Between several dozen and several hundred Japanese people have been gathering at the gates to Camp Schwab, a U.S. Marine Corps base on the southern island of Okinawa, every day for 18 months to protest the expansion of the base into an air station. The project involves two runways being built on reclaimed land out into Henoko Bay, a pristine area that is home to the dugong, an endangered manatee-like mammal. Almost all Okinawans want the current Marine air station further south on the the island at Futenma to be shut down. But there is fierce opposition to relocating it elsewhere on the small, crowded island.
Here are some of the voices from the protest:
Fumiko Shimabukuro, 86, a survivor of the Battle of Okinawa who hid in caves with her mother and younger brother during the war.
“I come here almost every day, unless I’m sick. I’m a survivor of the war and I experienced all the hardships of war, and I never want to see this island turned into a sea of blood again. I saw a baby decapitated by shrapnel. I drank water from a pond at night only to discover in the morning that there were bodies floating in it. I would feel guilty if I didn’t put all of my energy into fighting this base. Okinawans have been treated like second-class citizens, like we are disposable, for too long.”
Misaki, 16, and Hanano, 11, with their mother Akane Inada. They had come from Kanagawa, near Tokyo, to join the protest.
Misaki: I’m still young so they advise me to stay on this side [away from the gate], but I want to join them over the other side. I want to stop the construction because the dugong is endangered and this bay is famous for its seafood.
Hanano: I think the government side is being unfair because people have been saying that they don’t want the base but no one is listening. I write a letter to President Obama every day. I’ve written 90 letters so far.
Akane: This problem is a problem for all of Japan, but the bases are concentrated on this tiny island. We mainlanders feel responsible that we are putting the burden on Okinawa, so I have come here to express my solidarity and encourage everyone to act together.
Hiroshi Ashitomi, 69, one of the longest-serving protesters
“There are two reasons I’m protesting. One: we inherited this beautiful environment and we want to take care of it, make good use of it, and hand it on to our children. And two: There are too many U.S. military bases in Okinawa. Even though the American occupation has ended, we still feel like we’re being occupied. I want American citizens to understand how the Okinawan people are feeling.”
Etsuko Urashima, a 68-year-old Okinawa resident who writes war history books
“I live in this area so I've been involved in this protest since 1997. I’m opposed to the new base because we rely on the natural environment to live. If that is destroyed, we won’t be able to live here. Not just us, but our children and grandchildren. And I am afraid that if the base is built, we will become embroiled in a war.”
Keiichi Yamauchi, a 66-year-old retired junior high school gym teacher from Okinawa who attends the protest once a week.
“We are being bullied by the government and our voices don’t get reflected in Japanese government policies. They offer all sorts of facilities but we can’t be bought so easily. We have this history of being humiliated and the government tries to make it up to by paying us. Don’t make fun of us, that’s what Mr. Onaga told the government. This is also our strong feeling and we won’t give up.”
Tomoyuki Kobashigawa, a 73-year-old retiree who travels an hour every day from his home in central Okinawa to the protest site.
“I think singing songs is a way to protest in a non-violent way. I believe in the power of song to convey our message. I used to be a grade school teacher and my students used to tell me not to sing, that my singing was too embarrassing. But two years ago I started singing here. We will secure our future with our own hands. Now is the time to stand up.”
Noboru Takeno, a retired high school teacher from Shizuoka, near Tokyo, who comes to the protest four times a year.
“It’s important what mainlanders think about this issue. We don’t want them to destroy our beautiful ocean, the treasure that Okinawa people have. That’s something that even mainlanders don’t want. We believe that the way the government is handling this is wrong. This is a democratic country so if Okinawan people don't want it, their view should be reflected in the policy. How come they don’t listen to Okinawa people? It’s unfair.“
Tomoki Sugaya, a company worker who came from Tokyo to protest with his two wife, Sachoko, and their children, seven-year-old Saneyuki and seven-month old Yukino
“I participated in the protests in Tokyo but I feel you can’t understand this base problem without coming here. We want to do to everything that we can to stop this. We don’t need a base for war. And it’s very unfair on Okinawa.”