Landfilling in Okinawa: Challenge to Trans-Pacific Democracy

Henoko from the air, where the landfilling is taking place (from the Wikipedia Commons)


By Keigo Nishio


[dropcap]D[/dropcap]emocracy is tested on a trans-Pacific scale. On December 14th, the Japanese government began landfilling at the Henoko-Oura Bay area, Okinawa, Japan, to advance the construction of a new US military base that would replace the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma–the most dangerous base in the world. Despite the ongoing opposition of the local residents and unresolved environmental concerns, the government never changed its authoritarian attitude.

The rage of the Okinawan has been obvious. Last September, they elected Denny Tamaki, an anti-base construction candidate, as their new governor and called for a prefectural referendum to determine agreement with the landfill proceedings, which was conducted on February 24th and showed that 72% of Okinawans were against the landfilling. However, the Japanese government ignored these local voices and began the landfill before the prefectural referendum–interpreted by Okinawans as a clear violation of local autonomy. Although military bases violate Okinawan people’s right to live in peace (Okinawans have been forced to accept not only the risk of accident but also noise pollution, repetitive crimes of the US soldiers, and obstacles to local development due to the existence of the bases), the Japanese government attempts to worsen this human rights violation. Okinawans, only 1.1% of the Japanese population, are minorities in Japanese politics. Since the Ryukyu Kingdom was invaded by the Satsuma Domain in 1609 and annexed to Japan as Okinawa prefecture in 1879, Okinawans have been discriminated against as second-class Japanese. The reality that 70% of the US military facilities in Japan are jam-packed on Okinawa, which spans only 0.6% of the  Japan’s entire land mass, highlights the ongoing discrimination against Okinawans today. Some regard the landfilling at Henoko as the peak of the Japanese government’s authoritarian, undemocratic oppression that has tormented Okinawa for 140 years.

The issue of landfilling is not just an Okinawan issue. This is the issue of Japanese mainlanders who directly or indirectly continue anti-Okinawan discrimination; this is also the issue of the US government, which supports this injustice by the US-Japan military alliance. The landfilling is not merely a military issue, but also a political and human rights issue. The Japanese mainland is committing an unconstitutional injustice, by ignoring Okinawa’s local autonomy. The US government is contradicting its founding principles, by allying with the Japanese government, which is doing the same oppression as the British did when the US declared independence. To sum up, the Henoko landfilling is testing the Japanese and Americans, as they self-reflect upon their execution of democratic principles.

Today, no one can be optimistic. The Japanese government is accelerating the landfilling. When I sent an email that argued the US government should urge the Japanese government to refrain from the landfilling, the White House replied, “As President, I have no higher obligation than maintaining the safety of the American people.” Then, why not leave Okinawa? We have not yet fully understood how seriously the landfilling issue is challenging us.

However, people are not silent. Today, we witness activists, both in Japan and the US, making movements to revive our democracy.


Pictures showing police brutality against anti-base activists.


Mr. Kiyosane Komesu is an Okinawan, living in Koganei, Tokyo. He petitioned the Koganei City Council to adopt and send to the National Diet a memorandum which stipulates that all municipalities should become a candidate for the substitute for the Futenma base and discuss whether the US bases are necessary in the country as a national issue. The petition was adopted on September 25th, but the adoption of the memorandum was once postponed since councilors belonging to the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), who initially supported the petition, changed their mind. They thought the petition contradicted JCP’s principle of demanding the unconditional closure of the Futenma base. The DCP councilors eventually changed their mind again, pressed by the general opinion supporting the petition, and the memorandum was finally adopted on December 6th. Grass-roots democracy proved more powerful than partisanship in national politics.

Mr. Komesu says that the memorandum and Okinawa’s prefectural referendum are like two wheels of a cart. The memorandum can prove that the mainland can provide an alternative site for Henoko which can substitute Futenma and support Okinawans’ rejection of the landfilling. The Japanese government has justified the landfilling by arguing that it is impossible to relocate the Futenma base to the mainland since the government cannot gain local agreement. Mr. Komesu, who calls his movement the “New Proposition,” anticipates that the same petition will be submitted in some other cities and that expanding his movement will “decolonise” Okinawa and fill the chasm between Okinawa and the mainland. “If Japanese people say that the US bases are necessary for national defense,” he argues, “every Japanese must accept the burden.” Some anti-base pacifists may object to his movement since what is unacceptable to Okinawa is also unacceptable to the mainland, but this is as hypocritical as the Japanese government in that both justify concentrating the burden only on Okinawa. “By making every municipality a potential site for the military base,” Mr. Komesu remarks, “Japanese people are required to discuss this issue as a national issue and the government’s logic of fixing the burden to Okinawa will no longer be justifiable.”


Camp Schwab in Henoko. The function of this base is supposed to be intensified if the new base is constructed.


Mr. Komesu serves as a bridge between Okinawa and the mainland. While he feels allied with Okinawans supporting Denny Tamaki’s election campaign and calling for a prefectural referendum, he always questions his role as an Okinawan living on the mainland. During my interview with him, I felt that Mr. Komesu is an essential part of Okinawa’s collective movements toward democratic justice. He defines his responsibility as directly questioning the attitude of the mainland and says, “Each should do what they can do where they are.” His “New Proposition” movement is one solution to the universal issue of how the rights of minorities can be accomplished in a national democracy, which tends to suppress minorities’ voices by the tyranny of the majority.

