HENOKO, Japan — Neither snow nor cancer nor the threat of another arrest keeps Hiroji Yamashiro from protesting against the planned expansion of a U.S. Marine Corps base on the Japanese island of Okinawa.
Every day, he arranges anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred protesters in rows outside the gate of Camp Schwab, a base in the rural northern area of Henoko where runways are being built out into the sea.
Under Yamashiro’s direction, about 30 people assembled before dawn on a recent day — Day 576 of the protest — were outnumbered 2 or 3 to 1 by police officers from Okinawa and Tokyo as they tried to stop the construction trucks from entering the base to start their workday.
“Victory is within our grasp. Don’t resist,” Yamashiro said into his microphone, wrapped in plastic against the rain, as one protester after another was carried away, some still in their camp chairs.
“Protect the people! Control illegal construction! Control illegal land reclamation!” one shouted as he was carted off.
Yamashiro, a gregarious 63-year-old Okinawan, is the public face of this island’s resistance to what many residents see as an ongoing American occupation, more than seven decades after the end of World War II. He and his fellow protesters are a thorn in the Japanese government’s side — and, by extension, in the United States’ side, too.
The postwar U.S. occupation of Japan officially ended in 1952, but it continued in Okinawa, the island prefecture about halfway between the Japanese mainland and Taiwan, for 20 more years. Today, there are 33 U.S. military facilities and about 28,000 U.S. military personnel here.
The most contentious facility is the Marine Corps air station at Futenma, a complex about twice the size of Reagan National Airport on an elevated patch of prime real estate in the most developed part of an island about the same size as Los Angeles.
Two decades ago, the United States and Japanese governments agreed to replace Futenma with a new facility in the much-less-
populated area of Henoko.
But the relocation project didn’t start until mid-2014, and with it came renewed protest. Okinawans contend that they shoulder too much of the burden of Japan’s security alliance with the United States, saying they account for 1 percent of Japanese territory but host 73 percent of the bases. The U.S. military disputes the latter figure, saying that only 39 percent of its “exclusive use facilities” are on Okinawa.
Okinawans like Yamashiro want Futenma moved out of their prefecture entirely, rather than to the Henoko area. The plan calls for two long runways to be built out into Henoko Bay, which local residents say would destroy coral and kill off the dugong, an endangered manatee-like sea mammal.
At the end of 2014, Okinawa elected a new governor, Takeshi Onaga, who promised to block the construction at Henoko, and Tokyo and Okinawa have been locked since then in a string of administrative and court battles. Onaga has used his authority to overturn the permit allowing the central government to reclaim land for the runways and has prohibited earth-moving on prefectural land.
But the central government, which cut its annual subsidy to Okinawa by 5 percent after Onaga’s election, is using the courts to push ahead with construction, obtaining orders to override the revocation measure and allow construction to proceed.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe scored a victory last month when he backed Atsushi Sakima’s reelection as mayor of Ginowan, the city around the Futenma base. Sakima supports Futenma’s closure — but has avoided taking a stand on Henoko — and there is talk of opening a Disney or Universal Studios resort on the land once it is returned.
A top aide to Abe said Sakima’s election showed “it’s obvious” that not everyone in Okinawa is against the base’s relocation to Henoko.
But here at the protest site, the sentiment is universal.
“The reason why everybody comes here is because everybody is worried that we will become involved if there is another war in this region,” Yamashiro said in one of the protest tents opposite Camp Schwab.
Protesters have built a long encampment at the site , with fake flowers in bamboo vases and lettuces planted along the curb. Signs and banners scream “No base” and “Marines out.”
Only a handful of people come to protest every day, like Yamashiro, but many come once a week. On occasion, as many as 1,000 attend. Protesters even showed up last month when subtropical Okinawa experienced its first snow in 50 years.
Most of the protesters are senior citizens, and a few can even remember the Battle of Okinawa, the bloody episode near the end of World War II during which a quarter of the island’s population was killed at the hands of both U.S. and Japanese troops. On weekends and public holidays, younger locals and families attend.
“The people who are protesting are the children of the people who experienced the war,” said Yamashiro, who grew up in central Okinawa listening to the gruesome stories told by his father, who was a soldier in the Japanese Imperial Army and spent two years as a prisoner of war in Hawaii.
Yamashiro has been arrested twice since construction at Henoko began in earnest in mid-2014, and he had to take five months off last year while he was treated for lymphoma. But he was soon back at the encampment.
“I’m angry with the Japanese government and the American government for trying to use Okinawa for war-related causes rather than using it for the Okinawan people,” he said. “I want Okinawa to be freed of this and to become a peaceful island.”
The shadow of war indeed hangs over daily life on Okinawa. Driving through residential and shopping districts in the island’s crowded center, it’s normal to pass huge military vehicles being driven by helmeted U.S. Marines.
Meanwhile, the roar of jets from Kadena Air Base in the skies above is constant and deafening. In addition to the usual deployments, Okinawa has seen an influx of U.S. jet fighters and stealth bombers since North Korea conducted a nuclear test last month.
The long-range rocket North Korea launched Sunday passed over Okinawa.
The central government appears to think it can outlast the protesters, said Douglas Lummis, an American political scientist who has lived in Okinawa for 16 years and regularly visits the protest site.
“When Governor Onaga said last year that he wouldn’t be able to cancel the [reclamation] permit until July , it made me angry because I thought the protest would fade out,” Lummis said. “I was completely wrong. It’s getting larger and stronger.”
Indeed, Yamashiro vows to continue, even as the central government pushes ahead. “The government in Tokyo has been trying to make us give up for a long time,” he said. “But we’ve been pushed around for 70 years, and we’re not going to take it anymore.”
Yuki Oda contributed to this report.