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US bases' presence angers Okinawans

By JIANG XUEQING in Tokyo | China Daily Global | Updated: 2023-08-29 09:41

People rally in protest over US bases in Japan in front of the gate to the US Marine Corps Camp Schwab in the city of Nago. KYODO NEWS/GETTY IMAGES

The problems of environmental pollution and noises associated with the US military bases in Okinawa Prefecture, alongside crimes committed by US servicemen, have sparked protests and kept anti-base sentiment strong.

About 70 percent of Okinawan residents think the concentration of US military bases in the prefecture is "unfair", and 72 percent said the intra-prefecture relocation of US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma "will not reduce Okinawa's burden of hosting bases", according to the results of a public opinion poll released earlier this year.

Hiroyuki Kumamoto, a sociology professor at Meisei University, said people are being forced to accept the unfairness, as the Japanese government proceeds with landfill work for the relocation of the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan to the Henoko district of Nago, both in Okinawa Prefecture, despite a prefectural referendum showing Okinawan people's opposition of the relocation, The Mainichi Shimbun, a major newspaper in Japan, reported.

Their opposition and complaints could be expressed by Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki during his planned visit to Geneva.

Tamaki announced on Aug 15 that he is considering visiting Geneva as early as September to attend the 54th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council and deliver a speech. He told reporters he wants to go to the UN to convey Okinawa Prefecture's position on the US military base issues firmly on the international stage.

"About 70.3 percent of the facilities for the exclusive use of the US forces in Japan are concentrated in Okinawa, resulting in various impacts on the lives of prefectural residents, including aircraft noise, environmental pollution such as water and soil contamination, aircraft accidents, and incidents involving US military personnel and civilian employees," Tamaki said earlier this year.

"Therefore, Okinawa Prefecture strongly continues to demand solutions to base issues, including further reduction and reorganization of US military bases in Okinawa, fundamental revisions to the Status of Forces Agreement between Japan and the US, prompt removal and closure of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, and the abandonment of the construction of the Henoko new base."

He urged both the Japanese and the US governments to reconsider the air station relocation plan, referring to the possibility of dispersing units to locations outside Okinawa or Japan, by taking into consideration the will of the Okinawan people as well as the ever-changing international situation.

The existence of the vast US military facilities in Okinawa has adversely affected the lives of local people and the natural environment in various ways.

Noise issues

In the vicinity of Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, the number of occurrences of aircraft noise reached 102,193 in the first half of this year, marking a 12.3 percent increase from the same period last year, according to preliminary prefectural reports.

Tamaki appealed to the Japanese government to take the issue seriously, pointing out that various agreements aimed at reducing noise and suspending nighttime flight training have not been upheld.

Water contamination has also grown into a serious health and environmental concern in Okinawa.

The concentration of harmful organic fluorine compounds known as PFAS in rivers and springs around US military bases exceeded Japan's national interim guideline value at 30 out of 44 locations under examination, according to the results of an investigation released by the environmental preservation division of the prefectural government in July.

The highest concentration was observed at a location near Kadena Air Base, 36 times higher than the interim guideline.

Local authorities detected high levels of PFAS in rivers running through and near Kadena Air Base as early as 2016. It later emerged through internal US documents that accidental leaks of fire extinguishing agents containing PFAS at the air base may be linked to the contamination in the water system, polluting the drinking water of 450,000 residents.

Residents of Okinawa have strongly opposed US military bases. On May 13, thousands of protesters gathered near Kadena Air Base to call for the closure of US military bases in the prefecture, with the hope of getting back their peaceful life.

"Okinawans have persistently contested the unfair burden of hosting the majority of American military bases, and the slew of hazards and criminality that come with it. While most policymakers and pundits from Washington and Tokyo justify this in terms of 'national' and 'regional' security, many Okinawans see this as an issue of unfair burden, human rights, welfare, and persistent subjugation from Tokyo," said Carmina Yu Untalan, a research fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies based in Leiden, the Netherlands, in an opinion piece published on the open-access website E-International Relations.

As Tokyo ups the ante of Japan's defensive capabilities amid growing tensions in the region, Okinawans are again catapulted into the frontline position, reminiscent of their experience during the Battle of Okinawa and the Cold War, she said.

The Japanese government's approval of three national security documents in December that highlighted the need to bolster defense capabilities in Okinawa has instilled significant anxiety among prefectural residents, Tamaki said. He called for peaceful diplomacy and dialogue to ease regional tensions.

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