Mainlanders are also not unaware of the issue. Ms. Asako Kageyama is a movie director, featuring Okinawa since 2004. While the Japanese major media feature Okinawans’ resistance only when large events, such as the beginning of the landfilling, take place, she records Okinawan locals resisting the military bases everyday and shows her works on the mainland, raising awareness of the issue. She also organises the Okinawa Drone Project with peace activists and civil engineers to record the process of landfilling from the air and provide the aerial photographs to the mass media. These records are important evidence for not only the oppressiveness of the government but also the environmental destruction, especially damage on the coral leaf.

Like Mr. Komesu, Ms. Kageyama also emphasises that the potential landfills challenge the attitude of the mainland. “As Okinawans account for only 1.1% of the Japanese population,” she argues, “the landfilling reflects the opinion of the nation as a whole,” which does not hesitate to oppress minorities. Nonetheless, she contends, Japanese people should realise that the issue of the military bases is the issue of their own right to live. Okinawa prefecture estimates that the construction of a new base in Henoko takes thirteen years and costs 2.5 trillion JPY (approximately 23 billion USD). The Japanese government is going to spend this vast amount of budget “for the sake of war,” which could be used for other purposes, such as social welfare. One of the reasons she shoots Okinawans is that they are resisting simply because they want to keep on living in their homeland, instead of falling into ideological disputes. Ms. Kageyama’s films are full of the real voices of Okinawan locals. They focus on the everyday reality of Okinawan people, including not only protesting scenes but also agrarian works, local festivals, and interactions in local communities, emphasising that these Okinawans are fighting for the life they love. Her works give the audience a strong message that the Japanese government’s militarisation of Okinawa directly threatens the life of not only Okinawans but also all Japanese people.

Ms. Kageyama insists on “recording what is happening right now.” “I don’t want to make my works a record of what has happened,” she says. According to her, the Japanese mass media are yielding to the pressure from the Japanese government. She fears that even the scene of the landfilling can be used as a tool for the government to prove the powerlessness of Okinawa’s resistance in front of the government’s absolutism. However, she says, “Whatever means the government might take, resistance would not disappear,” and keeps on recording such people’s resilience. Okinawa’s message packed in Ms. Kageyama’s films is simple: Okinawans want to live in the land they love. If the mainland keeps on ignoring such voices, it is no longer functioning as a democratic society.

People in the US are joining Okinawa’s struggle for democracy. Mr. Robert Kajiwara’s #StandWithOkinawa movement attracted international attention. In last December, he launched a campaign of petitioning the US government to “stop the landfill work in Okinawa until a democratic referendum can be held.” The campaign, supported and promoted by celebrities including Brian May and Van Dyke Parks, gained more than 200,000 signatures, and the White House is legally required to give its reply. Mr. Kajiwara is the fourth-generation Okinawan living in Hawaii. His great-grandfather moved from Okinawa to Hawaii in 1907 after “losing everything” due to Okinawa’s annexation to Japan, and he himself has nurtured and maintained his strong Okinawan identity, by, for instance, joining Okinawan cultural festivals and participating in protestation in Henoko. In addition to the petition campaign, he posts videos on YouTube about Okinawan nature, culture, and history, particularly that of oppression and discrimination by the mainland.

Behind his movement are his rage at the mainland’s discrimination, deep commitment to democracy, and belief in Okinawan unity and pacifism. He criticises the Japanese government as an anti-democratic, discriminatory dictatorship, whose nature is no different from the Shimazu Domain or Meiji Government, which invaded and colonised Okinawa This is the very reason why he appeals to the US government and calls for US citizens to join his movement: he believes that the US is still a democratic country. In one of his videos, he repeats that he was surprised and touched by how many Japanese mainlanders joined his movement. This fact might give us some optimism about mainlanders’ democratic mind. However, on the other hand, his surprise at the mainland’s participation clarifies Okinawan people’s deep scepticism about mainlanders’ conscience. Mr. Kajiwara emphasises that Okinawans, no matter where they are, are always united and never give up their resistance. Today, Japanese mainlanders and US citizens are tested whether we can join this Okinawan united struggle for democracy and pacifism. In an email to me, he says, “Japan and the US are committing human rights violations against indigenous Okinawans, so it’s really an issue between three different people groups, making it an international crisis. This will have a profound impact on the Asia-Pacific region as a whole.” Japanese mainlanders and US citizens should realise that we have been always already committed to the injustices happening in Okinawa.

Although the three activists organize different movements from different standpoints, they emphasised the landfilling dilemma is not merely an Okinawan issue. The issue is a serious challenge to Japanese and American democracy. People in Japan and the US have already been complicit in the anti-minority, anti-democratic oppression. The oppressed Okinawans will continue their resistance until we reflect on our own hypocrisy. We can no longer say that we are innocent. It is time to move towards democracy.


Keigo Nishio is a sophomore in Branford College majoring in Anthropology. You can contact him at