Home > NEWSROOM TOKYO > Feature Reports > Straining Under the Burden

Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



Mon.-Fri.  20:00 - 20:40 (JST)

Straining Under the Burden

Jun. 20, 2016

On Sunday, people in Okinawa held a protest against US bases that was the largest in the past 2 decades.

Japan's southern prefecture of Okinawa hosts more than 70 percent of US military facilities in the country.

The protest followed the rape and murder of a young local woman, allegedly by a former US Marine who works at one of the bases.

Organizers say 65,000 participants took part in the rally, including the prefecture's governor and many prefectural assembly members.

But members of the governing coalition, the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito did not participate.

Thousands Protest US Bases in Okinawa
Yoichiro Tateiwa

Tens of thousands of people gathered for the rally. It began with a moment of silence for 20-year-old Japanese woman.

She was attacked and killed last month, and the suspect is a former US Marine who works at a local base.

The rally was reminiscent of another one in 1995, after a schoolgirl was raped by 3 US servicemen. People took to the streets in anger and protest against heavy US military presence in Okinawa, and the atmosphere on Sunday was similar.

People young and old sat under the blazing sun to show their determination, not just against the recent murder but incidents of drunk driving, noise pollution and the dangers of having some of these bases so close to where they live.

"This kind of thing is happening again and again. So I came here to register my protest," said one of the demonstrators.

"I think we and the government need to say no to US bases," said another.

One college student was brought to tears as she spoke to the crowd, saying she identifies with the murdered woman.

"The woman that was killed was around my age. This could happen to me or one of my friends," Ai Tamaki said. "We hope our government and people on Japan's mainland will recognize our situation. How long do we have to put up with them treating us like this?"

The governor of Okinawa, Takeshi Onaga, called the rally a symbol of unity of the prefecture.

"The government should understand that people's anger is reaching the boiling point. And they won't accept any more of a burden from hosting US forces," Onaga said in his speech. "We have to unite as one to convey the message, starting from today."

Politicians of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito decided not to participate, calling the gathering too politicized. A national election is scheduled for next month.

Protesters adopted a resolution calling for all Marines Corps stationed in Okinawa to leave.

And there is another hot button issue linked to that -- Futenma Air Station. Right now it is located in a densely populated city. The Japanese government wants to relocate it to a coastal area within the prefecture.

But the protesters want it out altogether, so all of these issues are being heard at this rally.

People on the island say they will keep raising their voices, especially ahead of the national election.

Uncovering the Emotions of Okinawan People
Aki Shibuya

What do people in Okinawa think about the situation there?

It's well known that US military bases in Japan are concentrated in Okinawa. But it's only when you visit the area that you see how much they dominate the urban landscape.

A local resident in Okinawa has been studying women's history there to get a sense of the anger the local people feel toward the US military. Shigeko Urasaki, 69, has been researching the relationship between women and the military bases.

Among the material she has collected is a chronological list of cases in which Japanese women were sexually assaulted or raped by US servicemen in the prefecture. In 1946, there were more than 400 such incidents.

"Many of the cases of assaults and rapes were barely reported in Japanese mainland media," Urasaki said.

But she pointed out something perhaps unexpected.

"We, as people of Okinawa, don't hate Americans. There's no way we hate them. They're close friends," Urasaki said.

She said they’re protesting against the presence of the US military, not the American people. To grasp their complex emotions, I went to Sunday's mass demonstration with Urasaki.

"Our anger is indescribable," one of the demonstrators said.

There were people of all ages at the demonstration.

I asked some of them how they feel about Americans.

"I don't have anti-US feelings," an older male protester said.

"I think we don't need the US bases here, but I don't dislike Americans,” said a woman at the rally.

According to a survey of residents of Okinawa Prefecture, more than 50 percent of the people there have negative feelings about the US military bases ― far more than those who have positive feelings.

But when they were asked if they feel close to the US, almost 60 percent of the respondents said yes.

Urasaki visited a housing complex where US military personnel live with their families, to explain how local people developed positive feelings toward Americans.

"Until the 1960s or early '70s, people in Okinawa used to be hired to work inside US bases. They were employed as gardeners, housemaids, seamstresses and office clerks. I worked as a babysitter in a base one day. I was very curious to see the inside of the base," Urasaki said.

