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An estimated 35,000 people took part in the protest held on Sunday in Naha. (Photo: Xinhua/Liu Tian)

Tens of Thousands Call for 'Okinawa Without US Bases'

'We have to remove the risks of exposing Okinawa to war again,' says 86-year-old island resident

Deirdre Fulton

Marking the third straight day of demonstrations, tens of thousands protested in Okinawa, Japan on Sunday against the presence and expansion of U.S. military bases on the island.

The massive rally "aimed to pressure Tokyo to halt building work for the military base that has continued despite vehement opposition from the local government in Okinawa," Al Jazeera reports.

Held in the Okinawa Cellular Stadium, which Stars and Stripes notes is "usually reserved for professional baseball teams, including Major League all-stars when they visit the island," the event was called 'Seventy Years After the End of WWII—Stop Construction of a New Military Base at Henoko.'

Okinawa is home to more than half of the 47,000 U.S. service personnel stationed in Japan as part of a defense alliance—a proportion many of the island's residents have for decades said is too high.

The U.S. military announced plans to move Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in 1996, hoping to ease tensions with the host community after the gang-rape of a schoolgirl by servicemen. A new runway, being built into Oura Bay at the more remote Camp Schwab base near Henoko, is necessary to facilitate the closure of Futenma, which is located in a densely populated urban area of central Okinawa.

But locals have pushed to block the relocation of the base within the island, insisting the facility should be fully removed instead.

"The government says we are to blame that the issue has stalled for 19 years and they tell us to find an alternative place [for the base relocation]. That is outrageous," shouted the anti-US base mayor of the Okinawa city of Nago, Susumu Inamine. "The government is thrusting their responsibility on us."

Agence France Presse notes that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last month insisted the current re-location plan was "the only solution," while anti-base Okinawa governor Takeshi Onaga hit back saying that three recent popular votes in Okinawa all showed overwhelming opposition to the move.

"The current government is pushing the plan. Is it really a democratic country?" said protester Kiku Nakayama, 86, who as a teenager worked as a nurse for soldiers towards the end of World War II. She added: "We have to remove the risks of exposing Okinawa to war again."

Onaga, who ran on an anti-base platform, reportedly plans to visit Washington, D.C. from May 31 to June 4, in order to voice his concerns to U.S. government officials. He and many protesters say this fight is emblematic of the Abe administration's creeping militarism. 

"Under the 'proactive pacifism' endorsed by the Abe's administration, how long should Okinawa continue to sacrifice itself for the Japan-U.S. defense alliance?" Onaga asked the crowd on Sunday.

As Stars and Stripes reports:

[Onaga's] election in November was largely seen as a referendum condemning the project. His victory emboldened the protesters, who cite a series of concerns, from environmental considerations to a desire for a smaller U.S. military footprint on the island.

Protesters have become more energetic and aggressive since his election, with confrontations with base guards and Japanese coast guard vessels in the bay, harassment of military and non-military personnel, and bomb threats.

According to journalist Ashoka Jegroo writing at Waging Nonviolence, Sunday's protesters "dressed in blue to symbolize the sea of Henoko and the Oura Bay. The organizers, who include politicians, labor leaders and members of the business community, vowed to send representatives to Tokyo later this month to deliver a resolution to Abe’s office."

Separate marches took place on Friday and Saturday in other cities around the island of Okinawa.


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