Okinawa’s Elders Rage Against the Marines

The US military finds a surprising adversary on a small, strategic island in the East China Sea.

Published April 12, 2016
Part of our Battle for the Coastline series

Colored ribbons flutter on a high chain-link fence. Tied there by bespectacled grandfathers and grandmothers, the yellow, pink, blue, and red bits of cloth cling to the web of metal that surrounds the military base. These elders—scores of them—are the disarming faces of what is perhaps the most spirited resistance movement to challenge the United States’ military presence in the Asia-Pacific region. They represent the people of Okinawa, Japan.

Okinawa is the largest landmass in a remote archipelago of 160 islands, 49 of them inhabited, a region of Japan that is valuable to the United States as one of the most geographically strategic spots in Asia. It’s a small outpost in the politically volatile East China Sea. Okinawa hosts 32 US military bases, nearly 75 percent of all American bases in Japan, yet the island accounts for less than one percent of Japanese territory. And the people who live here feel overburdened by the outsized presence of a world superpower. They’re fed up with the pollution, toxic contamination, noise, crime, and decades of traffic accidents and aircraft crashes.

The people—the ribbon-tying elders—have drawn a line in the sand at one particular military base on Okinawa, a place called Cape Henoko. Perched on the island’s northeastern shore, this point of land symbolizes the past, a time when the island was an independent kingdom known as a place of peace—a country of courtesy.


Colored tape and ribbons are used to make words and images calling for peace at Cape Henoko, Okinawa. Photo by Jon Letman

For at least 500 years prior to annexation by Japan in the 1870s, the island archipelago was the proud Ryukyu Kingdom, a nation that kept the peace through a tricky but sound strategy: trade, diplomacy, and by paying tribute to first the rulers of China and later Japan as well. The islands, around 1,500 kilometers southwest of Tokyo, are closer to Shanghai than Japan’s capital. Situated at the watery crossroads of eastern Asia, the Ryukyu Kingdom’s reputation relied on its geographic position and political maneuverings that allowed traders to amicably—if covertly—link Chinese and Japanese markets. Straddling two superpowers through commerce worked for centuries until Japan, jittery over European expansion and focused on its own drive to adopt a Western-style industrialized state in the late 1800s, seized the kingdom and, in the process, subsumed Ryukyu’s independence and language, though not necessarily its identity. At least not fully.

Today, Okinawans are determined to purge the military presence and reclaim their culture and their land.


Cape Henoko juts into the sea like an arrow pointing at a target. It’s one of the countless zigs and zags that form the coast along a thin, unevenly contoured island. The US military base located here, Camp Schwab, was established in 1959.

Camp Schwab is at the center of Okinawan protests against military bases. Why this base? The Japanese and American governments want to expand the camp to replace a military base currently sitting in the middle of a crowded city, some 50 kilometers south. The proposed expansion includes the construction of an artificial peninsula by dumping 21 million cubic meters of sand and soil—eight times the volume of the Great Pyramid of Giza—into neighboring Oura Bay.

The protesters worry about the typical grievances against military bases, but in this case there is the added distress of what the expansion would do to the bay. Oura Bay is deep; its seafloor rises and falls in a series of hills and valleys, providing a rich and varied habitat that supports creatures found only here. In the 21st century, this bay remains largely undisturbed—a remnant of the old Okinawa, a symbol of times past.

The protestors’ resistance is constant: they began demonstrating at Henoko in 2004, and since 2014, they’ve been manning one site 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. To win a battle, even a peaceful one, is a relentless task. And they know that. They are familiar with war.

The Second World War fuels much of the antipathy toward the military presence today. Many of the elders at Camp Schwab were young children during the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, a fight so brutal it’s known as the Typhoon of Steel. This long, drawn-out fight was intended to give mainland Japan time to prepare for its final battle. The horrific losses—estimated at a quarter to a third of the population—drove deeper into the island’s collective psyche the Okinawan credo nuchi du takara (life is a treasure), a reflection of Okinawans reverence for all living creatures.


