering and leaving the camp.
It’s Hill’s job to make sure construction goes as planned at Camp Schwab, where even simple projects, like new Marine barracks, are already running two years behind.
Hill and other U.S. officials defend their presence in Japan. They highlight Okinawa’s strategic location, which allows greater access to nearby China and North Korea, as well as quick humanitarian response to disasters like the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown.
A point of pride
Col. Peter Lee, a commanding officer at Futenma, said building the new airstrips at the secluded Oura Bay makes sense.
Here, on water, it would be impossible for homes and businesses to expand up to the military fences as has happened at Futenma.
If the United States must retain an active presence on Okinawa, Lee and others argue, it’s best they move operations away from the people.
Before the construction, Oura Bay’s tranquility was a point of pride for activists like Suzuki.
Through the week, an occasional visitor might walk the bay’s sandy shores, collecting shells and dried coral. Others might take a glass-bottom boat tour, exploring a closer view of the bay’s cavernous blue coral reefs.
The thought of military aircraft flying so near disrupts the locals’ vision of Oura Bay. So they vow to return with their protests.
“It is not useful to only think about it,” Suzuki said. “I need to do something.”
Carley Lanich (@carleylanich) is a senior at Indiana University studying journalism, political science and international studies, and editor-in-chief of the Indiana Daily Student newspaper. She also gives tours and meets prospective students as an IU Media School ambassador.