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Protesters, riot police clash in Okinawa as helipad construction resumes

Protesters are seen being removed by riot police officers after they staged a sit-in on a prefectural road in front of the U.S. military's Northern Training Area in the village of Higashi, Okinawa Prefecture, on the morning of July 22, 2016. (Mainichi)

HIGASHI, Okinawa -- Chaos erupted in this northern Okinawa Prefecture village on the early morning of July 22 when hundreds of riot police officers and protesters clashed as the construction of U.S. military helipads resumed.

    "Don't stomp over Okinawans' will!" shouted local residents who gathered in front of the gate to the construction site in the village's Takae district. The relocation work of the helipads came after the United States agreed to return about half of the Northern Training Area to Japan.

    "The time has come for the Okinawans to fight to make history. Let's protect this area at any cost," said Hiroji Yamashiro, chairman of an Okinawa peace activist group, addressing the protesters including local residents shortly before 3:30 a.m. Dozens of cars belonging to residents were parked outside the gate over some 100 meters to form a barricade. Protesters staged a sit-in in front of the parked cars and held a standoff with riot police.

    Higashi municipal assemblyman Masatsugu Isa, who has opposed the relocation plan since the construction began in July 2007, said, "This is the first time this many riot police officers came to Takae. They are here to crush the will of the Okinawan people by exercising all the power they have. Today is going to be a long day."

    Shortly after 5:30 a.m., riot police started removing protesters while shouting, "Please do not fight! It's dangerous!" as protesters kept shouting, "Go home, riot police!" Riot police squad officers proceeded to push residents out of the area. Protesters were pulled off car roofs and officers physically picked up some residents who refused to move from the site. Some people were sent to hospital in ambulances after apparently suffering injuries amid the police-protester clash.

    "The quiet Yanbaru forest (the northern part of Okinawa) will be changed if the helipads are built in Takae," said Saori Chinen, a 36-year-old mother of three from the northern town of Motobu. She had taken time off work at the restaurant she owns and had joined the protest since noon the previous day.

    "I don't want to leave my children in an environment where Osprey aircraft fly over their heads. Nobody knows when they will crash," she lamented. "Is the construction worth sacrificing our daily lives?"

    Hibiki Yagasaki, 41, business owner from the city of Urasoe, told a Mainichi Shimbun reporter, "I joined the protest because I thought we have to show mainland Japan the reality of Okinawa where U.S. bases are concentrated."

    "The military helipads are about to be built in such a small community. How much longer do we have to endure this?" Yagasaki said.

    Another Okinawan protester Shoei Shinzato of the city of Uruma touched on the lawsuit filed by the central government on July 22 against the Okinawa Prefectural Government over the relocation plan of U.S. Air Station Futenma in the city of Ginowan, saying, "Have they not sought more peaceful ways (to resolve the issue)? It's like the central government is saying that they don't have to listen to the voice of the Okinawan people."

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