Many of the protesters who demonstrate at Henoko were young children during the bloody Battle of Okinawa in 1945. They want their island to be demilitarized. Photo by Jon Letman

The depth of public discontent with the military is apparent when I meet 72-year-old Yoshikazu Makishi, a prominent local architect and outspoken anti-base activist. Compact and spry, with a thick crown of pepper-gray hair and a trimmed goatee, Makishi picks me up at Okinawa’s main airport in Naha, the political center of Okinawa Prefecture, one of Japan’s 47 prefectures (administrative centers). Our conversation starts off a bit awkwardly; I’m simultaneously tired from the flight from my home in Hawai‘i and quickly brushing up on my Japanese as we drive along narrow, winding roads. But before too long, our conversation smooths out. The architect takes me to two peace museums and an art museum he designed, all the while speaking passionately about reclaiming Okinawa.

It’s mid-afternoon by the time Makishi leads me to a park in the city of Ginowan, where we climb a hill to a curious Earth-shaped observation deck. High on a ridge, we gaze into the distance at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, the base the US military plans to close and relocate to Cape Henoko. From where we stand, I see a densely packed jumble of houses and apartment buildings—blue, gray, and terra cotta rooftops—surrounding the base, and a sprawling field of green bisected by a concrete runway dotted with aircraft.

“This is an airfield the Americans just decided to build by themselves without our permission and so I think it’s only natural that they return it to Okinawa,” Makishi says as he points toward the vast expanse of concrete tarmac. He really means the land, as in returning it to an undeveloped state. If—“when” he insists—Futenma closes, Makishi would like to see it transformed into what he calls “a place of production,” crops for example, rather than another “place of consumption,” such as a shopping mall. Given the degree to which the land has been altered by decades as a military air station, however, it’s difficult for me to envision fields of food.

Like most Okinawans I meet, Makishi opposes military bases. In 2014, Okinawans elected their current governor by an overwhelming majority based on his anti-Henoko expansion platform.

Worries about the incompatibility of military bases scattered among civilian communities are not new. The idea of the Henoko expansion dates back to the mid-1960s, but plans rapidly accelerated in the wake of widespread outrage following the 1995 gang rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl by three US servicemen. Vowing to “reduce the burden” of so many US bases, Tokyo and Washington pushed for plans to close the Futenma base and relocate operations to Henoko. Japanese business interests that stood to gain from the project, such as the steel and gravel industries, also supported the relocation. In 2004, closing Futenma took on even greater urgency when a US military helicopter crashed on the campus of Okinawa International University, which lies in crowded Ginowan.

To critics like Makishi, moving the Futenma base operations to the more sparsely populated Cape Henoko solves nothing. The Henoko expansion, they say, simply shifts the problems to another part of the island, leaving behind a vast tract of degraded land and an abandoned base only to befoul a new site in the north.


At 8 a.m., the day after my tour with Makishi, I’m shaking hands with US Marines’ public affairs officer First Lieutenant Luke Kuper at the front gate of Camp Foster in Ginowan. He offers a tone of informality: “You can call me Luke.” But during our four hours together, he answers my questions with staccato phrasing that sounds official and military. The US national anthem plays loudly from outdoor speakers (followed by Japan’s anthem), so we stand at attention before heading to Kuper’s office for a PowerPoint presentation he’s prepared for me.

During our morning together, the marine, dressed in a khaki camouflage uniform and cap, overwhelms me with military acronyms: III MEF, MCIPAC, MEU, OCAT—the meaning of which I can’t remember. But when he tells me his favorite acronym is TFOA (Things Falling Off Aircraft), it sticks. He describes one TFOA—a water bottle that fell out of an Osprey during takeoff, but was never found.

Kuper is a young man—a new father, impeccably polite—and has been on Okinawa fewer than three years. He loves it here, he says. Kuper is amiable and good at his job; he emphasizes the role of the marines as a humanitarian force rather than as warriors, and focuses on their aid and disaster relief efforts after recent earthquakes in Nepal and typhoons in the Philippines and Taiwan. His descriptions are peppered with words like “interoperability,” “contingencies,” and “building capacity.”

