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Okinawa’s Revolt: Decades of Rape, Environmental Harm by U.S. Military Spur Residents to Rise Up

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Nearly 70 years ago the United States took over the Japanese island of Okinawa after one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. More than 200,000 people died, mostly Japanese civilians. Today the United States operates 34 bases on the island and is planning to build a new state-of-the-art Marine base, despite mass protests. A multi-decade movement of Okinawa residents has pushed for ousting U.S. forces off the island, citing environmental concerns and sexual assaults by U.S. soldiers on local residents. Broadcasting from Tokyo, we are joined by two guests: Kozue Akibayashi, a professor and activist in Japan with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the Women’s International Network Against Militarism; and John Junkerman, a documentary filmmaker currently working on a film about U.S. military bases in Okinawa.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are on the road in Japan, broadcasting from Tokyo for the second of three special broadcasts. Our visit to Japan comes less than a month after thousands of people rallied on the Japanese island of Okinawa to protest plans to build a new U.S. military base. Demonstrators surrounded a government building and staged a sit-in inside. The protests came after local officials agreed to a deal in mid-December that will relocate one of the existing U.S. bases from a densely populated urban area to a more remote location. But a decades-long movement of Okinawa residents has opposed the base altogether and pushed for ousting U.S. forces off the island, citing environmental concerns and sexual assaults by U.S. soldiers on local residents. One protester explained how the presence of the Okinawa base caused a major tragedy in his family.

HIROTOSHI IHA: [translated] I’ve never been able to accept any soldiers to be stationed here. One of the reasons goes back to 1954 or ’55, when I was in eighth or ninth grade. I had a five-year-old relative named Yumiko Nagayama. An American soldier kidnapped her in a jeep in broad daylight. He took her to a field in Kadena and stripped her naked, then raped her, murdered her and discarded her body.

AMY GOODMAN: The United States has been using Okinawa as a key military site since the bloody Battle of Okinawa in 1945, when more than 200,000 people were killed, most Japanese civilians. The U.S. now maintains 34 bases and 18,000 troops on Okinawa.

For more, we’re joined in our Toyko studio by two guests. We’re joined by Kozue Akibayashi, a professor and activist in Japan with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the International Women’s Network Against Militarism.

John Junkerman is a documentary filmmaker living in Tokyo, currently working on a film about the U.S. military bases in Okinawa. His past films include Japan’s Peace Constitution, also Hellfire: A Journey from Hiroshima, which was nominated for an Academy Award, and Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky in Our Times.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with you, Kozue. Explain the latest developments in the Okinawa U.S. military base.

KOZUE AKIBAYASHI: As you introduced, there was a—there has been a plan to relocate Futenma air station of the Marine Corps to a remote area of Henoko in Nago city, and people have protested for longer than 15 years by now. The latest development for us, to our surprise, is that the governor of Okinawa approved the reclamation of the area, the planned area of Henoko in the sea area, to build the new facility, like you said, a state-of-the-art Marine Corps facilities in this beautiful sea of Henoko.

AMY GOODMAN: Was that a change of position on the governor’s part?

KOZUE AKIBAYASHI: Yes and no. This is his second term. In his first term, he was clear that the relocation was necessary. In his second term, and he’s up—this is the end of his second term, of four-year term. The second term, he said the relocation, the new base, needs to be built outside Okinawa, because people protested so hard for so long, and he realized that it’s almost impossible. And that was the will expressed by the people of Okinawa for several years by now.

AMY GOODMAN: John Junkerman, if you could talk about the history of these U.S. bases in Okinawa? It’s something you’ve been following for decades. Go back to why these U.S. military bases are there, to begin with.

JOHN JUNKERMAN: I think it’s—you really have to see it in the long perspective. As you mentioned, the U.S. seized the island of Okinawa in 1945 after a battle that lasted for two-and-a-half months, in which over 200,000 people were killed. Literally, the entire island was drenched with blood.

AMY GOODMAN: The size of the island?

JOHN JUNKERMAN: The island is the size of Long Island. It’s a very small—


JOHN JUNKERMAN: New York’s Long Island. It’s a small island. And the U.S. seized that, and in the course—in the weeks after that, months after that, dropped two bombs on Japan, and the war ended. But the U.S.—

AMY GOODMAN: The atomic bombs.

JOHN JUNKERMAN: The atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The war ended, but the U.S. retained its bases in Okinawa, at first not actively, just—it was a place where they could station large numbers of troops to maintain peace in Japan during the American occupation. But then, very soon after that, the Korean War started, and when the Korean War started, the U.S. engaged in a massive base-building campaign on Okinawa, which they had free rein of. The occupation of Japan itself ended in 1952, but the occupation of Okinawa continued for 20 years after that, in which the U.S. had full control of the islands and the bases on those islands. The island of Okinawa is very strategically located, so you can—from Okinawa, you can send bombing missions to Korea and to Vietnam and to China. And, in fact, the U.S. did use the Air Force base on Okinawa, the Kadena Air Force Base, as a base to bomb in Korea and also in North Vietnam.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, then, using it for Vietnam, was their opposition expressed at that time, and how did that go forward?

