Last week Thursday, May 28, the governor of Okinawa, Takeshi Onaga, met with Hawaii’s Okinawan community at the Hawaii Okinawan Center, about his perspectives on some of the important issues facing Okinawa today. In particular, he addressed ancestral islands, history, culture and economics, as well as the fight to preserve the pristine coral reefs and endangered sea life of the Henoko coastal district of Nago, northern Okinawa Island. Both Japan and the U.S. are pushing for a military port to be built there to replace the current facility at Futenma, also on Okinawa’s main island.
Okinawan municipal and prefectural officials have also come out strongly against the construction and/or expansion of additional bases. In February of 2015, Onaga said he is considering using his powers to order a suspension of the Japanse Defense Ministry’s preparations for construction of the new base. “I will use every means to fulfill my campaign pledge,” Onaga said during a news conference, referring to his commitment during the gubernatorial election to block the U.S. base’s construction.
According to Onaga, Okinawa looks to Hawaii for support, not just because the two archipelagos share a similar history of militarism and colonialism, but also because Hawaii is home to one of the most active Okinawa populations outside of Okinawa. There are more than 40,000 Okinawan-Americans living in Hawaii today. Onaga was the first Okinawan governor to ask for an audience with Hawaii’s Okinawan community.
Onaga also met with Hawaii Governor David Ige, on May 29, but their conversation appears to have been relegated to “strengthening ties” between the two sister states. Ige’s only statement on the meeting reads:
“I had the honor of meeting with Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga this morning as we mark 30 years since Okinawa and Hawaii became sister states,” said Ige. “...Our partnership with Okinawa is among the most fruitful and active in the islands thanks to the many Okinawan cultural associations that aim to perpetuate the Okinawan culture in our state and foster cultural exchanges between Okinawa and Hawaii.”
After World War II ended, the United States military began an occupation of Okinawa and the rest of the islands in the archipelago group. In 1972, the islands were returned to Japan, with promises of a return of lands seized by the U.S. military from local farmers and citizens. However, U.S. military bases remained and, today, 75 percent of U.S. bases in Japan are still in Okinawa. The island chain only represents 1 percent of Japan’s total land mass.
It’s fair to say Okinawans have suffered as a result of the U.S. military presence, beginning before the war even ended. On August 22, 1944, at between 10:00 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. local time, the USS Bowfin attacked a Japanese ship convoy in which the Tsushima Maru was sailing and sank her, close to the island of Akusekijima. Tsushima-muru Commemoration Association Survey Data (as of August 27, 2005), reported a total of 1,661 civilian evacuees, including 834 schoolchildren (of which 775 were killed and approximately 59 survived the sinking). Shortly after the sinking a “Gag Order” was enforced and families and survivors rarely spoke about the incident.
On June 30, 1959 in the Uruma area of then U.S.-occupied Okinawa, a United States Air Force North American F-100 Super Sabre on a training or test flight from nearby Kadena Air Base suffered an engine fire. The aircraft crashed into Miyamori Elementary School and surrounding houses, killing 11 students and six other people in the neighborhood and injuring 210 others, including 156 students at the school. The pilot, Captain John G. Schmitt, Jr. from Chalmers, Indiana, 34 years old, ejected and was unhurt.
In 2014, dozens of rusting barrels unearthed on former U.S. military land in Okinawa City were identified as containing chemical precursors to defoliant Agent Orange, a toxic compound used widely in the Vietnam War-era and blamed for poisoning that has resulted in birth defects and other health problems. The 61 barrels contained three signature components of Agent Orange: the herbicides 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D, and the highly toxic TCDD dioxin, according to two independent teams of experts representing Okinawa City and the Okinawa Defense Bureau respectively. About half of the 61 barrels bore markings of the Dow Chemical Company, one of the largest manufacturers of Agent Orange for the U.S. military.
“The usage of Agent Orange and military defoliants in Okinawa is one of the best kept secrets of the Cold War,” said Jon Mitchell, a Tokyo-based journalist at a symposium several months after the barrels were uncovered. Mitchell had been covering the story since 2011, and has published a book in Japanese exposing this history and its subsequent cover-up. Mitchell explained that the Pentagon’s top support base for the war in Vietnam was Okinawa, through which all manner of supplies aimed at buttressing the war effort flowed, including – according to the former U.S. servicepersons that he interviewed – thousands of barrels of the chemical defoliants that were utilized in the attempt to deprive enemy soldiers of cover in the Vietnamese jungles. The Pentagon has denied Agent Orange was present on Okinawa, despite testimony from more than 250 U.S. veterans who say they were sickened by the defoliant on the island during the Vietnam War.
In 2012, two U.S. sailors were arrested on suspicion of raping a 20-year-old Okinawan woman. They were both convicted in 2013. In 2008, the then secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, was forced to apologize during an official visit to Tokyo following the arrest of a US marine for the alleged rape of a 14-year-old girl in Okinawa. On September 4, 1995, three U.S. servicemen rented a van and kidnapped a 12-year-old Okinawan girl. They beat her, duct-taped her eyes and mouth shut, bound her hands and raped her. The outrage over the attack caused the largest anti-American demonstrations in Okinawa since the U.S.–Japan Status of Forces Agreement was signed in 1960 (the treaty that guaranteed extraterritoriality to service members).
These are only three of the most visible incidents of rape and sexual assault of Okinawan women and girls by U.S. servicemen. Scandals involving rape, vehicular homicide, and other violent crimes perpetrated by U.S. service members against Japanese civilians have been commonplace. Between 1954 and 2000, over 200,000 violent crimes involving U.S. troops were recorded on Japanese soil, according to proceedings carried out by the Japanese House of Representatives on July 1, 2005. Under the terms of extraterritoriality, however, every single service member was excused from conviction on Japanese soil and was legally cleared to be tried in U.S. tribunals, much to the indignation of the Japanese people. It wasn’t until the 1995 rape case that this policy was changed.
From 1945 until the end of the U.S. occupation of the islands in 1972, the Japanese and U.S. military disposed of an estimated 5,500 tons of unexploded ordinances (UXOs) in Okinawa. Over 30,000 UXO disposal operations have been conducted on Okinawa by the Japanese military since 1972, and it is estimated it could take close to a century to dispose of the remaining UXOs on the islands.
The U.S. military presence accounts for roughly 5 percent of the Okinawan economy. Despite this, approximately 80 percent of the Okinawan people appear to oppose the expansion of U.S. military bases in Okinawa.