What about all the protesters currently battling the Henoko expansion? Kuper dismisses them as a “vocal minority of mostly elderly Okinawans,” and says the military presence is supported by the majority of Okinawans.


Osprey aircraft sit on the tarmac at the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the city of Ginowan. The United States plans to close the base and relocate operations to Cape Henoko, which is already home to a base. Photo by Hitoshi Maeshiro/epa/Corbis

Some of the local supporters frequently help clean up fences outside US bases, removing protest signs and messages spelled out using colored masking tape. Military aircraft enthusiasts (one group is called the Okinawa Osprey Fan Club) also support the military presence and gather near an air force base to photograph fighter jets like groupies clamoring to get a shot of their favorite celebrity. Businesses catering to military clientele and construction contractors who enjoy lucrative deals—fence companies must make a killing here—say the US military presence is an important part of the economy and essential to countering the militaries of China and North Korea.

The Henoko expansion would flex US military muscle: the plan is for 1,800-meter V-shaped dual runways, fuel and ammunition depots, and possibly a pier long enough to dock the USS Bonhomme Richard, an assault ship that stretches the length of roughly two football fields.

A militarized Okinawa, the oft-repeated narrative goes, is vital to “the common defense of Japan” and stability in the region. The US Pacific Command has made the ambitious plan of overseeing an “area of responsibility” that covers half the globe, a process that began after the Second World War. In the words of top military brass, their responsibility spans “from Hollywood to Bollywood … from polar bears to penguins.” It’s a monumental task that would likely be impossible without controlling strategic Okinawa.


Illustration by Mark Garrison

The United States’ desire to control the vast Asia-Pacific goes back to at least 1853, when Commodore Matthew C. Perry landed on Okinawa and, convinced of its strategic location between China and Japan, encouraged (unsuccessfully) Congress to annex the islands.

In 1900, when Theodore Roosevelt, before becoming president, said, “I wish to see the United States the dominant power on the shores of the Pacific Ocean,” his words foretold of President Barack Obama’s Asia-Pacific pivot policy announced in 2011.

From a strategic military standpoint, it’s unsurprising that Japan and the United States have stationed almost half of all American forces here. But many Okinawans feel that makes their islands a potential flashpoint and target if there is ever a regional war. Most Okinawans believe that with their historical, cultural, and economic ties to China and other neighbors, a demilitarized Okinawa—a modern Ryukyu—makes more sense and could become a northeast Asian hub for trade, international cooperation, and tourism: today’s answer to grassroots diplomacy.


It takes just over an hour to drive from the crowded south near Futenma to Camp Schwab, where protesters demonstrate at two encampments made of open-sided tarp-and-frame tents.

Approaching the older of two encampments, I pass by a handmade sign reading, “Sit-in protest day 4,069.” At more than 11 years protesting at this seaside site, clearly the demonstrators are in it for the long haul. The iron will of the protesters is belied by the demeanor of the first one I meet, Hiroyuki Tanaka. A slender and bookish-looking fellow in his mid-40s, Tanaka doesn’t look like someone who is taking on the US Marines. He speaks softly, but with a sense of urgency, about how the Henoko expansion could impact the unofficial mascot of Oura Bay: the dugong. Only 10 of the animals are reportedly left in Okinawa.

Dugongs look like manatees, but with pointed tail flukes and flared muzzles. They gather here for the seagrass, their preferred food, itself rare in developed coastal zones. Tanaka, who wears a white button-up shirt emblazoned with a red dugong motif, explains how the animals depend on the bay, and because they’re sensitive to noise, the base will likely drive them away.