JOHN JUNKERMAN: Sure. And the thing about Okinawa—that’s why it’s important to see it in this long perspective—is that having so many civilians killed in that short period of time during World War II, the people of Okinawa have a very deep-seated antipathy toward military, toward the military and toward war. And they’re a very deeply pacifist people. They’ve tolerated the U.S. military presence out of—you know, out of—because they had no choice for many, many years, but it rankled them, and it went against their own spirits and their own conscience to be involved in U.S. wars in Asia. They didn’t like that, and there was very strong opposition during those years.

Then Okinawa mounted a campaign to be returned to Japan, in the hope that because Japan has a peace constitution, they would be returned to Japan, and the bases would be removed. They would become like the rest of Japan, where the peace constitution was in effect. Japan—Okinawa did revert to Japan in 1972, but the bases remained. They were not removed whatsoever. In fact, the percentage of bases in the country of Japan, the representative U.S. bases on Okinawa has increased since that time. So there’s a concentration of—almost 75 percent of the American presence in Japan is concentrated on this island that constitutes 0.6 percent of the landmass of Japan.

AMY GOODMAN: Kozue Akibayashi, explain what happened in the 1990s with the rape scandal that led to intensification of the opposition to U.S. bases.

KOZUE AKIBAYASHI: The 1995 rape, the world—very widely reported rape, and it’s often cited as a trigger of the island-wide protest. I do hesitate to characterize the incident that way, because women’s movement with whom I have been working with for 15, 17 years by now, they first—they were the ones who first raised their voice in public to call for more attention to the history, long history, of sexual violence. The 1995 rape is not the only one. It was—because of the courage of the young victim, it was reported to the police, and it was reported in Okinawa, and the people knew about that. And that, in fact, led the wide rage among Okinawan people that enough is enough, because they had had enough sexual violence cases, but other violence cases against people in Okinawa by the soldiers.

AMY GOODMAN: Why was 1995 such a key trigger, given, as you said, that this was certainly not the only rape?

KOZUE AKIBAYASHI: I think people that—

AMY GOODMAN: The girl in this case was 12 years old?

KOZUE AKIBAYASHI: Yes, yes. And she said—she reported—because our criminal justice system required the victims to report to the case to be open, and she reported that, and she said she didn’t want any more victims like her, so I reported it. And so, that attracted more public support for protection of the women and children, who are more damaged and sacrificed, almost, because of the—because keeping the U.S. military on their island, and the reason is for security. They always get this reason: “Well, because of the security of the region, security of Japan, we need to have U.S. military bases.” But what about our security, that the very presence of the U.S. military make their lives insecure? And I think in 1995—in 1995, they realized that having—hosting U.S. military bases is actually the source of their insecurity of their lives.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what happened to the particular soldiers involved in that particular rape?

KOZUE AKIBAYASHI: They were apprehended in Japan and tried in Japanese court, which is very rare. And they served for two-and-a-half—almost two-and-a-half years in the Japanese—in the Japanese system.

AMY GOODMAN: And the base was ultimately closed as a result of the outcry?

KOZUE AKIBAYASHI: No, no. That was the announcement made about half a year later in 1996 by the two governments, prime minister of Japan and the U.S. president: The Futenma air base will be closed within five to seven years. But there was a condition—there were conditions that a replacement facility needs to be built.

AMY GOODMAN: NHK reported that the new rape case was the seventh to result in the arrest of American servicemen since the United States returned to Okinawa in 1972.

KOZUE AKIBAYASHI: Seven? To that case, some of—we, women’s groups on mainland Japan and in Okinawa, protested or questioned. There are more cases, many more cases, unreported and reported, both of them—hundreds.

JOHN JUNKERMAN: That was an egregiously mistaken report. It was a—in fact, since 1972, there have been over 120 cases—


JOHN JUNKERMAN: —of rape reported. It may be that there are only seven American soldiers tried in Japanese courts, but the number of cases themselves is much more, much more widespread.

AMY GOODMAN: This just came out this week: The U.S. Army reportedly conducted field experiments of biological weapons which could harm rice cropping in Okinawa in the early 1960s, according to the Kyoto News agency, citing U.S. military documents that it had obtained. Do you know about this, John Junkerman?

JOHN JUNKERMAN: Yes, yeah. The U.S. also stored chemical and biological weapons on Okinawa, and there were cases where leaks from these barrels of biological weapons leaked into the water sources. There’s been a great deal of environmental damage done to Okinawa. Just recently, within the last year, they were digging to build a soccer field, and they dug up some 20 or 30 barrels of—you know, rusted-out barrels that had traces of dioxin in them. So…

AMY GOODMAN: John Junkerman, why is Okinawa so important to the U.S., and also, if you can talk about China in this regard?

