Naha, Okinawa –Every day, except on weekends, holidays and typhoon days, charter buses depart from Naha and other cities on this island to transport protesters to three locations in the north where the Japanese government is trying to build a super air force base for the US island Marines.
One place is Shirakawa on the Pacific side of the island where the government’s Okinawa Defense Bureau tears down a mountain and loads it into dump trucks. There demonstrators delay their work by standing in front of the trucks. The second location is the nearby Awa Pier, where the mountain debris is loaded onto small cargo ships. There protesters are reducing the number of trucks entering the area to one per green light by walking around the pavement by the gate where there is a traffic light. This reduces the number of ships that depart each day. In the water, the ships are further decelerated by a brave fleet of sea kayakers who crowd around the bow of each ship until they are towed away. As soon as they are free of the kayakers, the ships sail to the East China Sea side of the island, to Cape Henoko, the location of the US Marines’ Camp Schwab, and throw the dirt into the sea as a landfill to support the planned runway over the Cape and protrude into the sea on both sides and cause an ecological catastrophe in the coral garden. Another team of kayakers meets them and delays the process even more.
The third destination for charter buses is the inland gate of Camp Schwab, where a daily sit-in slows the huge fleets of trucks – cement trucks, trucks with building materials, and dump trucks with more debris from nearby locations – that drive into the construction site Form of three convoys with 200-300 vehicles per day, even during the pandemic.
Okinawa was a peaceful independent kingdom until Japan conquered it in the same historical era that the US conquered Puerto Rico. Legally, Okinawans are Japanese; Culturally, they are a colonized indigenous people. They occupy 0.6 percent of Japanese territory and are bogged down with more than 70 percent of U.S. military facilities in Japan, a situation they call structural discrimination. Okinawan Conservatives and Progressives agree against building another base.
Most of the protesters are retired. It makes sense. Direct measures aimed at construction must be carried out during working hours. People who live on retirement income don’t have to worry about being laid off. Additionally, most of these people remember the Battle of Okinawa or the devastation that followed and see this as their last chance to translate their hatred of war into the form of a concrete achievement. When asked why they believe they can win against the combined strength of the US and Japanese governments, their firm answer is, “Because we won’t stop until we do.”
Last week I took the Wednesday bus to Henoko. Fifteen people were there, slightly fewer than the previous average of around 20, likely because of Covid, but the reduced number made it easier to keep your distance.
The mood was good, with many happy greetings. These people enjoy each other’s company and love doing something meaningful every day. The 90-minute drive was spent listening to self-introductions from three people who had come down from mainland Japan (these buses have microphones), discussing politics, sharing information, and singing. H-san, who runs the Wednesday bus, was her usual bubbly self, switching between humor and anger as she talked about Japan’s new prime minister. Her punchline: “As a Japanese woman, I’m resigning. I am okinawan! “C-san, an eloquent racing driver who always sits in the left back seat, spoke (half in Japanese, half in Okinawan) about why he is confident the air base will never be built: the seabed on the north side of Cape Henoko is unstable slime –mayonnaisename it – and will never have a concrete runway. T-san, who specializes in irony and black humor, laughed a lot. The Henoko action, including the bus ride, was called Henoko University.
A few months ago, Covid appeared on the construction site and the work was temporarily suspended. When it resumed the question at the gate was: How did both the protesters and riot police perform their respective roles while observing the rules of social distancing?
This was the 2,313. Day of the sit-in. Our task at the gate was to move the second and third truck convoy of that day together with several dozen others who arrived in different buses. In the past, interaction between police and protesters has been pretty rough, especially when most of the riot police are from mainland Japan. In those days there was a lot of trouble on both sides. Nonviolence was like playing a rugby match – no hitting but a lot of pushing and shoving. Now most of the Japanese have been sent home. The remaining Okinawa riot police have likely heard more anti-Henoko grassroots speeches than anyone on earth. Most of these speeches are given by women who need to remind them of their mothers or grandmothers. That and the demonstrators’ relentless nonviolence have had an impact. The action looks less and less like rugby.
There is quite a lot to see. With a convoy of a few hundred trucks that have stopped on the highway, the officer in charge of this police unit, who has become quite friendly towards the demonstrators, repeats through his megaphone that the Sit-Inners have broken traffic laws and have to step aside. From time to time he looks at his watch. The Sit-Inners keep talking and singing. The riot police stand still and wait for the order. After fifteen or twenty minutes it comes – not to carry demonstrators away, but to politely ask them. The riot police do this one after the other. The protesters refuse and refuse and refuse again, but when the cops try to pick them up they stand up and stroll to the side.
This spatially distant slow-motion staging of conflicts may not be exciting and slows delivery down by only about 20 minutes. But repeated three times, that’s an hour lost a day. More importantly, the sit-in deprives builders of free access to the gate and the efficiency of just-in-time deliveries. it forces them to organize convoys and protect them with hundreds of police officers. With the repetition of these protest tactics, coupled with the prefectural government’s refusal to grant permits, the city of Nago’s refusal to allow construction work on the land it controls, and many lawsuits and protests from environmentalists, the cost estimate has tripled by more than the date Postponed a decade, and many people – including some in Congress – believe (or, in the case of Congressmen, worry) that it will never get done.
Scenes from a pandemic is a collaboration between The nation and Head child, a living memorial to radical journalist Andrew Kopkind, who was the magazine’s foremost political writer and analyst from 1982 to 1994. This series of programs from Kopkind’s distant network of participants, advisors, guests and friends is edited by nation Contributor and Kopkind program director JoAnn Wypijewski and appears weekly on thenation.com and kopkind.org.