After World War II, many women worked in the US bases. They were exposed to the American way of thinking. The relaxed interaction between American men and women was something unthinkable in Japan at that time.

"We learned how Americans live their everyday lives, such as how men treat women kindly. Americans would go out in couples, when they were invited, for example. We were able to see how American men would escort their partners. That seemed really nice. We got a glimpse of American culture," Urasaki said.

Marriages between Americans and Japanese are not uncommon in Okinawa. Urasaki herself has American relatives.

Without a doubt, the women of Okinawa have suffered most at the hands of the US military ― but women also know the positive side of American culture more than anyone else in Japan.

For quite a few years, US military personnel hadn’t committed any notable crimes. But Urasaki explains that when there is an incident, the people of Okinawa are consumed by fear, and it reminds them of past traumas and incidents.

"I guess that mothers of American soldiers would never tell their sons to kill as many people as possible on the battlefield," Urasaki said. "I hope that the mothers and sisters will tell their sons and brothers that when they're based abroad, they should never harm local people, but respect them instead."

Mixed Feelings of Okinawa Youth
Jihae Hwang

Ryugo Nakamura is a 20-year-old who goes to university in Tokyo. He's from Okinawa. Through his film, he wants to send messages to let people know about Okinawa.

The film is about a young person from Tokyo who wasn't familiar with Okinawa.

Nakamura decided to make the film when he came to Tokyo and found out many didn't know about Okinawa's history. He was shocked that many of his fellow students didn't know that June 23 was the Memorial Day for the victims of the fierce battle at the time of the World War2.

"I was shocked to learn that the day of prayers for peace in Okinawa apparently is just another ordinary day in Tokyo. I felt a big gap between us and the people of Tokyo," Nakamura says. "As a person who was raised in Okinawa, I have a mission to tell people here what I have seen in the prefecture over the past 18 years."

While making the film, there was an incident that caused further angst. An American worker at a US base was arrested on suspicion of killing a young Japanese woman.

A tweet became a topic of discussion among Nakamura's film crew. It was a photo of more than 100 US military personnel and their families holding up a sign saying "We pray for Okinawans" and bowing in apology.

"We are working to get along with US soldiers. Why was there a crime like this now? I feel betrayed," Nakamura says.

"When you meet people individually, it seems every American is a good person. Some people have been victimized due to the presence of US bases.

But I cannot imagine Okinawa without US bases," Nakamura says.

He grew up near a US base. His grandfather, who experienced World War Two in Okinawa, was against the presence of US bases. But his mother says she can't deny the fact that the base has been a benefit to local businesses.

"I think there are both positive and negative aspects in hosting US bases, and I have a hard time deciding whether I am for or against the bases," Nakamura says.

On Sunday, an event was held in Tokyo to think about the history of Okinawa and the current situation. About 60 junior and high school students from across Japan and several college students from Okinawa joined the event.

Nakamura took part in a discussion on how young Okinawans view the current situation and what they're struggling with. He answered questions from students in Tokyo.

"I heard a lot of people are against US bases, but I wonder how the people in Okinawa really feel," one female student says.

"It was part of my everyday life to play with US soldiers, because I was born and grew up near the bases. But of course in Okinawa, various crimes and accidents, including drunk driving, have happened. Also a protest against the bases was held today. I can understand both points of view," Nakamura says.

"By talking with Nakamura today, I got to know more about the social issues on a personal level. By talking directly with a person from Okinawa, I got a better sense of what is going on there," one male student says.

"I want young people from outside of Okinawa to know about how we struggle to get answers. It's not a black and white issue to us. I hope these events are one step toward people thinking about Okinawa as their own issue. That way, we might be able to come up with new ideas by thinking together," Nakamura says.

He says he would like to keep speaking out through these events about how young Okinawans feel and think about the issues.

Wrap-Up by NHK World Anchor Sho Beppu

People have diverse opinions and feelings about the US military bases in Japan.

Some say the bases are vital for national security. Some say the US military presence can increase the risk of Japan getting drawn into conflicts. And, some say both are true.

But, no one can disagree with the fact that there is a huge concentration of US military bases in Okinawa. No other prefecture in Japan hosts such a large number of facilities.

That's why the people in Okinawa should be heard. At the end of the day, they are the ones who are most affected by this issue in this country.