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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Young Okinawan strives to teach high school students about US military base issues

Tokuji Seki

Nov. 29, 2017

With its white beaches and emerald waters, Okinawa Prefecture is the most popular destination for high school trips in Japan, with more than 300,000 students visiting annually.

Students usually take some time to learn about its history, including the Battle of Okinawa. But there's another dimension to the prefecture. It hosts about 70% of US military bases in Japan -- a burden that causes much debate among the local population.

One young Okinawan is trying to get teenagers more interested in this complex issue -- and he found that school trips are the perfect opportunity.

A group from Tokyo is heading to the beach to enjoy some of the best activities Okinawa can offer. But first, they're in for a completely different kind of experience. The students are taken to a place they may recognize from recent news reports -- the US Marine Corps Futenma Air Station.

While the local guide is explaining something, a loud noise interrupts her. It's a US Osprey transport aircraft flying overhead. "There are much bigger planes and transport aircraft flying in this area too," says the guide.

24-year-old Shun Kuninaka organizes the itinerary for the tour. His great-grandfather is among the names engraved in the Cornerstone of Peace, a monument dedicated to those who died in the war. He grew up hearing stories about the Battle of Okinawa. While studying at university, he served as a guide on tours of historical battlefields. It made him want to tell visitors more about the issues that present-day Okinawa faces.

Three years ago, while he was still a university student, Kuninaka started a company that organizes school trips to Okinawa. His tours try to raise young people's awareness about how the US bases affect life in the prefecture.

"It's not an issue for Okinawa alone, but something that affects the whole country. That's why I want more people to know about it. It's important to give students a chance to learn about the problem of US bases, and for them, this might be a once in a lifetime opportunity. That's why I think it's these school trips are necessary," says Kuninaka.

Kuninaka's tour includes a visit to a local museum. Students can see a scale model of Ginowan city, where the Futenma air station is located. It shows how the base dominates the city center. The guide asks students to imagine what it's like to live so close to the US base. A student answers, "If you're on this side, for example, I think it's hard to get to the other side of town." "That's a very good point. Fire stations are usually located along major roads. But as the Futenma air station is in the center of the city, there are 3 separate fire stations," the guide responds.

The tour finishes with a visit to a local university. The students take part in an activity session that shows them the range of opinions on the US base issue. They use an array of cards printed with alternative views on the topic. One says the US military presence is necessary for deterrence purposes. Another card offers the opinion of a local resident, who says the base was already there when they were born, so it feels normal.

Kuninaka first asks the students to pick a card with an opinion that's closest to their own. Many pick a card saying they do not know if the bases are good or bad as they don't live near one. Some choose a card saying that the bases are necessary to keep Japan safe.

"Which card would you pick if you were living near a base?" Kuninaka then asks. The students are then asked to pick a card from the viewpoint of a local resident. Most students choose this card. It says the bases are dangerous because of potential accidents.

"If a plane crashed into a residential area and caused many fatalities, I would think the bases were a problem," says a student. The students have discovered how differences of opinion make it hard to resolve the problem. But the experience has spurred their interest in the issue.

The students say, "It was a great opportunity to learn about the subject in more detail. I have found out more than I could have done on my own. I'm glad I came." "I only had a vague knowledge about the US bases in Okinawa. I used to feel it's the government's problem, but the discussions here made me realize that we need to think about it for ourselves too."

"If more people know about the issue, that will be a big step forward in itself. I hope there will be fewer people who think this is just something they can't do anything about and leave it at that," says Kuninaka. His tours are helping young Japanese understand some of the complex problems of this island -- by putting them in the shoes of Okinawans.