JOHN JUNKERMAN: Well, as I mentioned, its strategic location is very important, and it’s also very close to the Senkaku Islands, where China and Japan have come to head, loggerheads, over competing claims to that territory, which is now controlled by the Japanese, but the Chinese and the Taiwanese also claim that territory. So, this has been a—it’s a very small, very, very unimportant piece of property, uninhabitable islands, very small islands, but it’s been used as an excuse for maintaining U.S. troops in Japan.

The other thing about—that makes Okinawa appealing to the Americans is that the Japanese government covers nearly 100 percent of the costs of maintaining those bases in Japan—pays for the utilities, it pays all of the workers who live on the—who work on those bases, it pays for the cooks who cook the food, it pays for the golf courses and the swimming pools, maintains everything. So the U.S. burden to have those bases there is very, very slim. There’s hardly any financial burden whatsoever. So, they get a free ride. It’s the best situation for U.S. bases in any country in the entire world.

AMY GOODMAN: How does this fit into—Okinawa fit into the U.S.-Japanese increasing military cooperation agreements?

JOHN JUNKERMAN: A lot of that cooperation is happening right there in Okinawa, and it’s happening in the waters around Okinawa and near the disputed territory there. So…

AMY GOODMAN: So how do you have a situation where most of the population in Okinawa is opposed to this base, but—and the governor ran on a platform against this base—


AMY GOODMAN: —but now has changed, though the mayor in the area is still opposed?

JOHN JUNKERMAN: The mayor is opposed. There’s an election. He’s running for re-election. The election is next Sunday. It’s a very important election. If he wins—he’s very strongly opposed to the base. If he wins, then roadblocks will be put in building those bases there. Many people—it’s an untenable situation. Many people say that despite Japanese pledges, despite the U.S. being very stubbornly committed to building this new base on Okinawa, it will never get built. It can’t be built, because 85 percent of the people on Okinawa don’t want it to be built. The reason they don’t want it is because they’ve tolerated bases for a long time. 1995 was a watershed in a sense, partly; it was 50 years since the war. So they’ve already tolerated that for 50 years. Another 20 years have passed. If they build a new base, and a very large base, that base is going to be there for another 70 years. And this is what the Okinawans won’t tolerate.

AMY GOODMAN: Kozue Akibayashi, what is ultimately the plan of the activist groups, of which you are a part, at this point, with the announcement that they’re moving forward?

KOZUE AKIBAYASHI: Our ultimate goal is to remove all bases from Okinawa. And we’ve been building network with the other what is called host communities of U.S. military in the area, in the Asia Pacific, because we realize that it’s important to know their situation, because when there have been plan to relocate Marines to—Marines in Okinawa to Guam, for example, that would be great burden for them on their small island. We did not want these—giving troops around on small islands. Our—particularly International Network Against—International Women’s Network Against Militarism is to close down all the bases, convert them to more civilian, more beneficial to local people’s use, and demilitarize the security system. As John explained, the geopolitical importance of Okinawa is within this security framework of the military security. And we are looking for a better diplomatic relationship with, cooperation with other neighboring countries. And military might is not a solution. And military might has been sustained at the expense of people like Okinawa. Those, many people in Okinawa oppose, but within all Japan, their political power is very small. And military bases are in other parts, as well. Those were built in less politically powerful areas. Their voices are not heard in the central government, and we question that political system, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, John Junkerman, the government of Prime Minister Abe, the most conservative government since World War II, how does the U.S. determine governments in Japan? And particularly, how does Article 9 of the Constitution, which the U.S. pushed forward after World War II, that Japan should not have its own army, fit into the struggle in Okinawa?

JOHN JUNKERMAN: Japan is a democracy, so the United States doesn’t in any way, shape or form determine the governments of Japan, but the U.S. has a very strong influence on government policy. And the structural relationship is one of dependence, and it’s been built and maintained that way throughout the post-war period. A piece of this is the U.S.-Japan security agreement, which allows Japan—the United States to base military in Japan and keep Japan under the nuclear umbrella and the defense umbrella of the United States. And it also keeps Japan identified with the militarist policies of the United States, so Japan’s posture to Asia is inevitably aligned with the American policy. So, rather than finding ways to—of peaceful coexistence with its neighbors, very close neighbors, very heavily armed neighbors, and finding ways to live in peaceful coexistence, it aligns itself with the United States and containment of China and, you know, basically a military-based confrontation with Asia. And Japan can’t—has not found a way to extricate itself from that relationship and from that posture.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to talk about Article 9 more in our next segment, the article within the Japanese Constitution that says Japan cannot have its own army, with the founder of Peace Boat. I want to thank you both for being with us. Kozue Akibayashi is a professor and activist with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the International Women’s Network Against Militarism here in Japan. And John Junkerman, documentary filmmaker living here in Tokyo, currently working on a film about U.S. military bases in Okinawa. His past films have included Japan’s Peace Constitution, Hellfire: A Journey from Hiroshima, which was nominated for an Academy Award, and Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky in Our Times. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We’ll be back in a minute.

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