Security guards inside Camp Schwab warn a demonstrator who uses yellow tape to write a protest message on the fence. Photo by Jon Letman

A short walk from the camp, the tall chain-link fence slices across the beach to the water’s edge. Attached to the chain-links are hand-painted signs that say, “Give us back our land,” and, “We are angry,” posted next to a large sign warning not to deface the fence. Slogans such as “PEACE” and “NO BASE” are written in black tape, accompanying the colored ribbons. All of the materials are effective since they’re difficult to remove, but the ribbons also signify more; for one demonstrator red is a sign of protest and black of mourning. She also tells me her friend ties on ribbons made from material made in Vietnam because it was the only country to defeat the United States.

I spend the next two days talking with protesters of every stripe: a city councillor, a factory worker, journalists, retirees, and a young man who has relocated from near Kobe on the Japanese mainland to document the daily protests in real time on social media.

One longtime protester, 69-year-old Hiroshi Ashitomi, likens the situation to a volcano about to erupt, saying that the clash over the Henoko expansion could affect all bases on Okinawa. Another activist, 74-year-old retired science teacher Yoshiyasu Iha, tells me, “We have to win this battle. If we don’t—if we lose—that’s the end of Okinawa.”

Early one morning, I head to the main gate where dozens of protesters attempt to stop construction vehicles from entering or exiting by sitting down, locking arms, and refusing to budge. Squads of Okinawan and Japanese riot police grab protesters and haul them away in a tense confrontation.


Demonstrators gather in front of Camp Schwab’s main gate to block construction vehicles carrying supplies for a planned US Marine air base on Oura Bay. Photo by Jon Letman

A few hours later, I drive to meet another protestor at a small harbor on the north side of Oura Bay, where a demonstration led by motorboats and kayaks regularly defies the restricted zone around the planned construction site. Okinawan photographer and diver Osamu Makishi greets me. Sporting a silver ponytail and surfer shades, his cool looks match his persona. For more than a decade, 65-year-old Makishi has been protesting on the water, an activity that has ramped up since large orange buoys were strung across the water in 2014 to restrict access to the area slated for land reclamation. We climb into his boat, a small fishing vessel, bobbing in the water next to the dock.

Cutting across the glassy waters of Oura Bay, we head straight for the buoys that form the exclusion barrier enforced by the Japanese coast guard. Here, protesters in boats face off several times a week with coast guard officials who take photographs and shout orders through megaphones.


Okinawan diver and photographer Osamu Makishi leads a flotilla of protest boats and kayaks at Henoko, where demonstrators fear a planned military base will destroy Oura Bay’s biodiversity. Photo by Jon Letman

But rather than frighten the waterborne protesters, the guards in speedy Zodiacs seem to energize them. In a protest boat similar to the one I’m in, activists taunt the coast guard with a large inflatable horse. It’s a silly toy, something you’d see at a kid’s pool party, and its absurdity is an attempt to distract and mock the serious, black-clad coast guard.

After facing off on either side of the barrier for close to an hour, the most nimble of the boat protestors, the close to 20 kayakers, make their move: they slide out of their kayaks, pushing them over the barrier and ducking under the buoys before quickly climbing back in. They paddle in a frenzied dash toward the drill platforms that are positioned to conduct pre-construction seafloor surveys. The coast guard vessels zoom in on the kayaks and block them. The guards, in roughly the same number as the kayakers, haul the protesters onto their Zodiacs and take them back to shore. Whether on land or at sea, all of the activists have the same goal: to demonstrate opposition to the new base and do whatever they can to slow or impede work.


A protester pulls her kayak over a floating barrier as part of an attempt to obstruct construction of a new US military base on Oura Bay, home to rich marine biodiversity. Photo by Jon Letman

With the kayakers gone and a lull in activity, Makishi reverses his boat away from the barrier and we buzz across Oura Bay, a coast guard speedboat shadowing us. Makishi cuts the engine and we stop for a few minutes to examine massive concrete blocks that were placed on the seafloor in anticipation of the artificial peninsula.

A little farther to the south, we approach three craggy islets and Makishi slows the boat to a crawl, allowing me to admire the vegetation covering the rocky formations—stocky pandanus trees with thick prop roots, bright green Scaevola bushes, and prehistoric-looking cycads that give the islets a rugged, ancient feel. Above us, black-naped terns circle in white streaks.


