According to local media, hundreds of people gathered next to the US Marines' Camp Schwab in the Henoko district, where the base will be relocated to, in early hours of Friday to express their protests against the land reclamation which is seen as a threat to the ecosystem, as well as against overall US military presence in Okinawa. While most protesters marched in front of the bases screaming out slogans against the landfill, others chose to express their protest from the sea by floating near the construction site in boats with banners and placards in their hands.
"I am outraged. Don't underestimate us. Let us uphold we Okinawans' pride and burning passion for justice and fight to the end in front of the gates. Let us hang tough. We must not lose to the government," Hiroji Yamashiro, an anti-base activist and head of the Okinawa Peace Action Center, said to the crowd, as quoted by the Mainichi newspaper.
The launch of works also met strong opposition of local authorities, who slammed the central government for ignoring their requests for completely removing the base from Okinawa, rather than relocating it to another location on the island.
"I cannot but hold sharp anger at the dumping of dirt and sand without listening to any of the requests made by the Okinawa prefectural government. Such an act will only bring about strong opposition from the Okinawa people, and the central government should recognize that the more they decide to push ahead with the project, the greater will be the anger of the people," the Okinawa governor told reporters in Naha, as quoted by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper.
At the same time, the Japanese government still faced some difficulties with the return of the Futenma base site to Japan in the fiscal year 2022, as previously agreed upon with the United States.
"There have been various transitions, including the withdrawal of the permission for a landfill that was once approval, so it seems difficult to achieve this goal," Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya told reporters in Tokyo, as aired by the NHK broadcaster.
US Presence in Okinawa
Okinawa, which accounts for only 0.6 percent of Japan's territory, hosts 74 percent of US military facilities and more than half of some 50,000 US forces deployed in Japan.
Such a significant US military presence on the islands is caused not by their strategic location, but also the fact that the US effective control over the Okinawa archipelago continued even after the US occupation of Japan ended with Tokyo signing the Treaty of San Francisco with the Allied Powers in 1952.
The US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which is a home to some 3,000 servicemen, was established right after Japan’s defeat in the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, which lasted some three months and claimed lives of nearly a third of Okinawa’s civil population.
In 1996, Japan and the United States reached an agreement on relocating the base to the less populated Henoko area. The move followed multi-thousand demonstrations in the aftermath of a gang-rape of a 12-year-old local girl by three US servicemen, who served at Camp Hansen in Okinawa.
In 2003, then US Defense Secretary Donald Henry Rumsfeld recognized the base as the "most dangerous in the world" for locals due to its dangerous proximity to the densely populated city.
Both US and Japanese officials have later claimed that US bases did not pose any significant risk to local residents, but such statements only outraged local residents and fueled anti-base protests.
The relocation of the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which is currently situated in Okinawa's densely populated city of Ginowan, to the Henoko district, was launched in 2017. In August, the prefecture's authorities decided to revoke the permit for the reclamation work. In early November, however, the relocation process resumed as Tokyo reversed the local authorities' ban.
Grievances of Local Residents
Tensions have been high on the islands over the past years due to multiple incidents and aviation mishaps caused by the US military presence in Okinawa.
Thursday marked the one-year anniversary since a window fell from a CH-53E helicopter onto the playground of the Futenma No. 2 Elementary School, slightly injuring one child. The incident prompted an outcry of local residents and the school's PTA, who demanded that authorities take measures to ensure the security of children.
Two months later, the playground was fully reopened and special patrol agents were deployed on the elementary school's rooftop to instruct children to take shelter inside the building once there is a possibility of a US aircraft flying over. On Wednesday, school's principal Osamu Tobaru said that pupils had had to evacuate 693 times since then, noting that kids even had to rush into the building five times during a physical education class once.
"My eyes watered when I saw children evacuating … I feel that the right to receive education has been impaired," Tobaru told the Jiji news agency.
Prior to the incident in the school, in October 2017, a CH-53 helicopter made an emergency landing on private property and burst into flames.
Despite the government's pledges to take measures to ensure the safety of US aviation's flights in the skies over Okinawa, mishaps continued this year as well.
Not only plane and helicopter crashes, but US troops' shooting drills are a sensitive issue for local residents. In June, a stray bullet struck windows of a farm located near the US Marine Corps' Camp Schwab in northeastern Okinawa Prefecture. The bullet supposedly struck the house during live-ammunition drills which have been carried out by the US troops.
Another matter of grievances of Okinawan residents is the US troops' behaviour and crimes committed by them. In November 2017, a Marine accidentally killed an elderly man while drunk-driving, which resulted in the ban on drinking alcohol for US military personnel stationed in Japan. In 2016, an ex-Marine raped and killed a local woman, with a Japanese court sentencing him to life imprisonment in December 2017. The case led to a public outcry with tens of thousands people protesting against the US military both in Okinawa and Tokyo.
Okinawa will hold a non-binding referendum on the relocation of the Futenma base on February 24. Governor Tamaki said that the vote would be an important opportunity for Okinawans to make their concerns heard in Tokyo.