Asia
3:44 am
Tue October 2, 2012

Okinawans Protest Deployment Of U.S. Osprey

Originally published on Wed October 3, 2012 5:21 pm

A new deployment of U.S. military aircraft to Okinawa has sparked protests and reignited residents' long-simmering resentment of America's military presence there. Opponents say the vertical takeoff Osprey has a poor safety record and poses a danger to inhabitants of the densely populated Japanese island.

U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma is surrounded by the city of Ginowan. At Futenma No. 2 Elementary School, 200 yards outside the base, the roar of rotor blades can be so deafening that classes can't be held without keeping heavily reinforced windows shut.

People here call Futenma "the world's most dangerous base," and they consider the Osprey a risk because of accidents in training flights overseas.

The school's principal, Kazuhisa Kawamura, worries constantly about an accident.

"The aircraft fly right over our school every day," he says. "It's frightening."

In fact, one of the helicopters did crash nearby in 2004.

America's Contested Presence On Okinawa

Protesters blocked an entrance to Futenma this week as anti-base sentiment boiled over. Masaaki Tomichi, 39, said residents have had enough.

"The helicopters flying around above my head, kids' heads, it's just crazy," Tomichi said.

Washington, D.C., and Tokyo agreed years ago to move the Marine base farther north. But islanders, chafing at the burden of hosting 74 percent of U.S. military facilities in Japan, have blocked the plan, which remains in limbo.

The U.S. military was once a vital source of jobs and revenue but now accounts for only 5 percent of the Okinawan economy, far exceeded by tourism. Surveys this year by local newspapers found Okinawans favor downsizing or eliminating American bases by a margin of nearly 9 to 1.

'Forced Deployment' Symbolic Of The Past

The past as much as the future animates this anti-base movement. One-third of the island's population, along with 12,000 American soldiers, died during the bloody Battle of Okinawa in 1945.

In one of the most notorious episodes, the Imperial Army conscripted about 200 schoolgirls as nurses — and then, when defeat was imminent, abandoned them to their fate. Nearly all of the so-called Himeyuri nurses perished.

Okinawans feel they're still being sacrificed for the military, says anti-base activist and scholar Kosozu Abe.

"Without Okinawa's history," Abe says, "our opposition to the Osprey wouldn't have materialized. This forced deployment is symbolic of what we have experienced in the past."

A number of American politicians and scholars argue that the U.S. could save billions of dollars and better meet its strategic objectives by moving most of the Marines back to the mainland U.S. The troops could be "surged" into Okinawa at times of crisis.

But, with tensions rising over territorial issues in the Asia Pacific, that scenario seems unlikely.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The loud whir of helicopters has stirred up long simmering resentments by residents of Okinawa. That's the Japanese island that's been dominated by American military bases since the end of World War II. This time, the anger was set off by deployment of the Osprey hybrid aircraft. Lucy Craft reports.

LUCY CRAFT, BYLINE: Imagine the population of Rhode Island crammed into a space only half as large. Now, take away another 20 percent of real estate, including some of the choicest property for military use. Such is the predicament of Okinawa's nearly one million residents.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER PASSING BY)

CRAFT: The roar of rotor blades can be so deafening at Futenma Number 2 elementary school, classes can't be held without keeping heavily reinforced windows shut.

The school sits just 200 yards from the Futenma Marine Air Station. Surrounded by the densely populated city of Ginowan, Futenma has been dubbed, here, the world's most dangerous base. School principal Kazuhisa Kawamura worries constantly about an accident.

KAZUHISA KAWAMURA: (Through translator) The aircraft fly right over our school, every day. It's frightening.

CRAFT: In fact, one of those helicopters did crash nearby, in 2004.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Foreign language spoken)

CRAFT: Protesters blocked an entrance to the Futenma base, as anti-base sentiment boiled over with the deployment, this week, of the Osprey hybrid aircraft. After accidents in training flights overseas, the Osprey is considered dangerous here. One of the protesters, 39-year-old Masaaki Tomichi, says residents have had enough.

MASAAKI TOMICHI: The helicopters, you know, flying around above my head, my kids' head, my family's head, you know, that's just, you know, crazy.

CRAFT: Washington and Tokyo agreed years ago to move the marine base further north, but islanders, chafing at the burden of hosting 74 percent of U.S. military facilities in Japan, have blocked the plan which remains in limbo. Once a vital source of jobs and revenue, the U.S. military now accounts for only five percent of the Okinawan economy, far exceeded by tourism.

Surveys this year by local newspapers found Okinawans favor downsizing or eliminating the U.S. bases by a margin of nearly nine to one. The past, as much as the future, animates the anti-base movement here. One-third of the island's population, along with 12,000 American soldiers, died during the bloody Battle of Okinawa, in 1945.

(SOUNDBITE OF GIRLS CRYING)

CRAFT: In one of the most notorious episodes, dramatized in this Japanese movie, the Imperial Army conscripted about 200 school girls as nurses and then, when defeat was imminent, abandoned them to their fate. Nearly all of the so-called Himeyuri nurses perished.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

CRAFT: Okinawans feel they're still being sacrificed for the military, says anti-base activist and scholar Kosozu Abe.

KOSOZU ABE: (Through translator) Without Okinawa's history, our opposition to the Osprey wouldn't have materialized. This forced deployment is symbolic of what we have experienced in the past.

CRAFT: A number of American politicians and scholars argue that the U.S. could save billions of dollars, and better meet its strategic objectives, by moving most of the Marines back to the mainland U.S. The troops could be surged into Okinawa at times of crisis. But that seems unlikely, with tensions rising over territorial issues in the Asia-Pacific.

For NPR News, this is Lucy Craft in Tokyo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.