A Japanese coast guard officer patrols the exclusion zone on Oura Bay. Confrontations with protest kayaks occur several times a week. Photo by Jon Letman

I strain to catch Makishi’s words because the coast guard boat—never far from us— repeatedly blares loud warnings not to enter the exclusion zone. We are just outside the barrier, which extends several kilometers. From this spot, we can see Camp Schwab in the distance: demolished buildings and piles of rubble, the site is almost ready for new construction.

It’s nearly noon and the blistering sun beats down. Back at the harbor, my meeting with Makishi ends abruptly as he must hurry to check on one of the kayakers who was injured during the morning’s protest.

After the visit to Camp Schwab, I have another stop to make about a half-hour drive away on Okinawa’s west coast. Another critic of the military bases, Susumu Inamine, is the mayor of the city of Nago, which includes Henoko. Inamine tells me closing Futenma should be a starting point for dealing with the larger issue of US bases. He criticizes the reaction of American politicians who shirk responsibility by arguing the Henoko expansion is an “internal dispute” between Tokyo and Okinawa. And he’s particularly incensed at the overwhelming burden Okinawa—the poorest region in Japan with the least political clout—has borne for 70 years. “You can’t call this fair, can you?” the mayor asks. “It’s closer to being discrimination.”


On the drive back to the south of the island, back toward Futenma and the other bases, I pass glittering blue bays and sun-bleached beaches covered in a mosaic of smooth white shells and pieces of coral. It’s easy to see why most of Japan views Okinawa as a far-off but accessible tropical getaway, much like Hawai‘i is to continental Americans. The majority of mainland Japanese are, for the most part, sheltered from the impact a large foreign military presence has on a small island.

But there is another voice to the issue and one I’d like to hear before leaving Okinawa: the people in the middle of this debate who don’t make the big decisions. Stopping in a beachside neighborhood frequented by military personnel and their families, I wander side streets until I find a strip of a half-dozen bars and restaurants that cater to the military.


Protest kayaks paddle toward a spud barge inside an exclusion barrier on Oura Bay, where the United States and Japan want to build a new military base. Photo by Jon Letman 

Entering a bar called the Pour House, I’m instantly transported back to the United States—gangsta rap videos flash from the screens around the bar, young marines drink bottles of Coors and Budweiser as they throw darts and stare at the TV. Taking a stool at the bar, I strike up a conversation with an older marine who tells me he’s a specialist in amphibious reconnaissance.

We talk for several hours. He tells me about his multiple tours of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the rigors of jungle training in northern Okinawa. He tells me about his love of skydiving and a desire to retire in Vietnam someday. He knows I am a journalist there to cover the anti-base movement, but at this moment we’re just two American guys talking story over a few beers.

When I finally ask him about the protesters calling for the US military to leave, he takes a pull of beer and says, “I get it. I get it.” He recognizes why so many Okinawans don’t want their islands occupied by a foreign military. But, he reminds me, “We have four big threats in the world—North Korea, China, Russia, and Iran.”

It’s this idea that we live in a dangerous world—echoed in the endless run-up to the American presidential election—and that certain steps must be taken to keep us safe that helps maintain a permanently militarized Okinawa. The US military argues it has defense obligations to live up to and the Japanese government remains a willing partner. Many Japanese, and some Okinawans, fear what could happen to the region without American military might.

On the other side of the argument, however, are a growing number of Okinawans who are tragically familiar with not only the cost of war, but the ongoing cost of peace—if you can call it that. Seventy years after the end of the Second World War, Okinawans and their allies in Japan and beyond demand a different future. In word and deed, they’re asserting their own identity and their own rights—the right to live in peace, unburdened by endless military occupation, and the right to protect their land, their sky, and their seas. Their right to learn from their own past as they steer forward to their own future. It’s something they won’t give up without one hell of a fight.

Read the rest of the Battle for the Coastline.